Sarah and the Big Wave – A true story of the first woman to surf Mavericks is written by Bonnie Tsui. The illustrations by Sophie Diao are very stylized, colorful and bright in the fashion of many children’s picture books.

The story is about Sarah Gerhardt, the first recognized woman to surf the giant winter waves of Northern California’s Mavericks. It charts her budding interest and then progress of learning to surf and finding her passion and path in surfing.

The story is very informative but seems to pull back from being inspirational even from a child’s point of view. The fourth sentence of the book is, “Storms that form in the North Pacific often form follow the jet stream, gathering power and energy as they send high seas straight for the California coast.” That’s one of many sentences that seem more for adults than children. I would’ve preferred it to be one way or the other. But it is obviously a childrens’ book.

After the story’s end there is a section entitled: “Milestones on the history of women and surfing.” It is clearly intended for adult reading and appreciation.

Sarah and the Big Wave would be fine bedtime story material: where the adult reads aloud to a child and then asks questions or shares their own additional experiences or knowledge. The story provides many “teachable moments” in that regard. You never know what will catch the attention and imagination of a child and launch them into life with curiosity and zest.

Another book about girls surfing is Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz with illustrations by Fahmida Azim.  It sounds like it is a happy coming of age story, and it is that, but also much, much more.  I found it engaging, inspiring and informative of a current situation in the world that many like me might know little about.

Samira is a young girl who had to flee with her family from her small village in Burma to live as impoverished, discriminated minorities in Bangladesh. Along the way she losses family and friends and tries find some sense and stability.

Written a poetic prose style with many illuminating and poignant themes it speaks with understated power and beauty.

An underlying theme is home. The title page opens: “For the tender place in our hearts that we call home.” We can live in the same place our whole life and still yearn for “home.” Whether we are refugees, immigrants, residents, we all wonder “where is it that I belong?”

Samira’s yearning and quest is compounded by being a refugee in a country where even the native born feel disenfranchised from each other by money and status. A scruffy boy yells at her, “Go back to where you belong!” How fraudulent and poisonous that taunt is, anywhere, anytime, even here, today.

Of course, this is a story about surfing. But it’s surfing without Beach Boy fashion safaris or sport drink pool toy sponsors. Samira sees some other girls surfing: “Like birds riding the wind, Maya and her friends glide across the waves. I can’t stop staring because I want this moment to last. I want to be as happy and free as these girls on waves.” Samira catches the wave of how surfing connects one to a greater power bearing joy and purpose despite your lot in life. So begins her long and winding road of learning to surf.

Along the way, Samira also wants to learn to read and go to school to better herself and her family. But that’s only for boys. But it is her brother who begins to teach Samira how to read. It’s a miracle for her. After learning the letters A, B, C, D she says “…there’s a tiny crack in the door, and if I claw at it every day with letters, sounds, then words will swing wide open, and maybe behind it there’s a whole lot more. That’s the place I want to be.”

Later Samira says this about learning to read: “All these things make my chest flutter like I’m a bird ready for a flight. Now, each moment of learning makes anything feel possible, makes the world seem smaller so one day I could even fly over it.” Learning, reading and surfing can be freeing and redeeming.

Samira’s friend Aisha is “Rohingya,” a poor refugee girl like herself. Their growing friendship is both simple and deep. Samira asks her: “’Where is the rest of your family? You never talk about them.’ Aisha stares at the path ahead. It narrows and swings to the left before opening up to the lake. And with a gentle smile across her face, Aisha points upward to the sky. I instantly know what she means, and this gesture, this understanding brings us closer without another word.” How can we make it through life alone?

The book concludes with a local surf contest for boy and girls. It was all the pomp and circumstance, festivity and dazzle of any surf contest, but that it includes girls signals it is to be something different. It becomes the arena for all the big issues of adolescence, prejudice, classism, to clash, bash and strain to declare a winner.  The contest ends, the dust settles and Samira once again steps into the water with her surfboard, but with new found peace and hope, a step closer to “home.”

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