Jasper’s Ailsa Ross has a rule: no screens before she gets outside in the morning.
That means no logging into social media, no checking her phone, no firing up the laptop. Instead, she’ll head out for a walk around Cabin Creek. Or a quick bike ride. The important thing is that she doesn’t waste the morning.
“It’s my one rule for each day,” she says. “Otherwise I can find myself in my dressing gown staring into the abyss two hours later.”
That small but steady bit of discipline has helped the 31-year-old Scottish writer establish a regular work routine, which in turn has enabled her become a first-time author. But not only has limiting her screen time been key to her writing a new adventure book for children, The Woman Who Rode A Shark And Other Stories of Daring Women, the practice also pays a daily tribute to the very people she profiles init.
“For children and probably girls specifically,” she says, quoting scientist Nalini Nadkarni, one of her heroines in the book, “there isn’t a person on earth who couldn’t use a connection with nature.”
Eight years ago, Ross herself needed to reconnect. She was teaching english to grade schoolers in Seoul, South Korea. The money was good, but the days were long and holidays were rare. She needed to get back outside. She needed to get back to writing.
And so, after her contract was up, she went backpacking. She planned an odyssey. She figured she’d go overland, from Mexico to South America, writing about her travels and getting published. A byline in National Geographic, Lonely Planet and Conde Nast sounded pretty good. At least that was the intention. Then she met her future husband.
“Two weeks in and I was taking a significant detour,” she laughed. “All of a sudden I was moving to Canada.”
Spring is a good time for a first look at the Rocky Mountains and when her partner introduced her to Banff, with its emerald lakes, glacier-capped peaks, abundant wildlife and long, sun-drenched days, the lassie from rainy Abderdineshire was mesmerized. But although her heart was happy, her soul still stirred for a writing job. After setting off once again with her backpack, she landed a gig at a digital startup in Berlin. There, she was tasked with researching historical figures who had notched up big adventures. But there was a hiccup: the adventurers found in popular literature—Ernest Shackleton, Charles Darwin and Lawrence of Arabia, for example—were almost always male. They were almost always white.
Where were the women, she thought? Where were the people of colour?
Soon, Ross started looking into the stories of different explorers, activists, artists and athletes. By digging a little deeper, she unearthed a treasure trove of content.
Soon she learned of Alexandra David-Néel, a Buddhist opera singer who entered the forbidden city of Lhasa, in Tibet. Through the journalism of Christina Lamb, she got to know Nujeen Mustafa, a teenager born with cerebral palsy who traveled from war-ravaged Syria to Germany in a wheelchair. And by sending letters to New Zealand-based professors, she discovered the story of Whina Cooper, a Māori activist who, at age 89, marched 616 miles in the name of indigenous land rights.
“I started coming across stories of these women, but I hadn’t heard of any of them,” she said. “It was really cool.”
It was also a really good idea for a book, she thought. And although she sat on the idea for a number of years, she eventually found an agent, and a publishing house, who agreed. Last year, The Woman Who Rode A Shark was published in Britain. This October, it was launched by Pajama Press.
With the help of illustrator Amy Blackwell, whose gorgeous graphics combine portraits and hand-drawn maps, Ross profiles 50 different women, from aquanauts to astronauts, and from treetop explorers to eagle hunters.
These are ocean-diving, jungle-running, mountain-climbing females from across the globe, and Ross, for one, hopes that their stories will help inspire children to get outside.
“If these stories can encourage kids to take healthy risks, I think that’s important,” she said.
Bob Covey // firstname.lastname@example.org