The best children’s books aren’t condescending toward kids, they uplift the inner child in each of us. Think of the playful wisdom and imagination of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, or Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Both works take their adolescent characters on exciting adventures, while also exploring deeper, spiritual dimensions. Now more than ever, kids and adults need stories that transport us to a different time and place.
In Jaimal Yogis’ new children’s book Mop Rides the Waves of Life, the central character “Mop” becomes obsessed with surfing and his board becomes his magic carpet. Mop just wants to surf, but he struggles with big emotions like fear and doubt, especially when people tease him for his big “mop” of hair. At school, he feels insecure and frustrated, but once he enters the ocean, he discovers his secret source of power in the rise and fall of the waves.
After his surfer mom teaches him meditation and mindfulness, Mop has an epiphany: emotions move like waves. He realizes his mind is like the sea, always changing. Why not ride good feelings (joy, love) and let the tough stuff (shame, anger) pass without panicking? Instead of shoving his buddy Toby in the sandbox, he takes his frustrations to the beach and learns to channel that energy into riding the waves.
As individuals, author Jaimal Yogis and illustrator Matt Allen experienced unique childhood traumas that took them on different personal journeys. But as surfers, they both found comfort in the sea, which eventually brought them together. They didn’t know each other before collaborating on Mop’s story, but the spiritual parallels in their biographies made them seem destined to meet and bring Mop to life.
At 16, Jaimal found himself on probation for a DUI and suspended from school. Angry about his parents’ divorce, he ran away from Sacramento to Maui in hopes of dedicating himself to surfing and finding a new direction. Alone in paradise with no money, car, or home, Jaimal recounts all the challenges he faced in his entertaining memoir Saltwater Buddha.
All these challenges inspired Jaimal to develop a meditation practice while at the same time starting to take on the powerful waves of Maui’s North Shore. “Surfing and meditation were both just really hard,” remembers Yogis. “I really sucked at both. But they also made me feel more alive than ever. Like Mop, I noticed a clear connection.”
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Matt Allen was facing his own high school crisis. “Baseball was my life as a kid,” Allen remembers. “But when I didn’t make the high school baseball team, my identity shattered.” Growing up in Southern California, Allen eventually surfaced from his deep depression and found solace and rebirth in surfing. His passion had changed, and so did his identity.
The summer before his senior year, Allen also set off for Hawaii with a local church youth group. “Over the course of that trip, my priorities shifted a bit,” said Allen.
After committing to his faith, Matt paddled out at Oahu’s North Shore to try his own version of walking on water. But while sitting in the lineup waiting for a wave, he sensed something wasn’t right with his body. Matt began the 200-yard paddle to shore, only to arrive on the sand unable to speak. He awoke dazed in an ambulance, wondering if he’d died and gone to heaven. Matt had experienced his first epileptic seizure.
With his new health condition, Matt was forbidden to surf or drive his senior year. Once again, he found himself feeling like his identity had been stripped from him, only this time he had comfort from his newfound faith and an outlet in the visual arts. Like many surf groms, he began drawing pictures of perfect waves in his notebooks, but he wanted to take his art further.
Matt was determined to start surfing again. With the aid of a life jacket, he was able to get back in the water, only to find his relationship with the ocean had changed. “Many of my most profound spiritual experiences have come while sitting on my board, watching the sun dip into the sea,” he says.
Developing a career as a professional artist, he eventually served as Art Director at SURFER magazine and created designs for brands like Crate & Barrel, UNIQLO, Ford, and many others. Along with his growing commercial projects, he said those child-like moments in the sea have always guided his work and served as his personal inspiration.
While Matt was exploring how his faith deepened in the ocean through visual arts, Jaimal was busy writing about how his Buddhist practice had expanded through surfing. After coming home from Maui to finish his probation, Jaimal spent the next decade traveling the world. He traveled to remote destinations, delving deeply into his studies of Buddhism while also becoming a professional journalist. After years working as a magazine journalist, Jaimal became an author and wrote about his travels in acclaimed books like Saltwater Buddha, The Fear Project, and All Our Waves Are Water.
Now a father, Jaimal wants to communicate some of what he has learned to his three boys, as well as other children. The result is Mop Rides the Waves of Life. When the publisher, Parallax Press, showed Jaimal a few illustrators they were considering, he was immediately drawn to Allen’s art. “You get a visceral sense when you see Matt’s drawings and paintings that he has spent a lot of time in the ocean,” says Yogis. “But there’s also this deep reverence that I’m now realizing comes from his faith.”
As the two surfer artists got to know each other, they began a kind of informal interfaith dialogue. They used their common love of the sea to explore the differences and similarities between their faiths and were struck by how much overlap there was. “I think we’re realizing our faiths are like rivers that have brought us to the shores of the same ocean,” says Yogis. “The twists and turns of each river may be different, but the water is the same.”
Matt and Jaimal enjoyed working together so much that they decided to do a whole series around Mop and his friends. In their next story, Mop Rides the Waves of Change, the small, big-haired boy gets involved in keeping plastic out of the ocean (it will be released spring of 2021 by Parallax Press). More than religious or environmental issues, these stories contrast the challenging trials of finding your own identity as a kid with the timeless joys of losing yourself in the ocean.
“The Mop books aren’t religious by any means,” says Yogis. “They’re about a surfer kid and his friends using tools like breathing, surfing, and helping others to find happiness and friendship. But we hope the universality of Mop’s experiences riding his inner waves will allow kids of all backgrounds to find common ground beyond the usual ways we categorize ourselves.”
Whether looking for inspiring stories for your kids or wanting to reconnect with your inner surf grom, this book has a little something for everyone. As waves of fear and uncertainty roll over us during this pandemic, the words and images in this book will transport you to another time and place, while also helping you find a sense of inner peace. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Pick up a copy of Mop Rides the Waves of Life here.