Sarah Noble on As Strong as the River

To celebrate the release of her debut picture book As Strong as the River, we sat down with Sarah Noble to discuss how the salmon rush, wildlife parks, and her own mama bear helped inspire this heartwarming bedtime story.

FEB: Hi Sarah! Why did you choose to make bears the main subject of your first picture book, As Strong as the River

SN: I’ve always known that bears are well-loved, but it wasn’t until I personally spent a lot of time in their world that I really understood why. There’s just something about bears that is timeless and intriguing. They’re these powerful yet adorable creatures, brimming with personality. 

My interest in bears as a subject started when my friend introduced me to bear cams (live video feeds of Alaskan grizzlies during the salmon run). I had never heard of bear cams before then, and I quickly became obsessed. 

FEB: The story revolves around a beautiful mother daughter connection. What inspired you to highlight this relationship in the book? 

SN: Initially, I was drawn to the heartwarming interactions between mama bears and their cubs. But, as I developed the story, I think I wove in elements of my own relationship with my mom, to whom the book is dedicated. My mother has always been an example of strength and patience to me. She has a way of teaching lessons in subtle ways, leading toward answers rather than just lecturing, similar to the mama bear in the story. She’s the kind of ‘mama bear’ I want to be someday. 

FEB: Are there any qualities in Yona that you see in yourself? 

SN: Like Yona, I think I have a strong curiosity about the world. Also like Yona, I’m often impatient and have a slightly competitive nature haha. (“I’m good at that, too!”) 

FEB: Nature is a central theme to As Strong as the River, what is your relationship with nature like? 

SN: I have a deep appreciation for nature and wildlife. Living in the mountains, I often see deer, foxes, birds, and other animals nearby. I love the way that nature can awake my senses and make me feel more connected to the world. It’s a big source of inspiration, both for my art and for my personal sense of self. Spending time in nature reminds me that there is something bigger than myself, that there is so much more out there for me to learn and experience. 

FEB: Have you ever seen a bear in person? 

SN: Besides the zoo / wildlife parks, I’ve seen exactly one bear in person. I was a carsick passenger driving through the mountains in Yellowstone National Park when I glimpsed a black bear on the mountain. It was pretty far away, but it still made me sit up in awe. 

FEB: You both wrote and illustrated As Strong as the River, how did you approach this process and were there any challenges that came with it? 

SN: It started without a story in place. I lost myself in the research … watching videos, long nature walks, and so much sketching. I began to develop the characters and setting, but I didn’t have a story yet that pulled all the pieces together. To be honest, I struggled for a while to find something that felt satisfying. 

Eventually, I realized it didn’t need to be a ‘big’ story to be satisfying, and that a looser approach to plot would give me more room to focus on character. I directed my efforts on creating a storyboard that simply followed Mama Bear and Yona throughout a typical day. As I studied and reflected on the images, I noticed that the River arose as its own unique character that seemed to tie everything together and provide a guiding metaphor. Once I recognized this, the narrative began to take shape more organically. 

FEB: This is the first book you’ve illustrated. Was there anything about the process that surprised you? 

SN: Maybe this is somewhat to be expected, but it was surprising to see how much my illustrations evolved from the initial sketches / dummy book to the final artwork. Also, working with an art director was quite nice! I felt more confident knowing that they wouldn’t let me mess things up too badly haha. 

FEB: Finally, is there a message that you would like young audiences to take away from reading this story? 

SN: I hope this story can inspire young audiences to stay curious, to appreciate mothers (and mother figures), and to remember that there are many different ways to be strong 

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Sarah!

As Strong as the River is available now from