After reading Consider the Octopus a few weeks ago, I started wondering whether other middle grade books set on a ship exist. I could think of a couple of others right away, but I was stumped after. I turned to my Twitter community of readers, teachers, and librarians and they showed up with fantastic recommendations of tween books set aboard sailing ships. I’m happy to share some top picks with you!
The Best Middle Grade Books Set on a Ship
Here are 25 of the best middle grade books set aboard a ship:
The Last Mapmaker
Published: April 12, 2022
In a fantasy adventure every bit as compelling and confident in its world building as her Newbery Honor Book A Wish in the Dark, Christina Soontornvat explores a young woman’s struggle to unburden herself of the past and chart her own destiny in a world of secrets. As assistant to Mangkon’s most celebrated mapmaker, twelve-year-old Sai plays the part of a well-bred young lady with a glittering future. In reality, her father is a conman—and in a kingdom where the status of one’s ancestors dictates their social position, the truth could ruin her. Sai seizes the chance to join an expedition to chart the southern seas, but she isn’t the only one aboard with secrets. When Sai learns that the ship might be heading for the fabled Sunderlands—a land of dragons, dangers, and riches beyond imagining—she must weigh the cost of her dreams. Vivid, suspenseful, and thought-provoking, this tale of identity and integrity is as beautiful and intricate as the maps of old.
Consider the Octopus
Published: April 5, 2022
Jeremy “JB” Barnes is looking forward to spending the summer before seventh grade hanging on the beach. But his mother, a scientist, has called for him to join her aboard a research ship where, instead, he’ll spend his summer seasick and bored as he stares out at the endless plastic, microbeads, and other floating debris, both visible and not, that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Miles and miles away, twelve-year-old Sidney Miller is trying to come up with an alternate activity worthy of convincing her overprotective parents that she can skip summer camp.
When Jeremy is asked to find the contact information for a list of important international scientists and invite them to attend a last-minute Emergency Global Summit, he’s excited to have a chance to actually do something that matters to the mission. How could he know that the Sidney Miller he messages is not the famous marine biologist he has been tasked with contacting, but rather a girl making podcasts from her bedroom―let alone that she would want to sneak aboard the ship?
Beyond the Bright Sea
Published: May 2, 2017
Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar.
Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn’t until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.
Gold Rush Girl
Published: March 10, 2020
Victoria Blaisdell longs for independence and adventure, and she yearns to accompany her father as he sails west in search of real gold! But it is 1848, and Tory isn’t even allowed to go to school, much less travel all the way from Rhode Island to California. Determined to take control of her own destiny, Tory stows away on the ship. Though San Francisco is frenzied and full of wild and dangerous men, Tory finds freedom and friendship there. Until one day, when Father is in the gold fields, her younger brother, Jacob, is kidnapped. And so Tory is spurred on a treacherous search for him in Rotten Row, a part of San Francisco Bay crowded with hundreds of abandoned ships. Beloved storyteller Avi is at the top of his form as he ushers us back to an extraordinary time of hope and risk, brought to life by a heroine readers will cheer for. Spot-on details and high suspense make this a vivid, absorbing historical adventure.
Inside Out and Back Again
Published: February 22, 2011
Hà has only ever known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope—toward America.
Race to the Bottom of the Sea
Published: October 10, 2017
When her parents, the great marine scientists Dr. and Dr. Quail, are killed in a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Fidelia Quail is racked by grief — and guilt. It was a submarine of Fidelia’s invention that her parents were in when they died, and it was she who pressed them to stay out longer when the raging Undertow was looming. But Fidelia is forced out of her mourning when she’s kidnapped by Merrick the Monstrous, a pirate whose list of treasons stretches longer than a ribbon eel. Her task? Use her marine know-how to retrieve his treasure, lost on the ocean floor. But as Fidelia and the pirates close in on the prize, with the navy hot on their heels, she realizes that Merrick doesn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy his loot. Could something other than black-hearted greed be driving him? Will Fidelia be able to master the perils of the ocean without her parents — and piece together the mystery of Merrick the Monstrous before it’s too late?
