Bonnie Tsui Makes Waves: A Journalist Inspires the Next Generation to Dip Their Toes in the Water
Tsui combines her admiration for surfing and the ocean in Sarah and the Big Wave, a children’s book highlighting Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks in 1999.
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Bonnie Tsui has been exploring the waters of the world for as long as she can remember. Growing up on Long Island, Tsui swam at community pools and beaches, and in her early twenties she developed a deep love for surfing. Her 2020 book Why We Swim explored the human instinct to seek out water. Tsui combines her admiration for surfing and the ocean in Sarah and the Big Wave, a children’s book highlighting Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks back in 1999.
How did the idea for the children’s book come about?
I wrote a magazine article on big-wave women surfers who were preparing for a season at Mavericks. I talked about all of the things they were doing to prepare, like running with boulders underwater, breath holding, strength training, obviously tons of surfing. All of the injury-prevention stuff that they would do to condition their bodies and get ready for not just surfing a really big wave but also prepare for what happens if you wipe out with tons of water falling on you. A children’s book editor in New York saw the story and called me up and asked if I’ve ever thought about writing children’s books and if I would want to write one on women’s big wave surfing. I had two boys who were 5 and 8 years old, and that’s the exact age bracket for a really good picture book, so after a long and really good conversation we decided to explore that direction.
Why do you feel like Sarah’s story was so important to focus on?
I ended up telling the story of one particular surfer, Sarah Gerhardt, who was the first woman to surf Mavericks. In terms of what a 5-to-8-year-old can digest in a story, the idea of “the first ever” or “the one day that this major event happened” is easy to grasp. Gerhardt is clearly such an inspiring and awesome figure and character, but also human. Beyond that it was really fun to talk to the actual person about her life experiences. She’s a professor of chemistry, she lives in Santa Cruz, she went on to live this whole other life that also happens to include an epic relationship with surfing. And she still surfs Mavericks today in her forties.
What’s your relationship with the outdoors? Sarah and the Big Wave isn’t your first dive into water topics.
My relationship with the water started because my parents were swimmers and met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong. So then we swam, and grew up to become lifeguards and join the swim team, teach swimming lessons, and swim at the beach, but surfing was just not something that grabbed me until my late twenties. At the time, I was doing a lot of travel journalism. I would go to these places and surfing was a really neat way to meet local people, but also to get to know the waterscape or seascape of a place.
Surf culture has been shifting more in recent years to become more inclusive. How do you think this book will help encourage more positive change for women of all shapes and sizes to get out on the water?
As a Chinese American kid growing up in a really white town and finding my tribe on the swim team where it was really diverse and there were different bodies of all shapes and colors and sizes—that’s the place where I actually finally felt at home. Growing up as a kid of working-class immigrants, I knew that it was a privilege to have the community pool nearby and how special that was. I’m always thinking about how access to the water and swimming education is a very privileged thing. I mean all of this to say that I care about it a lot and I wish that universal swimming education was something that was available in this country as part of the public school system, which is something that happens in other countries. With the book, it all comes down to trying to tell a really good story that will inspire others, especially kids, to give something new a try.