Guest Edition

Julie Abery–What Was on Her . . .

Valerie Bolling–What Was on Her…

Julie Abery

Happy Learn to Swim Day! And a big welcome to Julie Abery, who is the author of Sakamoto’s Swim Club, a story about—you guessed it—learning to swim. Soichi Sakamoto, who has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, pioneered training methods that have become standard throughout the sport of swimming. Yet, he started out knowing nothing about training.

Sakamoto was a sixth-grade science teacher when he became interested in the children of poor sugar plantation workers swimming in Hawaii’s irrigation ditches. He got the idea to train them, turning the ditches into swimming lanes, and creating a daily program. Eventually Sakamoto created the Three-Year Swim Club, which had the goal of getting the swimmers to the Olympics in three years. World War II got in the way of the three-year goal. However, if you crack open Sakamoto’s Swim Club you’ll be sure to be inspired by what followed.


Written by Julie Abery, Illustrated by Chris Sasaki


In a unique approach that makes for a moving read-aloud, Julie Abery uses limited rhyming text to tell the little-known story of Coach Sakamoto and the Three-Year Swim Club. The stunning art of award-winning and highly acclaimed Chris Sasaki perfectly complements the lyrical storytelling. This inspiring picture book offers excellent lessons in perseverance, believing in yourself and not letting others define you, while wonderfully capturing how one person can make a huge difference in the lives of others. In highlighting the team’s “bright and loud” presence at events, with their Hawaiian dress and ukulele, it also encourages children to take pride in their heritage and view it as a strength. An author’s note with photos and more information tell the fuller story of Soichi Sakamoto and his Three-Year Swim Club.

Julie Abery, who writes mostly in rhyme, is also the author of Yusra Swims, a story about Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer. Not too long after she finished Yusra’s story, Julie signed up for a nonfiction writing workshop and wondered if there might be another Olympic hero to write about. She did a bit of research, discovered Sakamoto, and the rest is history.

Sakamoto’s Swim Club continues the rhythmic and pared-back nonfiction verse Julie debuted in Yusra Swims. This innovative approach to nonfiction slims the story down to its essence. Each beautiful full-page spread features only four lines. Text such as “Science teacher’s/new approach/turns him into/master coach” makes for a fast-paced and rhyming read-aloud.

Julie joins us today to celebrate International Learn to Swim Day and tell us What Was on her…

Top Three Lessons for Swimming:  Hi Sandra, what a great question. During my research I learned that Sakamoto was not a strong swimmer. He taught himself a few strokes of survival swimming to qualify for an Eagle Scout badge. I am not a strong swimmer either, so I was fascinated to learn how Coach Sakamoto approached his swim training regime:

He held rigorous workouts of 2–3 hours – twice a day!! He saw swimming stokes as a “working tool” and insisted his young charges master all of the strokes, not focus on one (no wonder they needed to train twice a day)!

He observed the children swimming in the ditch, filmed them, and worked with them to develop an efficient stroke and breathing pattern. He used a metronome to focus on the stroke’s rhythm.

He had a pragmatic and common sense approach to work with the water and not against it. He would mark a point 15 yards upstream and get his swimmers to sprint to it fighting a 15 mph current and once they reached it they would float back and start again – his own form of interval training.

Coach Sakamoto was dedicated to the team, and expected his swimmers to return that same dedication. The swimmers learned to trust his coaching as their skills steadily improved, and they worked hard each day, pushing themselves to swim better, faster and longer.

Top Three Lessons for Writing Nonfiction in Rhyme: Don’t. Do. It. – Oh, hang on, three lessons not three words! 😉

Focus on the simplicity of the story you want to tell: immerse yourself in the subject, rough draft, refine and perfect. These thoughts…

From the mountains to the stream,

Maui’s threads of water gleam.

Sweeping fields of sugarcane

Wave through valley’s lush terrain.

Denied a pool, miles from the sea

Concrete ditches built to feed,

Cane plantations’ water need.

*** Remember the illustrator! They will show much of what is above.***

Became these… 

Sweeping green

Fields of cane,

Wave in Maui’s lush terrain.


Workers toil

Sun up, sun down

Parents leaving kids in town.

***The above is paired down but not really saying what I wanted to capture.***

They finally became these….

Valley Isle – (a name given to Maui)

Lush terrain

Migrant workers

cutting cane.


Dawn to dusk

they toil away,

Children left

alone to play.

***Note the run on sentences. So much easier for the reader and comprehension.***

Meter – know your meter! Make sure the rhythm of your stressed and unstressed beats are correct and consistent. It is important! It matters! Looking for a great resource? Check out these excellent peek and critique videos by Renée La Tulippe teaching all about rhyme and meter:

Rhyme – Don’t pick rhymes because they are easy, work on rhymes that truly say what you mean and move your story forward.

Next Olympic Story: Well, I don’t have a new Olympic story on the go at the moment, Sandra, but never say never! I am working on a rhyming story about a squash and a squeeze on the water, an incredible story of survival and adventure at sea is out on submission, and a rhythmic look at cat’s behavior might join the submission list soon.

Calendar for Summer Swimming: Nothing fixed yet, but I am sure there will be some lake and pool visits over the summer. 😊

Mind: For me, a benefit of writing in spare rhyme is how well it carries such complicated topics as war, refugees and perilous journeys in Yusra Swims, environmental issues in The Old Man and the Penguin, breaking free of disadvantage, overcoming challenges, and America’s entry into World War 2 in Sakamoto’s Swim Club. It is sparse but it is direct – the spare stanzas carry just enough information, hence softening difficult subjects for younger children, but allowing for great class discussion in teacher-led groups or student-led groups. It gives the opportunity for readers to reflect and research further.

A disadvantage is that it may not capture every nuance of the story. The author’s note acts as another chapter to the book, clarifying time passing, the meaning of the Three-Year Swim Club, Pearl Harbor, war, and fighting for your country. Read it first or read it afterwards, both have benefits, but I hope that the spare rhyming text seeps into the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned, and that readers will turn right back to the beginning and read it again.

I love the musicality of the rhythmic verse. Like a song it hits you somewhere other than the logic of words. Some words sound somber, some words sound bright, and when you combine that with the rhythm of the meter you convey a heightened sense of emotion.

Here I feel the strokes of the swimmer:

“Starting gun./Bill dives clear./ Stroke by stroke,/ he shows no fear.”

And these harsh words pack a punch, as well as reinforce Sakamoto’s rigorous training regime.

Pace, rhythm,/ strength, speed/ come together/to succeed.”

It’s like a puzzle, and it can be very constraining creating this type of verse, but I love the challenge and the result.

Thank you, Julie! Coach Sakamoto’s approach to swim training is fascinating, as is your approach to nonfiction. I agree that rhythm and rhyme have power beyond the words used. They have the potential to resonate in a way that prose doesn’t. I wish you all the best with Sakomoto’s Swim Club! It’s an inspiring story!

You can keep up to date with Julie Abery by visiting her at, on Twitter @juliedawnabery, on Facebook @julieabery, and on Instagram @juliedawnabery.

You can order Sakomoto’s Swim Club by clicking the book below.

Be sure to put May 25, as part of Mental Health Month, on your calendar. Elizabeth Gilbert Bedia will be talking about her picture book, Balloons for Papa, and the role children play in helping us all deal with fear and grief. 

Also, plan to stop by on June 5 for Clothes Line Week, when JaNay Brown-Wood will be stopping by to talk to us about Shhh! The Baby’s Asleep and how even a clothes line can be a threat to Baby’s sleep. 

If you would like to know more about me and my writing, please visit

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