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Yusra Swims - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

It is both an important acknowledgement and a horror that the International Olympic Committee created a Refugee Olympic Team in 2015 for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

A special opportunity to acknowledge the athletes and their commitment to training and striving to be their best, despite the turmoil within their countries. And an extremely sad statement about a world which requires such a team to be created.

Unfortunately, an even larger team is needed again in 2020. Currently 49 members, including the 10 from 2016, are vying to qualify to compete on the Refugee Olympic Team this year for the summer games in Tokyo, Japan. One of those ten is Yusra Mardini. A refugee from Syria.

Julie Abery and Sally Deng have created a poignant rhyming nonfiction biography of Yusra Mardini and her struggle to reach her Olympic dreams.

Yusra Swims

Author: Julie Abery

Illustrator: Sally Deng

Publisher: The Creative Company (2020)

Ages: 6-8



Refugee, Olympics, swimming, persistence, empathy, and hope.


A biography in rhyme relates the story of Olympic swimmer and Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini.

Opening Lines:

Just a girl

With a dream.

Olympic Games

Swimming team

What I liked about this book:

I have not seen many nonfiction biographies written in such a sparse quatrain manner. I was fascinated to see that the back matter filled in a few of the facts, but that Julie Abery masterfully managed to tell the complete story in only seventeen stanzas of rhyming text.

The story begins with the title page's beautifully juxtaposition of Yusra's dream of competing in the Olympics with her harrowing escape from Syria.

Text © Julie Abery, 2020. Image © Sally Deng, 2020.

Although the opening images depict a young girl with a dream, dedicatedly training, her lush green, vibrant city begins to crumble and fill with smoke and soldiers. Yusra's family pays smugglers to get her and her older sister out of Syria. After waiting at a makeshift camp, Yusra and her sister finally board a crowded raft to travel from Turkey to Greece.

While the image and the stanzas of the small, crowded, inflatable raft are powerful and will tug at an adult's heart, this image will hopefully elicit a similar reaction from the kids. It wasn't just adults, but kids at risk on this raft. Kids who had to toss overboard their stuffed friend, shoes, and backpacks.

Text © Julie Abery, 2020. Image © Sally Deng, 2020.

After the engine fails, Yusra and her sister, "treading water . . . keeping hope," help guide the raft through the sea's choppy waters to shore. Where, a punctured raft and abandoned life jackets accompany the text:

"Cold and numb,

Faces gray.

Final landing,

Fall and pray."

Throughout, the clipped text fosters and increases the dramatic feel of their escape and dangerous journey. While Sally Deng's somewhat muted, beautiful illustrations poignantly capture both the trials and the hope of these refugees.

Text © Julie Abery, 2020. Image © Sally Deng, 2020.

Julie follows Yusra and her sister as they walk, bus, and train from Greece to Germany. Examining the various reactions of those they encountered. Once in Berlin, Yusra gets a new coach and returns to training for her dream of swimming in the Olympics. At this point it is back matter that helps the reader understand how an athlete without a country, a refugee, could compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Determined to show the humanity and reality of refugees, this book endeavors to create both empathy and hope. To make readers understand Yusra Mardini's comment that, "a refugee is a human being like any other." It is a great book for examining poetry, word choices, and opening discussions about refugees and the "Refugee Olympic Team." A great addition to any picture book biography collection.


- look around your community and see if you can find an organization helping refugees. Can you donate clothing or volunteer to help?

- watch the Olympics this summer. Who is on the Olympic Refugee Team? What flag do they march under in the opening? How many athletes are on this team? How many countries do they come from?

- what do the five rings on the Olympic flag stand for? Make your own rings out of colored construction paper or draw an Olympic flag.

- or make some delicious Olympic rings snacks (

If you missed the interview of Julie Abery on Monday, find it (here).

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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