City Spies: Golden Gate
Published: March 9, 2021
After thwarting a notorious villain at an eco-summit in Paris, the City Spies are gearing up for their next mission. Operating out of a base in Scotland, this secret team of young agents working for the British Secret Intelligence Service’s MI6 division have honed their unique skills, such as sleight of hand, breaking and entering, observation, and explosives. All of these allow them to go places in the world of espionage where adults can’t.
Fourteen-year-old Sydney is a surfer and a rebel from Bondi Beach, Australia. She’s also a field ops specialist for the City Spies. Sydney is excited to learn that she’ll be going undercover on the marine research vessel the Sylvia Earle. But things don’t go exactly as planned, and while Sydney does find herself in the spotlight, it’s not in the way she was hoping.
Meanwhile, there’s been some new intel regarding a potential mole within the organization, offering the spies a lead that takes them to San Francisco, California. But as they investigate a spy who died at the Botanical Gardens, they discover that they are also being investigated. And soon, they’re caught up in an exciting adventure filled with rogue missions and double agents!
This mission is hot! The City Spies are a go!
Escape from Atlantis
Published: December 14, 2021
The last way that Riley Evans wanted to spend spring break was studying whales on the family sailboat in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. With only her dad, aunt, and annoying cousin Alfie for company, she is so bored staring at the waves that she’s starting to see mermaids between them. But when their boat is capsized during a sudden storm, Riley finds more excitement than she bargained for as she and Alfie are washed ashore with neither of their parents in sight. Where they’ve been shipwrecked is no deserted island, though.
Atlantis is a place beyond imagination, inhabited by both people and incredible creatures ranging from unicorns and gargoyles to talking animals. But not everyone welcomes the cousins’ arrival, and beneath the wonder of this mythical land lurk dangerous secrets—something strange is happening to the inhabitants. What Riley wants more than anything is to find her father and go home. But the closer she gets to this goal, the more the islanders seem determined to keep her from reaching it.
As Riley and Alfie unravel the mystery of Atlantis and its most terrifying part, the Forbidden Zone, they realize that the clock is ticking. If they can’t learn what happened to their parents and find a way off the island soon, it may be too late to leave.
Clarice the Brave
Published: October 12, 2021
Clarice is a young ship mouse grieving the loss of her mother when a mutiny forces her onto a small, leaky boat with a dangerous cat. Worse, she is separated from her younger brother, Charles Sebastian, who is trapped aboard the great ship.
Clarice and Charles Sebastian were taught to always be careful—but they will need to grow bold if they are to survive . . . and find one another again.
Published: January 11, 2022
When a deadly plague reaches the small fish camp where he lives, an orphan named Leif is forced to take to the water in a cedar canoe. He flees northward, following a wild, fjord-riven shore, navigating from one danger to the next, unsure of his destination. Yet the deeper into his journey he paddles, the closer he comes to his truest self as he connects to “the heartbeat of the ocean . . . the pulse of the sea.” With hints of Nordic mythology and an irresistible narrative pull, Northwind is Gary Paulsen at his captivating, adventuresome best.
The Girl Who Sailed the Stars
Published: June 25, 2019
When Oona Britt was born in the magical town of Nordlor, where all of the homes are built from wrecked ships, her parents never expected her to be a girl. Having listened to a faulty prediction from a washed-up soothsayer, they were promised a “bold and brave son,” so as the youngest of seven sisters, Oona’s birth became a disappointment — especially to her sea captain father, who doesn’t believe there’s a place for girls aboard ships.
But Oona is different from the rest of her family. She longs for adventure and knowledge. So she steals aboard her father’s ship just as he’s about to set sail for his annual winter whale hunt, and suddenly finds herself in the midst of a grand adventure! The ship has its own sea cat, Barnacles, and a navigator named Haroyld, who show Oona how to follow the stars. But for all that, Oona’s father is furious. Can she prove to him that she’s worth his love and pride, even though she’s not the bold and brave son he was promised?
