To the Sea by Cale Atkinson

If you’ve been following me for any bit of time at all, you have probably picked up on the fact that we LOVE a good friendship story in this house… Especially a good friendship story with a repeated refrain that children can grasp and apply to their own lives! We fell in love with To the Sea by Cale Atkinson a year and a half ago, when it was recommended summer reading for my oldest’s class, and it’s been requested at least weekly, if not more, ever since then.

To the Sea tells the story of Tim, a quiet, shy child who often feels unnoticed at school. Unnoticed, that is, until he meets an unexpected friend, a whale named Sam. Sam had taken a “wrong turn” and ended up stuck outside of Tim’s school, far away from his home in the sea. The power of simply “noticing” others resonates throughout the rest of the story, and the phrases, “I see you,” “It’s not every day you meet a friend,” and “Friends don’t let friends down” are repeated throughout the book.


The illustrations in To the Sea, also done by Atkinson, are just as powerful as the simple text. Though the entire book is illustrated in shades of blue, green, and orange (with a bit of white here and there), Atkinson manages to change the emotional tone of the pictures, but still keeping the same color palette, when the climax hits and the emotional state of the characters changes. Most of the illustrations are done in either half- or full-page spreads, but one page, split into three horizontal pedals, will have your heart racing and your emotions cheering as you feel what Sam and Tim must be feeling in the moment!


We cannot get enough of this story in our house. It’s been a winner since our girls were just barely 4 and 1.5 years old, and we still read it repeatedly at 5.5 and 3 years old. We love the unique feel of the illustrations and their eye-catching color palette. We love rooting Tim and Sam on as they find each other, and cheering for Tim as he helps Sam find his way home. But most importantly, we love the messages around friendship here… The importance of feeling noticed, of noticing others, of keeping promises, of helping friends— these are wonderful conversation points for reading this book with children of all ages. I love that Atkinson repeats such simple timeless truths about friendship, words that children can take with them and apply to their lives.


Publishers recommend To the Sea for ages 3-5, but given the unique colors and short simple texts, this appeals to younger children as well. To the Sea could also be read with older children to use for social-emotional lessons on friendship.

If you liked this, check out:

Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev

Brave Enough for Two by Jonathan Voss

Penguin and Pinecone: A Friendship Story by Salina Yoon

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

What are your favorite children’s books with unexpected friendships or wonderful repeated refrains for kids to take to heart?

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