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Originally published Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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'Traction Man' and other beachy keen new books for kids

Kids' books: A roundup of ocean-themed books includes "Dolphin Baby!," "Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always," "Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey" and "Life in the Ocean."

Scripps Howard News Service

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Summer's a perfect time to read some ocean-themed books. Let's dive in:

• Traction Man and trusty sidekick Scrubbing Brush are back for another hilarious adventure in "Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey" (Knopf, $16.99, ages 4-7), written and illustrated by Mini Grey. This time, Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush, brought to the beach by their young human owner, must contend with sea creatures, a couple of hungry dogs and two "Dollies" who want them to play house in their sand castle. In a nice twist, Grey shows how the Dollies, who look like airheads, actually are both smart and strong as they join with Traction Man to save the day when their sand castle begins to crumble. Grey's cartoon-style art, complete with text printed on what appears to be torn pieces of notebook paper, adds to the fun of this book. As a finishing touch that adults will particularly love, Grey uses the book's endpapers to offer a hilarious sendup of plastic dolls with her look at "Beach Time Brenda," who has "fluttering eyelashes" and "unrealistic vital statistics" and comes in "light pink, mid pink or sick pink."

• Squid and Octopus seem to find constant entertainment together in the deep blue sea in "Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always" (Dial, $16.99, ages 3-6). In this 40-page picture book (the standard is 32 pages), author/illustrator Tao Nyeu details the exploits of these unusual friends in four separate stories. While Squid and Octopus are sea creatures, their personalities, thoughts and routines will readily ring true to preschoolers. Nyeu's silkscreen art is infused with blues of various shades — perfect for representing the watery environment where Squid and Octopus live. Young readers will especially enjoy the many details incorporated into Nyeu's artwork, including many humorous asides from minor characters.

• Nicola Davies is a zoologist who has written a number of informational picture books for young readers. In her latest book, "Dolphin Baby!" (Candlewick Press, $15.99, ages 4-7), Davies highlights the early years of one of the most popular ocean creatures. As in her other books, Davies tells her main story in a lyrical way, while presenting snippets of purely factual information along the sides of the two-page spreads. The result is a volume that reads like a storybook yet also gives young readers all kinds of interesting facts about dolphins. The lush acrylic illustrations by Brita Grandstrom further enhance the book.

• Take a favorite game and turn it into a picture book with a round die cut in the middle of its pages and you've got "I Spy Under the Sea" (Templar/Candlewick Press, $14.99, ages 4-7). This is the second "I Spy" book written and illustrated by Edward Gibbs (check out his first, "I Spy with My Little Eye"), and it's definitely more complex than the initial volume. In fact, many young readers may not guess the answers correctly the first time through the book, especially since both the brief clues and the digital illustrations are a bit elusive. But that likely won't deter readers, who will plow through the book, memorize the answers and then start the game all over again.

• Author/illustrator Molly Bang is fascinated by the sun and its power, as she demonstrated in "My Light" (published in 2004) and "Living Sunlight" (2009). Now Bang again delves into the sun's influence over our lives in "Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas" (Blue Sky Press/Scholastic, $18.99, ages 5-8). Co-written with Penny Chisholm, an MIT ecology professor, "Ocean Sunlight" teems with facts about the important connection between the sun and the ocean. Yet what could be factual overload for young readers is transformed into a fascinatingly readable story by two important elements: the first-person text "written by" the sun; and Bang's sparkling illustrations, which illuminate even the depths of the ocean. Readers who crave more detailed information can find plenty of it in several pages of notes at the back of the book.

• When Sylvia Earle was 12, her family moved to Florida, where her house was just steps from the Gulf of Mexico. It was then, Earle's mother said, that her daughter "lost her heart to the water." In "Life in the Ocean" (FSG, $17.99, ages 5-8), author/illustrator Claire Nivola vividly demonstrates how the tug of the ocean felt by Earle as a young teen became her life's work as a world-renowned oceanographer and environmentalist who wants to teach people about the ocean because "you can't care if you don't know." The book's nonlinear text can sometimes be a bit hard to follow, but that's a quibble in a book where readers will thrill to Earle's exploits while poring over Nivola's entrancing naif-style illustrations. One particularly spectacular double-page spread, for example, consists of a blue background dotted with irregularly shaped white spots; the text underneath reads: "One expedition, 3000 feet down, was, Sylvia says, like 'diving into a galaxy.' "

• Two other good books about the ocean to look for:

In "Oceans" (Boyds Mill Press, $16.95, ages 4-7), the husband-and-wife team of author Cathryn Sill and artist John Sill present the latest in their "About Habitats" series. As in the other books, the main text is quite simple, with the Sills offering more facts in back.

Kids who like hands-on learning will enjoy "The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea" (Kids Can, $15.95, ages 8-12). Written by Helaine Becker and illustrated by Willow Dawson, this book offers easy and fun ways to do some basic marine research.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at

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