#DecolonizeReading2023 Books Early Readers Emirates Airline Literature Festival Features Genre Lifespan of a Reader Middle Grade Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Picture Books Reading Themes

[Nonfiction Wednesday | #EmiratesLitFest] Celebrating Syria’s Athletes and Musicians

Meet Yusra Mardini, Mariela Shaker, and Riyad Nicolas.

Myra here.

We are delighted to dedicate our Wednesdays to featuring nonfiction titles, as per usual.

A few weeks back, I shared that our college is hosting a reading challenge for UAE’s reading month in March. I have committed to reading this picturebook biography under the prompt: About Sports Or An Athlete and happy to feature it here.

Yusra Swims (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written by Julie Abery Illustrated by Sally Deng
Published by Creative Editions (2020) ISBN: 9781568463292 (ISBN10: 1568463294) Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

I have read this book back in 2021 and has even made it to my Favourite Nonfiction PictureBooks Read in 2021 – #Top21of21; and I have also included it in my presentation of diverse gifted others at the National Association for Gifted Children conference in Colorado in 2021. However, I realized that I have yet to actually feature it here on GatheringBooks. Our ongoing #CEDUReadingChallenge2023 has now provided me with the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Told in spare, rhyming verse, the story starts in Damascus, Syria with the young Yusra Mardini’s dream of representing her country as a swimmer in the Olympics. However, when war intensified in Yusra’s hometown (look closely at the image above, particularly the background which I did not notice during my first reading of the story), her parents decided it best to smuggle Yusra and her sister out of the country.

Circumstances are dire for displaced peoples as we can see it in the news. However, seeing it portrayed here in this picturebook, with Yusra and her sister bravely and skilfully pushing their overloaded boat to shore, was chilling. I can understand why Julie Abery chose verse as her way of communicating Yusra’s story. There are just no words to describe the stark desperation, the helplessness – and beyond it all, the indomitable will to survive – and thrive.

I was especially taken by the image above as it demonstrates how the book creators chose to depict both cruelty and kindness on the same page spread. Providing this kind of balance restores at least this reader’s faith in humanity and all the possibilities of what extending kindness can bring.

The brief Afterword indicates how Berlin Germany was the final destination for Yusra and her sister and the other refugees who fled their homes in Syria. While it is disingenuous to think that this is a ‘happy ending,’ I was gratified to discover Yusra’s resolve to join the Olympics continued, and that this isn’t merely a story of courage and survival, but one of dogged determinism and persistence to continue being the best at what one does despite being separated from loved ones, losing one’s home, and bombs flying all around. It would have been nice to read Yusra’s involvement in the creation of this picturebook biography or even just a note written by her about her journey and her plans for the future.

Speaking of being the best, I was very privileged to hear two outstanding stellar musicians from Syria, who are hands-down the best at what they do, perform here in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. See their bio below.

I managed to video record some of their musical performances, and I am thrilled to be sharing them with you all here. Enjoy!


#DecolonizeReading2023 Update: 13 out of target 100 (Sally Deng is born of Chinese immigrants in the US)

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