The Floating Field: Interviews with Scott Riley and KAA Illustration

The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built Their Own Soccer Field follows the inspiring true story of Prasit Hemmin and his friends as they find a way to play soccer on Koh Panyee, Thailand. Because their home didn’t have enough open space for them to play on, the teen boys could play only twice a month when the tide was low enough for a sandbar to serve as a field.

Inspired by the 1986 World Cup, Prasit and his friends built their own floating soccer field, unlike any other playing surface in the world. Their field’s quirks prompted some unusual rules—anyone who kicked the ball out of bounds had to jump into the ocean to retrieve it—but they also helped the players develop exceptional footwork. This celebration of ingenuity and determination is perfect for fans of stories about sports, beating seemingly impossible odds, and places and cultures not often shown in picture books.

Debut author Scott Riley and illustrators Nguyen Quang and Kim Lien join us to day to answer some questions about their inspiration and creative process!

Questions with Scott Riley

How did you come across this story?

Like most writers, I’m always on the lookout for stories. I collect them like coins or trading cards. My favorite stories are ones about remarkable people from unique times or places, ones that make me pause in wonder and awe. When I read a story or see one online that sparks my curiosity, I write it down. I search for articles, videos, books, anything I can get my hands on to find out more. That’s what happened when I first read about the floating field in a travel article a few years ago. Digging into research, I found more articles and guide books that featured it. I watched travel shows and discovered the Thai bank commercial on YouTube that recreated it. I knew all too soon that this was one story I couldn’t save for later.

What were the challenges in writing this story?

Oh, there were a lot of challenges, but perhaps the biggest (and most exciting) challenge was finding answers to my questions–What’s it like to live on Koh Panyee? How did those boys build that field? Is Prasit still there? If so, what are the chances he speaks English? The only way I was going to find out was to go there.

In 2018, my family went on vacation to Phuket, Thailand, a bustling, tourist destination not far from Koh Panyee. From there I planned a two-day trip to the island.

Getting to Koh Panyee is not easy. After an hour-long taxi ride from Phuket, I arrived at a pier on a hidden tidal river. There, dozens of longboats waited to take tourists out to the surrounding islands, stopping at Koh Panyee for lunch. The drivers laughed when I asked for a one-way trip to the island–no one wanted to fill their big boats with just one passenger. With a bit of negotiating, I convinced one, and we were off.

Another hour later, I was walking through the raised walkways of Koh Panyee, looking for my “homestay.” There are no hotels on this island, just this one tiny bungalow. I found it on an outermost jetty and soon realized that I was the only visitor staying there that night. By the looks of it, I was the only person who had been there all season.

Checking in, I asked the woman about Prasit, the player I had read about in my research. She shook her head, shrugging her shoulders. Her English was about as good as my Thai. As if on cue, a group of young boys ran into the room with a soccer ball. I used my phone to show pictures of the floating field and pointed to the boys’ soccer ball. “Prasit. Prasit,” I repeated. Oh, she realized wide-eyed and said something to the boys.

The boys grabbed my hand and led me back through the village to the school where a group of adults were playing soccer on the paved platform that has since replaced the floating field. A man stopped playing and came over. “Prasit?” I asked. He shook his head. It was the school teacher who spoke a bit of English. Prasit, he said, was visiting a friend’s house near the mosque.

By now, I was beginning to know my way through the maze of walkways. Minutes later, I was at the steps of the mosque, looking around at the houses nearby. A man came out of one. “Prasit?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, “Can I help you?” I had finally found Prasit. And he spoke English!

I introduced myself and asked if he’d be willing to share his story with me. He’d be happy to, he said, but it was evening prayer time. “Let’s meet in the morning,” he said. “After morning prayers. At 6 am?”

I woke early the next morning. I was not going to miss this meeting. But when I went to open the door to the bungalow, it was locked. Not only that, the lock was broken–the inside kept spinning and spinning. I tried over and over, but it just wouldn’t catch. Walking to the back of the bungalow, the side that faced the sea, I realized that if I wanted to make the meeting, I’d have to jump into the sea and swim to the next pier. Pacing back and forth, considering my options, I decided to try the lock one last time. With a bit of extra jiggering, I caught the latch inside, and the lock twisted open. I burst out of the bungalow and ran to catch up with Prasit.

Why does this story matter today? Especially to kids who might never go to Koh Paynee?

It’s true. Most readers will probably never go to Thailand, let alone Koh Panyee. And while this story is about a far-off place, there are some things that hit close to home. Following a dream or even trying something new can be hard. We tend to judge ourselves (or even worse, let others judge us) way too soon. We name reasons why we won’t be successful. Or we give up before we even start.

