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"Brave in the Water" A Conversation with Stephanie Wildman

Things are warming up here in Texas (and by that I mean 90 degree days already!), so Summer is heavy on our minds. And with summer comes swimming! This week our tough topic book discusses facing your fears, incorporates yoga techniques, and features swimming as the main activity. Stephanie Wildman is here to discuss her picture book "Brave in the Water".

Stephanie Wildman, author of Brave in the Water (2021) (illustrated by Jenni Feidler-Aguilar; translated into Spanish as Valiente en el Agua by Cecilia Populus-Eudave), became a Professor Emerita after serving as the John A. and Elizabeth H. Sutro Chair at Santa Clara Law. She directed the school’s Center for Social Justice and Public Service. Lawley Publishing will release her second children’s book Treasure Hunt (illustrated by Estefania Razo) in November 2022. Her other books include Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America (with contributions by Armstrong, Davis, & Grillo) (2021); Race and Races: Cases and Resources for a Diverse America 3d (with Delgado, Harris, Perea, and Stefancic) (2015); Social Justice: Professionals Communities and Law (with Mahoney and Calmore) (2013); and Women and the Law Stories (with Schneider) (2011). Stephanie is a grandmother, mother, spouse, friend, good listener, and she can sit “criss-cross apple sauce” thanks to her yoga practice.

Brave in the Water (2021) (illustrated by Jenni Feidler-Aguilar and translated into Spanish as Valiente en el Agua by Cecilia Populus-Eudave) addresses a common swimming fear in a new and powerful way, incorporating mindfulness and yoga techniques. With the help of his loving grandmother, Dante learns how to face his hear.

What inspired you to write Brave in the Water?

Swimming has been an important part of my family’s life. I didn’t learn to swim until I was twenty-six, and I didn’t want my own children to grow up afraid of water like I had been. I took them to swim lessons at an early age, and both of my kids became competitive swimmers. One founded and coached an award-winning swim program for vulnerable youth, and the other swam for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics. I hope this book encourages children, and everyone, to learn to swim.

I love that personal connection! And what incredible ways your family has found meaning in swimming.

What was the process like, seeing the book go from inspiration, to illustration, to published?

The process can be embodied by the word “lucky.” I was so lucky to have a wonderful teacher in Maxine Rose Schur. She believed in this story from the beginning and urged me to write it as a picture book. I was also lucky to have the book accepted by Lawley Publishing. In our first book meeting, the publishers asked me how I envisioned the book, and I had the opportunity to describe my ideas that couldn’t be represented on submission by art notes. The feathered peacock yoga pose plays a key role in the story, and I wanted to have a peacock hidden on pages throughout the book. The third stroke of luck was having art teacher Jenni Feidler-Aguilar agree to illustrate. Jenni loves peacocks and swimming, so she was a natural to bring this story to life. I love the cover portraying Diante being brave in the water.

Do you have a scene in the finished book that is your favorite?

I love the peacock on the cover page (and note: teachers and parents can find two peacock sketches to download for a coloring project on the resources page for the book here). But my favorite scene might be the image of Diante and the peacock staring into the pool together, while he is thinking about whether he is really ready to try putting his face in the water.

Why do you think this book is important for kids to have on the shelves?

I got one lovely photo of a child holding Brave in the Water with a heart shaped book-mark she had made for it – it being her new favorite book. Her parent had said the child hadn’t been reading but loved this book and read it over and over. So, on a basic level, Brave in the Water is a great book for beginning readers.

The breathing exercise portrayed in the book does have a calming effect; it’s something children and caretakers can do together – not just to face fear, but to relax.

You incorporate a lot of mindfulness and yoga techniques in the book, which are great for kids dealing with anxiety and fear! How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use Brave in the Water to engage in deeper conversations with kids?

I start virtual school visits by asking the class to raise their hand if they have ever felt afraid to do something. Everyone raises their hand. I ask if anyone wants to share what they have been afraid of – everyone knows the feeling of being afraid – often fear of trying something new. I also share my own fear of water. I think it helps for children to understand they aren’t the only ones with these feelings.

Of course, the particular fear is personal to each child. Giving them the breathing technique can empower them. Parents have told me they use pranayama – special breathing as the book names it -- when a child is upset or worried with great calming effect. I hope a deeper conversation can result from children understanding it is possible to move past fear to constructive action.

Having those tools to empower kids to de-escalate and problem solve on their own is so powerful.

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics for kids?

Yes! Please do write about tough topics for kids, even though it feels hard. Kids are facing hard issues all the time and a story where the main character works through feelings about a tough situation can help a child work through their own. The challenge is in showing the child work it through.

Thank you for sharing your work with us Stephanie! Brave in the Water is such a wonderful book. Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share?

I’m excited to report that Lawley Publishing will release my second picture book, Treasure Hunt (illustrated by Estefania Razo) on November 1, 2022. Twins Roberto and Flor follow clues planted by their elder brother Luis to search for hidden objects and to figure out what they can be used for.

We will be on the lookout for it! Where can we find you online to keep up with your work?

Twitter: @SWildmanSF

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