37 Days at Sea
Published: May 1, 2021
In May 1939, nearly one thousand German-Jewish passengers boarded the M.S. St. Louis luxury liner bound for Cuba. They hoped to escape the dangers of Nazi Germany and find safety in Cuba. In this novel in verse, twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons is one of the refugees, traveling with her parents. Ruthie misses her grandmother, who had to stay behind in Breslau, and worries when her father keeps asking for his stomach pills. But when the ship is not allowed to dock in Havana as planned―and when she and her friend Wolfie discover a Nazi on board―Ruthie must take action. In the face of hopelessness, she and her fellow passengers refuse to give up on the chance for a new life.
Published: September 4, 2018
With Nazis bombing London every night, it’s time for thirteen-year-old Ken to escape. He suspects his stepmother is glad to see him go, but his dad says he’s one of the lucky ones—one of ninety boys and girls to ship out aboard the SS City of Benares to safety in Canada.
Life aboard the luxury ship is grand—nine-course meals, new friends, and a life far from the bombs, rations, and his stepmum’s glare. And after five days at sea, the ship’s officers announce that they’re out of danger.
Late that night, an explosion hurls Ken from his bunk. They’ve been hit. Torpedoed! The Benares is sinking fast. Terrified, Ken scrambles aboard Lifeboat 12 with five other boys. Will they get away? Will they survive?
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Published: October 27, 2015
Avi’s treasured Newbery Honor Book now in expanded After Words edition!Thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle is excited to return home from her school in England to her family in Rhode Island in the summer of 1832. But when the two families she was supposed to travel with mysteriously cancel their trips, Charlotte finds herself the lone passenger on a long sea voyage with a cruel captain and a mutinous crew. Worse yet, soon after stepping aboard the ship, she becomes enmeshed in a conflict between them! What begins as an eagerly anticipated ocean crossing turns into a harrowing journey, where Charlotte gains a villainous enemy . . . and is put on trial for murder!After Words material includes author Q & A, journal writing tips, and other activities that bring Charlotte’s world to life!
The King’s Fifth
Published: September 9, 1966
While awaiting trial for murder and withholding from the king the obligatory fifth of the gold found in Cibola, Esteban, a seventeen-year-old cartographer, recalls his adventures with a band of conquistadors.
Daughter of the Deep
Published: October 26, 2021
Ana Dakkar is a freshman at Harding-Pencroft Academy, a five-year high school that graduates the best marine scientists, naval warriors, navigators, and underwater explorers in the world. Ana’s parents died while on a scientific expedition two years ago, and the only family’s she’s got left is her older brother, Dev, also a student at HP. Ana’s freshman year culminates with the class’s weekend trial at sea, the details of which have been kept secret. She only hopes she has what it’ll take to succeed. All her worries are blown out of the water when, on the bus ride to the ship, Ana and her schoolmates witness a terrible tragedy that will change the trajectory of their lives.
But wait, there’s more. The professor accompanying them informs Ana that their rival school, Land Institute, and Harding-Pencroft have been fighting a cold war for a hundred and fifty years. Now that cold war has been turned up to a full broil, and the freshman are in danger of becoming fish food. In a race against deadly enemies, Ana will make amazing friends and astounding discoveries about her heritage as she puts her leadership skills to the test for the first time.
Song for a Whale
Published: February 5, 2019
From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.
When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?
Full of heart and poignancy, this affecting story by sign language interpreter Lynne Kelly shows how a little determination can make big waves.
Voyage of the Sparrowhawk
Published: October 12, 2021
In the aftermath of World War One, everyone in the small town of Barton is rebuilding their lives. Ben needs to find his brother, Sam―who was wounded in action and is now missing―if he wants to avoid being sent to the orphanage. Lotti’s horrible aunt and uncle want to send her away from her beloved home to boarding school, just when she has successfully managed to get expelled from her last one.
