Swimming Against the Storm: An interview with Jess Butterworth

Jess studied a Creative Writing Masters at Bath Spa University and now lives between the USA and the UK. Her books for children aged 9+ include Running on the Roof of the World, When the Mountains Roared and Swimming Against the Storm!

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Find out more about Jess here! @Jason Cohen Photography www.jasoncohenphoto.com 

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about your new book Swimming Against the Storm?

Sure! The book follows twelve-year-old Eliza and her sister Avery who live in a small fishing village on the coast of Louisiana, alongside turtles, pelicans and porpoises. But with sea levels rising, their home is at risk of being swept away.

Determined to save the land, they secretly go searching in the swamp for the dangerous, wolf-like loup-garou. If they can prove this legendary creature exists, they’re sure that the government will have to protect its habitat – and their community.

But there’s one problem: the loup-garou has never been seen before. And with a tropical storm approaching and the sisters deep, deep in the swampland, soon it’s not just their home at risk, but their lives as well.

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Download some free Teaching Notes and Resources for Swimming Against the Storm here! Cover illustration by Rob Biddulph

How is Swimming Against the Storm similar to Running on the Roof of the World? How is it different?

I love to write adventures set in wild places that exist within our world. Both books are grounded in real events. In Running on the Roof of the World the story is centred around the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In Swimming Against the Storm I explore the effects of land loss in Louisiana from rising sea levels and land subsidence. There’s also an element of a journey in both, travelling over the Himalayas, or into the swamps, and a race against time. But the settings are very different and Tashi and Eliza are very different as characters, facing their own set of obstacles.

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Find out more about the book here!

There’s a really interesting poem at the beginning of the book by Joshua Clegg Caffery called In the Creole Twilight. Can you tell us more about the poem? Did the poem inspire the story or did the story come first?

I feel like something magical happens when you’re writing a story – at times it almost seems like relevant bits of information and inspiration fly at you from nowhere. This is what happened with Joshua’s beautiful book. I had already written part of the loup-garou storyline but wasn’t sure how to introduce readers to the idea of this mythical creature yet. The book was a Christmas present and as soon as I read the poem, I got goosebumps. It was perfect. It was also a lovely way to celebrate Louisiana’s rich folklore and the legacy of reimagining traditional stories and songs.

The relationship between Eliza and Avery is central to the story. How did your relationship with your sisters help you when writing? How much of life with your sisters is included in the book?

I’m the oldest of four sisters which inspired the relationship between Eliza and Avery. Although their relationship is fictional, when writing I drew from my own memories of sometimes worrying about my sisters, whilst also seeking my independence. I also remember my sisters not understanding why I got to do certain things just because I was older which I used as inspiration for Avery.

I loved the excitement and tension in Chapters 20 and 21, when the children find themselves in the eye of the storm. Can you tell us a bit more about these chapters and what you were trying to achieve? Do you have a favourite moment in the story?

Thanks! Those chapters were incredibly fun to write as I’d been building the tension from the brewing storm since the beginning and finally it all comes to a point in this climactic moment. This is also reflected in Eliza and Avery’s relationship in those chapters. I think it’s my favourite moment too!

Many of the chapters in your stories are short and compact. Why is this? What effect do you feel short chapters have on a reader and the flow of the story?

I use chapter length to speed up and slow the pace, as well as create cliff hangers. When I was ten-years-old I loved fast paced stories and although I loved reading, I got distracted quite easily. I always try and write a book my ten-year-old self would want to read. It’s important to me to try and keep readers hooked the whole way through.

Eliza wrestles with the idea of destiny and the notion that she is destined to be a shrimper. Do you believe in destiny? Do you think it is your destiny to write books for children?

Eliza’s internal battle is about feeling destined to be shrimper because it’s what her parents expect her to do, but she’s not certain it’s actually what she wants to do. In some ways I think this is a universal coming of age theme – the importance of listening to yourself even though it might conflict with the expectations of others.

I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was ten-years-old after an author visit at my school from Philip Pullman. There were definitely many people who suggested different career paths, and some moments myself when I felt giving up, but I’ve realised that I’ll always write children’s books. It’s my way of making sense of the world around me and capturing the wonder of what it was like to be a child.

You describe beautifully the ‘Symphony of the Swamp’ and music certainly seems to be an important theme throughout the story – all the children learn instruments and Huy’s accordion becomes a vital part of him. I wondered what role music has played in your life?

Thanks! Music has always been an important part of my life and when I was researching Swimming Against the Storm I was delighted to discover the music that was part of the culture there and wanted to weave this in. Growing up, I played the piano and my favourite pieces were ones that reflected the soundscape of nature, like Debussy’s Arabesques. The first time I heard a swamp at night I wanted to recreate it through music (but haven’t yet!). One day I would love to learn to play the accordion.

The children meet lots of different animals on their journey through the swamp, such as pink spoonbills alligators and nutria. Do you have a favourite swamp creature?

I adored observing all the creatures in the swamp. It’s so different to any landscape or ecosystem I’ve ever experienced before. I’m not sure I can choose just one! I loved seeing the birds – the pelicans, the pink spoonbills, and the egrets. I also loved watching the armadillos bumbling through the undergrowth.  And in the water, it was always exciting to see the alligators and turtles.

In all your stories there is a strong female lead – Ruby, Tasha and now Eliza. How important is it to you to include strong female leads in your stories and challenge gender stereotypes?

Growing up, my favourite books were wonderful adventure stories such as Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo. But often it was the boys in my favourite stories that got to go on the adventures. Coming from a huge family of women it’s incredibly important to me to write about girls exploring these wild places and adventuring, and that these stories with strong female leads can be enjoyed by all genders.

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Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

I was intrigued by the delicious dishes you include in the book, including crawfish etouffee and jambalaya. Did you get to taste lots of traditional Creole cuisine when writing this book? Do you have a favourite?

I did! I’m vegetarian though so often the dishes I tried were slightly different but still very delicious! My favourite is green gumbo. One of the things I love about Creole and Cajun cuisine is that it’s often made in large quantities and shared with lots of people. I would often hear from different people, ‘I’m cooking a gumbo tomorrow, come on over!’

Can you recommend any other fiction or non-fiction books to children who may be interested in the themes explored in the book, such as looking after the environment?

Definitely! Some of my favourites are: The Last Wild series by Piers Torday, The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba, The Wilderness War by Julia Green, Exodus by Julie Bertagna, Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, and everything by Nicola Davies and Gill Lewis.

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You talk about the need for children ‘to learn about the land beneath our feet’. Do you have any advice or tips for teachers to help with this?

I think it’s about making connections with the world around us wherever possible, whether it’s taking a nature walk, bringing nature inside, litter picking, planting a garden or planting pollinator friendly plants, and helping young people feel empowered to come up with creative solutions to the problems they see around them. I’m part of Authors4Oceans which recently ran a great competition to make art out of plastic rubbish, and has some useful teaching resources on their website.

I’ve been blown away by the responses to my books that teachers have come up with that encourage children to connect to the world around them. My favourite includes adopting an endangered snow leopard through WWF.

I think every school should be given the funds to go on school trips outdoors so that every child has access to nature.

Finally, can you describe Swimming Against the Storm in three words?

Friendship – Swamp – Adventure

Thanks so much for interviewing me at The Reading Realm!

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