With summer upon us and the Olympics just around the corner, we've been diving into a fresh, new picture book about Maui's famous Three-Year Swim Club. Sakamoto's Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory (Kids Can Press, 2021), written by Julie Abery and illustrated by Chris Sasaki, tells the inspirational story of Soichi Sakamoto, a science teacher who coached a group of children playing in a sugar plantation ditch to become the winning Three-Year Swim Club. Join us for another da Shop Talk with author Julie Abery to chat about her experience writing Sakamoto's Swim Club, her love of rhyming picture books, and more.
The story of Soichi Sakamoto and his Three-Year Swim Club is such an interesting piece of history but perhaps less known outside of Hawai‘i. How did Soichi Sakamoto’s story come to intersect with your reading/writing path?
By a series of happy coincidences! I had signed up for a nonfiction writing workshop, and as I had recently written a story about Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer, Yusra Mardini, I wondered if I could find other Olympic legends and heroes. When I discovered an article on Coach Soichi Sakamoto and the Three-Year Swim Club, I knew I had to find out more about this remarkable story! A story about children, for children!
You’ve written several picture books based on the lives of real people. What is the process like to interpret a biographical story into a picture book for young readers? What kind of research was involved in writing Sakamoto’s Swim Club?
The key to the writing process for me is being clear on the story I want to tell. I sometimes write a key phrase to keep me focused, this is what I wrote for Sakamoto’s Swim Club:
Science teacher turned swim coach, Sakamoto, takes a group of sugar-cane workers’ kids from the irrigation ditches in Maui and trains them into Olympic swimming champions.
I was very fortunate that The Hawai’i Swim Club, founded in 1945 by Coach Sakamoto, is still teaching children today. It has accumulated a wealth of newspaper clippings over the years. I read and studied articles written by Coach Sakamoto, his swimmers, and various journalists, which I mined for information and facts to tell the story from the ditches to the Olympics. I was also lucky to connect with a coach there who worked alongside Coach Sakamoto, so I was able to verify details with him.
Your stories are written with such lively and crisp rhyme! Was it challenging to tell a story with specific history and context using a format that presents limits to word count and syllables?
Yes, I confess it can be challenging. Slimming the story down to its essence heightens the importance of each word, and I spend hours sometimes finding just the right one!
Chris Sasaki’s illustrations are so vibrant and detailed and complement your text so well. Can you share a bit about your experience of seeing your words together with his illustrations for the first time?
The first roughs I saw from Chris took my breath away. A mix of newsreel-like monochrome images and lush, vibrant vegetation! His final art explodes off the page in a riot of color, and carries us straight into the ditches and swimming with the team! Chris’ use of reflection in the water is inspired! His art is unique, and the children are full of energy and look like they are having great fun. It makes me want to hop straight on a plane to Hawai‘i and see it all for myself!
I understand you’ve previously worked as a preschool teacher. How has your past experience teaching young students influenced the kind of stories you want to write or want to see published?
As a preschool teacher, I used picture books as a way into my lessons. The children weren’t all English speaking when they joined my class, so my goal was to have them speaking English by the end of the year. I loved the three Rs for that – rhyme, rhythm, and repetition! Rhyming words are predictable and, along with visual clues, allow children to guess what is coming next. It is an effective way to teach a second language, and it definitely influenced the Little Animal Friends series, published by Amicus Ink.
I am a huge fan of poetry because it carries complex topics in a gentle, accessible way for children. That’s why I use spare rhyming verse for writing my nonfiction picture books. I love language and its musicality; some words sound somber, some words sound bright, and when you combine the sounds with the rhythm of the meter it adds power to the meaning and emotion.
Illustration by Chris Sasaki, Sakamoto's Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory (Kids Can Press, 2021)
And as someone who probably read a lot of picture books to your students, what makes certain picture books particularly good stories to be read aloud?
For me great rhyme and rhythm is hard to beat, but any books with humor, lovely lyrical text, brilliant illustrations, and a story that opens a window into a new world for young students is sure to go down well. But most of all, don’t be afraid to read favorites over and over again, children love repetition.
Lastly, what are you reading these days?
I am reading, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase, and have recently read Carry On, poetry by young immigrants, a collection of poetry by newcomers to Canada, illustrated by Rogé.
Mahalo nui loa to Julie Abery for giving us the gift of her time and words. You can connect with Julie on Twitter, Instagram, and at The Little Red Story Shed. Julie's latest book, Sakamoto's Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory, is available from our online shop or for special order.