Stories begin in all sorts of places, and often, I think, they begin with an emotional reaction to something we see or hear. Thank you, Julie Abery, for sharing how YUSRA SWIMS came to be.
Thank you so much, Beth, for inviting me on your blog to share my debut picture book biography, Yusra Swims (Creative Editions, illustrated by Sally Deng). It is an honor to share a ‘behind the scenes’ look at how this story began.
In the spring of 2016, overloaded refugee boats appeared on the news on an almost daily basis. It was heart-wrenching to see so many men, women and children on the move, looking for safety and a better future, and in the process, placing themselves in perilous danger.
The sea scares me. It is dark and deep. It dragged up my own profound fears and, as a result, words in the form of sparse rhyming stanzas started to flow. I wrote them down not knowing what I was going to do with them or where they would lead to, but they nagged at me and wouldn’t let go.
When I read of Yusra Mardini’s remarkable journey from her beloved Syria to Europe, I realised that my words had found a home in her story. A story that highlights the power of perseverance in the face of adversity.
I looked at my spare, poetic text. One stanza had clearly set the rhythm of the piece…
Dark of night,
Out of sight.
…and although that stanza subsequently changed slightly during research, it was clear that what I had written seemed to lend itself well to telling this story.
It was breathy, I felt the strokes of a swimmer, and the rhythm of the waves of the sea.
When writing something so spare, it is essential to make every word count, remove any superfluous rhyme and to be absolutely focused on what is important in the story and what you want to convey. The power is that every word has meaning and carries the story forwards.
The text is written in Trochaic dimeter. A Trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, so Trochaic dimeter is stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, (tum, ti, tum, ti) however I mostly left the last ‘unstressed’ syllable as a pause or a breath.
After a great deal of reading and research, Yusra Swims took shape.
The manuscript quickly piqued the interest of an editor and a contract was signed, but I wanted Yusra’s permission before going ahead. She was only 17 years old when she undertook her dramatic journey and barely 18 when she represented the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro. I contacted her swimming coach, but he was inundated with requests. I reached out to the UNHCR and was thrilled when they wrote back and put me in contact with Yusra’s newly appointed manager, but there was a lot going on for Yusra, so I waited. I touched base with him from time to time, and just before Christmas 2018 he wrote to say they were happy for us to go ahead. My patience and determination had paid off.
Sally Deng’s art is beautiful and complements the text perfectly. Her textured illustrations provide a realistic touch, and I adore Yusra’s face floating on the front and back of the cover— It draws you into the book.
From start to finish this project took almost four years and is scheduled to release before the Tokyo Olympics. It feels like perfect timing.
Julie Abery is a children’s author and former Pre-K teacher. Originally from England, she has spent half of her life living in Europe, bringing up her three (now grown up) children and experiencing new languages and cultures. She now calls Switzerland home.
Julie’s debut board books Little Tiger and Little Panda illustrated by Suzie Mason, published in March 2019 with Amicus Ink. Little Hippo and Little Monkey joined the Little Animal Friends series in February 2020; a nonfiction picture book biography entitled Yusra Swims, Creative Editions, illustrated by Sally Deng in February 2020; a true story THE OLD MAN AND THE PENGUIN: A TRUE STORY OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP, Kids Can Press (Fall 2020) and nonfiction picture book bio SAKAMOTO’S SWIM CLUB: HOW A TEACHER LED AN UNLIKELY TEAM TO THE OLYMPICS, Kids Can Press (Spring 2021).
She is represented by Essie White of Storm Literary Agency.