The Surfer, The Mom, The Sister and The Storyteller

Ashley Norris

This is a story of the different identities and roles that we have and how they can collide with our passions to unlock what we are meant to do and who we are meant to be.

It was one of those moments that stay burned into your memory forever. The details of that day are as clear in my memory as the day I got married, the death of my mother, and the birth of my daughters. It was a sunny day in July, at our favorite secret beach spot in Rodanthe, North Carolina. My five-year-old daughter, Sutton, clinching my hand looked up at me with wide eyes. “Mommy, maybe I’ll surf when I’m six.” I looked down at her, as we stood in the whitewash, holding the pink Beater board that she had asked for that Christmas and kept beside her bed every night. She had been waiting for this day and now it was real. And she was scared.

The Surfer

I am a part of a family that loves the water. Generations of sailors and surfers lie deep in my family tree. My earliest memories of the beach include running behind my dad, carrying his board and watching him surf with his friends waiting for my turn to ride. He would put me on his board and push me into waves. He never had to ask if I wanted to ride or coax me into the water. I begged for my turn. And when the day came that I had to start paddling into my own waves, fear never entered my mind. I was so comfortable with the ocean and had such a strong desire to get in the water, I never hesitated.

And then I met my husband. No surprise, he was a surfer too. When our children were born, we talked about when our girls would get their first surfboard. It was a rite of passage that we were so eager to share with them. There is a collection of pictures that include babies and toddlers sitting on surfboards around our home. So, when Sutton asked for a pink surfboard for Christmas, we eagerly obliged. And that night, she was so excited that she placed the board next to her bed and that is where it stayed until the water was finally warm enough for her to get in the water and ride.

The Mom

So, there I stood, looking at my daughter who was nervous. But there was something more than just a little nervousness. The feelings that she had were understandable, but extremely difficult for me to relate to. I had never hesitated to get in the ocean with my dad. She was wresting internally with something that she wanted to do and anxiety about getting hurt. If I pushed too hard, she would shut down. If I let her walk away, she wouldn’t have an opportunity to feel the rewards of bravery and perseverance. She was facing her internal conflict and I was facing mine.   I bent down and looked her in the eye. I said, “I know you are nervous. I can tell. But I would never take you to do something that I thought would hurt you. We won’t go far.” She took a deep breath and chose to trust me. We walked into the water hand in hand.

She laid on the board and I pushed her into the whitewater that was breaking in knee deep water.   She stood up, wobbled and fell in the water. Standing in the waves, she looked back at me and smiled. “Mom, that wasn’t bad.” I cheered and clapped and then I started singing to her, “Teeny Wahine wears a bikini, she’s nice to her sister and never a meanie.” We giggled and then we went back in. I spent the rest of the morning pushing her into waves on the board. She would wobble, she would fall and she would laugh. She was happy.

The sister

As we left the beach, something stuck with me. It was that song. I couldn’t shake it and I kept coming up with the next verse. I rode in the truck, kids sleeping in the back, and I realized something impactful. Maybe Sutton wouldn’t have been so nervous if she had known that learning can be scary and that we need to start somewhere. She loved to read, I would find her a book about a surfer girl. But there was nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I started daydreaming about writing a book myself. But there was a roadblock. I am creative with my words, but visual creativity is not my strength. If I was going to write a book, I would need an illustrator. My sister Jess was a great artist. She was living in New Zealand, traveling and surfing for the past year. I emailed her my idea and a few verses. She responded immediately…I’m in.

Right away, she knew what Queenie should look like…everyone. That’s tricky to pull off, but it was so important. We wanted little girls to see themselves and the lives that they live in the book that we were creating. Our characters shouldn’t be spitting images of us or the children in our lives. We played with different ideas and sketches, starting with the thought to leave the characters in black and white and the background in water color. But that looked unfinished. And then Jess spilled the paint. She spilled purple paint over the characters and it created this aura around them. It was perfect.

We spent the next year researching, editing, sketching and talking about our vision. We would bring surfing to the bookshelves of little girls around the world.   Little girls would see the grace, beauty, and athleticism that women bring to our sport.

The storyteller

Now, this is where I must be honest. If Jess wasn’t on board from the beginning, I can’t honestly say that Queenie Wahine, Little Surfer Girl would be a reality. She was able to take the story that was scribbled out on a piece of paper and make it come to life with her watercolor paintings. I may have written the story, but she was making it a reality. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you this then, but is seems so clear now in retrospect…we were discovering what our calling was right then and there in real time. There was a collision of what we were good at (our two different art forms), our shared passion for the ocean and surfing, and an obvious gap that needed to be filled for little girls who are interested in exploring surfing.

We had a story to tell. One that made it okay to be nervous or scared, but showed girls that bravery comes from within and perseverance when something is hard is the greatest reward. Our book would be a treasured item that would sit by your bedside, thrown into a bookbag to accompany your adventures, and an heirloom that could be shared with the next generation of surfer girls.

And now I sit here, reflecting on this past year’s journey and all the pieces that had to come together for it to be a reality. I had to be the surfer, the mother, the sister and the storyteller. It was a combination of the perfect time of all the roles that make my identity that lead to discovering a calling that was deep inside of me. Writing Queenie Wahine, Little surfer girl feels exactly like it was meant to be and what I am meant to be doing for little girls.