When a chance encounter brings the two children together, each recognizes the other as a kindred spirit. But just as they’ve found their feet, disaster strikes, and Ben and Lotti must run away. They hatch a plan to cross the English Channel on Ben’s narrowboat, the Sparrowhawk, and track down Sam in France. But there’s something in France that Lotti is looking for, too. . . .
The Lost Island of Tamarind
Published: September 30, 2008
Maya Nelson isn’t your typical thirteen-year-old. She’s spent her whole life living on the sea with her marine biologist parents, her younger brother, Simon, and baby sister, Penny. Maya used to love living on a sailboat, but lately, everything feels terribly claustrophobic. Maya longs to go to school on land. To make friends. To lead a normal life. But when a violent storm hits and Maya’s parents are washed overboard, life becomes anything but normal. The children manage to steer the boat toward a mysterious island, to a place that doesn’t exist on a map.
Welcome to Tamarind, where fish can fly, pirates patrol the waters, jaguars lurk, the islanders are at war, and an evil, child-stealing enchantress rules the jungle.
Maya never imagined she’d have to face so many dangers. But then, who could have imagined a place like Tamarind. . . .?
Across the Risen Sea
Published: August 4, 2020
‘It’s one of them days when everything is off. A hot sweaty night in Rusty Bus means we kids is all grouchy-tired. Me and my best friend, Jaguar, is trying to cool down by taking turns at dipping in the sea pool. Him standing on the sea wall made from car frames and rocks on lookout for crocs, me swimming, then we’ll swap places. We’s always doing things as a team, him and me. We’s gonna be the best fisher people and the best salvagers on the whole of the inland sea one day.’
Neoma and Jag and their small community are ‘living gentle lives’ on high ground surrounded by the risen sea that has caused widespread devastation. When strangers from the Valley of the Sun arrive unannounced, the friends find themselves drawn into a web of secrecy and lies that endangers the way of life of their entire community. Soon daring, loyal Neoma must set off on a solo mission across the risen sea, determined to rescue her best friend and find the truth that will save her village.
Heart of a Samurai
Published: August 1, 2010
In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.
Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.
Magic Marks the Spot
Published: September 10, 2013
Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword.
There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.
But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas.
Spy School at Sea
Published: August 31, 2021
Thanks to the evidence Ben uncovered in his investigation of the Croatoan, the CIA has tracked his nemesis, Murray Hill, to Central America, where they believe he is boarding the world’s biggest cruise ship, The Emperor of the Seas, on its maiden voyage around the world.
His mission: Pose as part of a family, with Alexander and Catherine Hale as his parents, Erica as his sister, and his best friend Mike as his brother, to find out what Murray is plotting.
At first, it sounds exciting to have a mission on the most glamorous ocean liner on earth, but as usual, nothing goes according to plan. There is action, danger, and plenty of surprises as Ben and his team quickly find themselves in hot water.
Journey of the Pale Bear
Published: October 2, 2018
The polar bear is a royal bear, a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England. The first time Arthur encounters the bear, he is shoved in her cage as payback for stealing food. Restless and deadly, the bear terrifies him. Yet, strangely, she doesn’t harm him—though she has attacked anyone else who comes near. That makes Arthur valuable to the doctor in charge of getting the bear safely to London. So Arthur, who has run away from home, finds himself taking care of a polar bear on a ship to England.
Tasked with feeding and cleaning up after the bear, Arthur’s fears slowly lessen as he begins to feel a connection to this bear, who like him, has been cut off from her family. But the journey holds many dangers, and Arthur knows his own freedom—perhaps even his life—depends on keeping the bear from harm. When pirates attack and the ship founders, Arthur must make a choice—does he do everything he can to save himself, or does he help the bear to find freedom?
There they are: 25 of the best middle grade books set on a ship! Which one of these books have you read? Which ones did I miss?
Want more recs? Then check out the replies to my original tweet.
Any recommendations for middle grade books set partly/entirely aboard a ship? Thinking of books like THE LAST MAPMAKER and CONSIDER THE OCTOPUS?— Afoma (Reading Middle Grade) (@readingMG) April 21, 2022
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