Book Review: How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion

by Ashima Shiraishi, illustrations by Yao Xiao, Make Me a World, Random House, 2020

The author, Ashima, started climbing in NYC at the age of 6, and by 8 years old was climbing boulders as an expert (V10 for those in the know!) At 14, she was the first woman (and second person) to climb a V15 boulder problem, a boulder in Japan. This book is an account of how she approaches climbing – climbing boulders is solving problems. And what’s wonderful is its honest, experience-based account of failing, and falling, again and again, and learning something every time.

The children are fascinated by a full double-page picture of her falling through the air, a look of surprise or irritation on her face. And then by her words: with the new information the fall had given me. This is the key idea of the book and one that has hope and challenge in it for adults as well as children. Can we listen to the hint that failure gives us?

This book was recommended as part of a book fair at my son’s school; it was one of the teacher picks (thank you!). And I was drawn to it partly because it demonstrates resilience without preaching – surely something we all need, these days especially. But also because I had started climbing myself for the first time shortly before lockdown. I am terrified of heights, so starting to climb was a challenge to myself – a step towards becoming a whole person in my own skin again, after two pregnancies and years of breastfeeding. I took my son too. I thought it would be good for him to see me do something that scared me. And I thought that if he climbed walls or boulders he might climb the furniture at home a little less. Well, Covid had views on that …

But in all things, what my son has, his sister wants. And this book was no exception. She’s too young to climb yet, but she’s planning it already:

‘When I go climbing, will you put a squishy mat for me to land on when I fall?’

‘Yes, of course, darling, there will be a mat.’

‘And when I go climbing, you’ll put a squishy mat for me to land on when I fall, and then I’ll do it again?’

‘Yes, darling, you fall off, and then you try again.’

And we look at the pictures – here she’s falling, here she’s climbing, here she’s falling again, here she’s climbing. The penultimate line is my favourite: I waved hello at the memory of how hard the problem was.

I hear my three-year-old on the stairs, going up on all fours, narrating as she goes, ‘And she digs her fingers in and she heaves…’

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