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This Book Teaches Kids 'How To Solve A Problem' Like A Rock Climber Would

Jul 5, 2020
Originally published on July 5, 2020 9:16 am

Ashima Shiraishi, 19, is one of the most talented rock climbers in the world. And she'd like to let you in on a rather unglamorous secret: "Most of climbing, it's you just falling," she says. "Every time you go back at it, you improve slightly."

Shiraishi is the author of a new book called How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion — she says it's about how she approaches all kinds of obstacles.

"Everyday struggles I kind of face the same way that I do when I keep on falling and falling on a rock climb," she explains.

The word "problem" in the title has a double meaning — that's what climbers call routes or boulders.

"What drives us and motivates us to keep doing it is the endless problems there are in the world," Shiraishi says. "And they keep getting harder and harder as we improve in rock climbing."

"I dug my fingers there and here and stretched my arms like ropes. I threw my body through the air and caught myself in all the ways I'd imagined, a bright path of thinking."
Yao Xiao / Make Me a World

How to Solve a Problem is illustrated by Yao Xiao, who had never been rock climbing before taking on this project.

"I did have to research very, very heavily into rock climbing actions to make sure that the poses are accurate," Xiao says.

And she got plenty of guidance from Shiraishi, too. "Sometimes she'd say: It's not possible to do this, like, you can't get your foot up that high," Xiao says.

Accuracy was important to the young author.

"I wanted to be very realistic to what I do as a climber," Shiraishi says. For her, the book is about "showing this girl as being fierce physically and mentally and just facing all these boulders and rocks, not afraid of what others have to say about it."

The illustrations range from realistic to fantastical — as Ashima goes back and forth between climbing a real-life rock and an imaginative pile of shapes — an outcropping that looks like a train, a slab in the shape of a constellation, a toehold like the dot of a question mark.

"There were twists and turns. There were places that looked as slick as glass. One part was arched like a question mark, another part stuck out like my father's elbow in a photo I have seem of him dancing, and another was shaped like the bolts of fabric stacked in my mother's sewing room. There were many parts, and none of them looked easy."
Yao Xiao / Make Me a World

Xiao says her job was to illustrate a mental process. Her goal was to depict "the boulders in her life, and then her process of solving these problems as puzzles."

"You get that feeling of being outside and climbing, but there are also pages of that visual puzzle of Ashima's imagination," Xiao adds.

Shiraishi says she hopes the takeaway for her readers is that "you've got to stand up after each time that you fall down."

Remember, most of climbing is falling, Shiraishi says — but "one day you get to the top of it, which is the greatest feeling."

"And there, at the top of the problem, I looked down at the bolts of fabric, the dot of the question mark, the bend of the elbow, and I waved hello at the memory of how hard the problem was."
Yao Xiao / Make Me a World

Melissa Gray edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

(Reading) I am Ashima. What I do is climb. What I do is solve problems, which is to say I make them mine.

Ashima Shiraishi is 19, one of the most talented rock climbers in the world and now the author of a children's book, "How To Solve A Problem." Ashima says it's all about how she approaches all kinds of obstacles.

ASHIMA SHIRAISHI: So everyday struggles I kind of face the same way that I do when I keep on falling and falling on a rock climb or a problem.

DETROW: And the word problem in the title has a double meaning.

SHIRAISHI: As a rock climber, we call the roots or the boulders that we face a problem, and what drives us and motivates us to keep doing it is the endless problems there are in the world. And they keep getting harder and harder as we improve in rock climbing.

DETROW: "How To Solve A Problem" is illustrated by Yao Xiao, who had never been rock climbing before taking on this project.

YAO XIAO: I really loved drawing Ashima solving the problem, and I admired her theory (ph) so much. I just really love depicting all the action and mentally solving that problem with her in my own imagination. I think that was really cool. I did have to research very, very heavily into rock climbing to make sure that the poses are accurate and that Ashima did give me a lot of guidance. Sometimes she's like, it's not possible to do this. Like, your - you can't get your foot up that high doing that.

SHIRAISHI: The very first draft of the illustrations was a lot about just the movement accuracy because in climbing, there's, like, certain movements that just would not be possible. I wanted to be very realistic to what I do as a climber and just, you know, showing this girl as being fierce physically and mentally and just facing all these boulders and rocks and not afraid of what others have to say about it.

DETROW: The illustrations range from realistic to fantastical as Ashima goes back and forth between climbing a real-life rock and an imaginative pile of shapes - an outcropping that looks like a train, a slab in the shape of a constellation, a toehold like the dot of a question mark.

XIAO: It is something that I wanted to do a good job depicting and having the viewer see the boulders in her life and then her process of solving these problems and puzzles. It is sort of a mental process. So in the book, you will see pages of environment of rock climbing - of, like, very beautiful skies and rocks and the colors that you will see in the natural world to get that feeling of being outside and climbing.

But there are also pages of that visual puzzle of Ashima's imagination. We have New York City, and then we have desserts and her mother's fabric studio. So all of these items that are absent in nature when somebody is climbing - it is possible to show that in a children's book, which I think is the fantastic part of working on the pictorial part of this project.

SHIRAISHI: The takeaway that I hope the readers get from this is you're constantly faced daily with all these challenges. You know, you got to stand up after each time that you fall down. I mean, with climbing, it's funny because even though we have all these, like, titles and accomplishments, most of climbing is you're just falling. And every time you go back at it, you improve slightly. Then that's all stacked together. One day, you get to the top of it, which is the greatest feeling.

DETROW: That was author Ashima Shiraishi and illustrator Yao Xiao talking about their book "How To Solve A Problem." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.