Confronting challenges is de rigeur for Maya Gabeira, a Brazilian big wave surfer who in 2018 set a Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever surfed by a woman. Two years later, she shattered her own record when she mastered a wave of 73.5 feet, the biggest surfed by anyone—male or female—in 2020. Gabeira, now 35 and a resident of Nazare, Portugal, accomplished a non-aquatic feat when she landed a three-book deal with Abrams in early fall 2021. The first book in the deal, Maya and the Beast, is a picture book inspired by the author’s personal story of resilience, in which young Maya wants to tame a giant, much-feared wave so that others will see the beauty it has to offer. The story is illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki, as is Gabeira’s second picture book, due from Abrams in fall 2023. A YA memoir, which Amulet will release in spring 2023, chronicles the author’s life since leaving home at 17 to launch her surfing career. PW spoke with Gabeira about her diverse personal and professional journeys.
What compelled you, as a teenager, to pursue such a physically and mentally demanding sport?
I fell in love with surfing at the age of 13, after watching lots of surfing movies, many set in Hawaii. When I was 17, I left home to move to Hawaii, and fell in love with the idea of the big perfect wave. I began on smaller waves, and finally discovered the open blue water and bigger waves. There were no women surfing professionally there at the time, but men with years of experience befriended me and took me under their wing, and I had the appetite, focus, and passion for surfing, which helped me start winning awards.
Still, here I was a shy, asthmatic girl from Rio de Janeiro, alone in Hawaii without my family, and there was probably nothing more complicated that I could have chosen to do. It actually continues to be a very challenging life—it is the ocean, after all! It’s a very risky sport and environment, and I was trying to establish world records, but I loved surfing very much.
How did your passion for surfing lead to an interest in writing for young readers?
When the pandemic began in 2020, I began making a mural of what I should do, since I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. I started thinking of things I wanted to accomplish next, and about how this might be an opportunity to broaden my horizons. I have a six-year-old nephew, and I decided to write something for him. And my other inspiration was that though no one else in my family surfed, my father is a very good writer—he has written more than 14 books.
I started thinking that that talent has to be somewhere—and that maybe I was born with some kind of writing gene. Also, my sister, my nephew’s mother, is a teacher of young children. I saw all that as a sign, and I thought maybe I could pull off writing for kids—and that it would fulfill me.
This is obviously a dramatic departure from breaking surfing records—was it as great a challenge?
A very different one, of course. I don’t think of myself as a writer, but I do like to express myself, and for me surfing is a form of that. I first expressed myself through dancing, and then transferred my passion and means of expression to surfing. I have found that writing is also a way to express myself as well as to share my love of the ocean.
Most of my creative work happens when I am outside. I hike every day—at least once—and I am inspired by nature. I often develop stories while I am hiking, or while I am surfing, waiting or paddling for a wave.
The writing doesn’t come naturally to me. I find that with writing a picture book, shaping emotion and ideas into a sentence or two or a situation or two that exemplify what you want to share is the biggest challenge. The fine-tuning is the easier part for me. Writing YA is very different—it is a lot of writing—and you can just talk and talk without counting words.
Why did you opt to debut your writing career with Maya and the Beast—and what message do you hope it imparts to picture book readers?
In my life, I’ve always tried to push myself into an uncomfortable zone with whatever I do. I find thinking and writing can be very scary—but as a writer, I know I just have to run with my thoughts.
Since a young age, I have always made an effort to be connected to and listen to my inner voice. I always found ways of being alone. I left home at a young age and did a lot on my own. With Maya and the Beast, I want to encourage readers to find their passions by listening to their own voices rather than to others’ voices, and to learn about themselves.
When I look back on my life, I realize how important it was to me to follow my own dreams. I want this book to let kids know that they must believe in themselves and stick to their goals—and always be resilient.
Maya and the Beast by Maya Gabeira, illus. by Ramona Kaulitzki. Abrams, $18.99 Aug. 2 ISBN 978-1-4197-6000-6