The Drowning Shark: An International Adventure

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Rowling, Riordan, and Sweitzer & Swanepoel – authors who GET adventure writing for young adults. Know the first two, but not the last? That’s about to change, with the new Sierra Rouge adventure series by Stormy Sweitzer & Will Swanepoel. The first in the series is entitled The Drowning Shark, and, like all the books in the series, focuses on social change, compassion for the world around us, and adventure. 

The Drowning Shark: An International Adventure

I’m a big fan of YA literature – there’s something magical about this genre - full of possibility, hope, struggles, the importance of friends, and the energy that teens have. The Drowning Shark hits all of these - and travels the world, to boot. Like the books in the 39 Clues series, there are bad guys that the main character, Sierra, needs to deal with. But she takes it a step further, and (spoiler!) stops those bad guys from actions that have severe environmental consequences. 

This is the quintessential action adventure, with flavors of international travel, intercultural understanding, a strong environmental statement, and a fierce, interesting, relatable heroine. Read it to your kids, buy one for all the tweens and teens you love, schedule a book club around it, inhabit Sierra’s world and see how we, too, can help sharks - and safeguard our natural world. 

I loved this book, and cannot WAIT for the next one in the series. Highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Stormy Sweitzer, and ask her about the book, inspiration, a globally literate main character, curiosity, and more. Here’s what she had to say…

Stormy Sweitzer & Will Swanepoel, authors of  The Drowning Shark: An International Adventure


Please tell us about The Drowning Shark...

The Drowning Shark: A Sierra Rouge Adventure is a fast-paced young adult adventure novel about a fifteen year old girl named Sierra Rouge. One of our readers has called the book “a Jane Bondesque environmental spy thriller featuring a teenage girl.”

From the time she could walk, Sierra has traveled the world with her mother, a former CIA operative and chief instigator at an organization called Metik Ventures, where she took extreme measures to make sure that her organization’s investments in social impact projects succeeded.

Because of her travels, Sierra learned geography and social studies first hand. And because of exposure to her mom’s work, she also learned some pretty nontraditional skills for a kid, like jiu jitsu, surveillance, breaking and entering, and high-speed driving. You could say that Sierra is able to take on just about anything the world throws at her.

But, when her mother dies unexpectedly in a car accident, Sierra’s life is turned upside down. Mourning the loss of her mother, she travels to South Africa to live with the celebrity chef father she barely knows, accompanied by an older cousin who’s never left the United States before, and facing a life that is totally different from the one she grew up in.

While trying to find a new sense of normal, Sierra suddenly finds herself the target of a tracksuit-wearing bad guy, falling smack-dab in the middle of efforts to stop an international shark fin poaching operation, and trying to navigate the very-foreign-to-her social life of an average teen.

What inspired you to write this book - and start this series?
The idea of Sierra Rouge started as a game of “What If” that my husband and co-author Will and I played over ten years ago on a road trip. We imagined a girl who had adventures and did things to help change the world, and guessed at how she would possibly have the opportunity and resources to do that at such a young age. Back then, Sierra’s name was different. So was her backstory. 

It took us several more years to decide we wanted to write a book, and a trip to Will’s home country of South Africa to stumble upon the right story for it. We learned about shark-finning while we were there and knew that we had to write about it.

We want to continue to write about issues we care about and have seen first-hand in our visits to other countries. Writing a series allows us to explore these different issues and places and share them with readers in an entertaining, and hopefully thought- or action-provoking, way.

South Africa. From The Drowning Shark: An International Adventure

Sierra is a global traveler, and has seen more than most people do in their lifetimes already! What do you hope to convey in your writing, by having an interculturally literate main character?

Will and I have both been fortunate to grow up in multicultural households, study or work in different countries, and to travel since we were young. Through these experiences we have become incredible supporters of international/intercultural education, citizen diplomacy, and studying other languages and places. Not only do such experiences help young people learn about other places, but also about themselves. And, as the world grows smaller and smaller, empathy for other peoples’ cultures and circumstances, and the ability to both appreciate differences and also find commonalities with people that seem so different becomes increasingly important.

While not everyone has the resources to travel, there are plenty of local ways to develop intercultural awareness and learn more about the world, whether by studying foreign languages, writing to a pen pal in another country, watching movies or reading books about other places, hosting an exchange student or inviting foreign guests for dinner through your local citizen diplomacy initiative.

Your mission is curiosity - led by adventure, empathy, and activism. How do you think young adults can best work toward these important things?

Curiosity is a gateway to so many things. And when we approach our lives with a sense of wanting to know and learn and explore, the world opens up to us in interesting ways.
•    Adventure is all about trying new things and challenging yourself to take a step outside your comfort zone. You can exercise your adventure muscles by eating foods that are new to you, trying a new hobby, going someplace you’ve never been (there are lots of places in your own community to explore), or even befriending someone that is different from you. The idea is to broaden your perceived boundaries one step at a time.
•    Empathy is simply putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You can practice this by reading, asking questions, observing and listening. These are skills that our character Sierra Rouge uses to not only get to know people, but also to fit into a new place quickly, and understand how to help people.
•    Activism means taking action in support of something you believe in, usually because you want to see things change for the better. While our books address global issues that young adults can support, they are also in a great position to take action on the things they care about closer to home. Volunteering for a cause you support, participating in community service, talking to others about an issue that matters to you are great ways to do this.

What inspired your cast of characters?

Sierra and her family came first and were imagined as part of our “What If” game.

Some of our characters are inspired by real life people. For example, one of our bad guys is the spitting image of my former landlord when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet Union. Will’s cousin, a morning radio DJ in Cape Town, makes a cameo appearance. In other cases, we invented characters based on the situations we wanted to create or emotions we wanted to evoke in the book. And, to the best of our ability and research, we want our characters to reflect the variety of cultural norms, peoples, and socio-economic conditions in the countries we write about...even though it is from the outsider’s perspective of our main characters. 

What’s interested us most in the process of writing the book is that, despite the fact that we create the characters, they run the show when it comes time to write about them and what they say. 

What's up next for you?

Long before we finished The Drowning Shark, we brainstormed ideas for other books in the series. We have been slowly working through an outline for book 2 in the series and hope to write it this coming year. Next up, Sierra will be put to the test when her mother’s former colleagues recognize that Sierra has skills they need to continue the work her mother once did. Like mother, like daughter, Sierra will find herself defending creatures who can’t speak up for themselves.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

On one hand, Will and I wrote The Drowning Shark as an entertaining adventure novel. On the other, we see it and future books in the Sierra Rouge novel series as a form of social activism. We hope to show how strong girls can be, inspire young readers to action by helping them see how anyone can make a difference in something they believe in, promote cross-cultural awareness, and to talk about issues that affect our planet but that kids might not know about.

We do this by featuring strong female characters and positive relationships, writing about the variety of ways people can work to solve a problem (or ways they intentionally or unknowingly contribute to it), highlighting diverse countries and peoples, and sharing information about complex issues in an easy-to-understand way that drives the story forward. 

If readers want to know more about what they can do to support shark conservation, we offer an Action Guide on our website, as well as a Readers’ Guide with questions that parents and teachers can use to discuss the book with young readers. They can be found at


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