Books About Boats / By the Seaside

A First Book of the Sea by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton

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I’m not much of a beach reader. It’s hard to get as comfortable as I need to really lose myself in a good book. There’s no perfect position. If I lean on one elbow, the book flaps away in the other hand as the entire right side of my body slowly goes to sleep. Lie on my back and I have to raise the book to obscure the sun. But I am pleased to report a solution – Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton’s A First Book of the Sea is much better suited for the purpose.

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That’s the five star Amazon review out of the way, now on with the show. A First Book of the Sea is a generous collection of poetry that looks at every conceivable aspect of life in and around the sea. From a family getting their first tantalising glimpse of the ocean from a car in The First to See the Sea, to a double page spread of diverse plankton which opens out to reveal a glorious humpback whale.

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There’s almost too much here to choose from, but luckily today we’re here just for the boats. Nicola Davies is known for writing children’s books about the natural world, and Emily Sutton I usually associate with domestic or urban settings, so I was interested to see how both would deal with the technicalities of the many different craft on show .

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The answer is, with elegant aplomb. There is a giddying array of vessels to explore, from dragon boats to schooners, submarines to trawlers. All are produced with a combination of technical accuracy and typical good humour. Emily Sutton is at her very best in this book, making the most of the acres of space afforded her by Davies’ perfectly succinct verse.

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I’ve developed a fascination with communities who live aboard in floating communities, ever since I read Ursula K Le Guin’s book of Earthsea, the Farthest Shore. It’s a life that must be punishingly hard and utterly glorious in equal measure. There’s much of the latter in the poem Sea People.

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Next to the pleasurable images it’s good to see also a poem dealing with the damage we are doing to life in the ocean through the horrifying amount of plastic dumped there by humans. Deadliest of All packs a real punch. It begins like a playground game of top trumps comparing the contenders for ultimate ocean killer.  The Davies lets rip with a payoff that is blunt and unadorned.

No! Deadliest of all

is the plastic we throw away

that strangles, suffocates and poisons.

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Nicola Davies’s former BBC natural history colleague Sir David Attenborough would surely approve. She’s come a long way since I used to watch her on the exciting children’s wildlife programme The Really Wild Show, winning acclaim for titles like King of the Sky (with Laura Carlin) and the devastating The Day the War Came (with Rebecca Cobb). The First Books, which also include Animals (with Petr Horacek) and Nature (with Sutton’s partner Mark Hearld) are shaping up to be the picture book equivalent of Attenborough’s Life series.

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A First Book of the Sea dazzles, wherever you read it.

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