That’s not what Prasit and his friends did. They didn’t let their situation or what others said about them determine their fate. Instead, these boys believed in themselves and made the impossible possible. Will any of us build a floating soccer field? Probably not, but we all have our own dreams floating around in our heads. And perhaps instead of overthinking them, we should just jump right in and see if we can’t make them a reality.

What grabs you most about the story?

Apart from the fact that Prasit and his friends built their own floating soccer field? I guess it would be [SPOILER ALERT] that the team didn’t come in first place in the tournament. Maybe I’ve watched too many Hollywood movies where the underdogs always come out on top. I just expected them to pull it out in the end, especially after they took off their shoes and started playing better. But they didn’t. And in some ways, that makes it a better ending. My own daughters and students play sports, and I think about how much pressure they feel to win, win, win. For Prasit and his team, it wasn’t about winning. It was about the love of the game and being able to play it whenever they could. And that’s even bigger than winning, isn’t it?

What is it like to tell someone else’s story?

Telling someone else’s story is something I don’t take lightly. I know that I am limited by my own experience, culture, and language. But I also know that with steadfast curiosity and relentless research I can tell the story well. I spent hours interviewing Prasit, walking through the village, taking photos and videos of each alleyway. I rode longboats through the bay alongside villagers, and I studied moon cycles and tidal flows. On my second visit to the island, I brought my manuscript and sat with Prasit, checking each line for authenticity.

Since then, I’ve worked with editors and art directors to give shape to this book. I’ve given feedback to Quang and Lien about details in their art from where the mosque is placed to what birds and fish live around the island. I’ve continued to communicate with Prasit about news from the village, updating the backmatter. Through collaboration and deep research, we are all bringing Prasit’s story to life in The Floating Field, and we are excited to add this version of Prasit’s story to the others written in news articles and featured in videos.

Is there anything else you want readers to know?

I’ve kept in touch with Prasit since my visits in 2018 and 2019. We share news about our families, and we’ve talked about his family coming to Singapore. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, all that is on hold. Tourism in the area has come to a standstill. Only two boats arrive each day to minimize any spread of the virus. The six sprawling restaurants that serve tour groups daily are now empty. Without tourists, the villagers can’t earn income. Families still fish, but that doesn’t help them buy groceries. Prasit is still busy, organizing donations and food drives. In many ways, he is still the same team player who leads with hope and determination to overcome incredibly difficult odds.

Questions with Nguyen Quang and Kim Lien

What was your first thought when you received the author’s story and the brief?

When we received the manuscript, we were so surprised and excited. This was the first time we knew about a football field on water, not to mention it was built by kids with passion for football. When we read the manuscript, it reminded us a lot of memories when we played street football with other kids in our hometown. We understood the connection of those kids with each other through football, like we had before. And with this feeling, we started to work on the first sketches.

What did you like most while drawing the book?

We love this book because it is quite similar to our own childhood, and it was beautifully written by an American author. Thailand and Vietnam children share the same tropical climate, having similar facial features and the above it all, the love for football. The most enjoyable part of creating this book was drawing the kids playing football, on the sand, on the field and on the stadium.

I [Nguyen Quang] only had to draw out my memories, when I played with other kids and when I watched my school team play at the stadium. The scene appears in my mind and I only have to remember it and draw it on paper. At the end of this book, I asked to add one more spread when the Koh Panyee team lost the fight. As a boy, I understand the feeling of losing an important match and I want to draw that feeling on the story. And the rain is perfect for a lost match.

How did you take the sketches to the final art?

When coloring the art, we chose the colour depending on the timeline of the day. Based on real photos of Koh Panyee, we picked the closest colours in real life, plus the striking colours of a tropical island. We want to make the book look as vibrant, vivid, playful as the boys in the story and always full of sunlight. We have visited Thailand two times, and felt the similar atmosphere between Vietnam and Thailand, so it was easier to recreate. Our goal was to paint the old houses, the metal roofs, the ocean, etc. as realistically as possible.

To show the timeline, we changed the colours of the sky and the sea, you can see it’s started from dawn, morning and sunset and night and repeat, as a suggestion how time flies in the book. The background colour also created more feeling in the picture, such as the nostalgic feeling of sunset when the boys are playing on the beach, or the dramatic dark sky when they lose the game, and the bright sun and clear sky when they go home happily in the end.

What do you hope readers will learn or discover from reading your book?

We know that kids from all around the world share the same enthusiasm for team sports. It builds players up both physically and psychologically, teaching them about friendship and hard work. We hope the children who read this book will also feel the energy and happiness shown in the book.

Watch Nguyen Quang and Kim Lien work in their studio and describe their process!

Follow the Creators

Scott Riley’s website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

KAA Illustration’s website, Facebook, and Instagram

Praise for The Floating Field

★”A compelling book for football [soccer] fans and readers seeking examples of ingenuity.”—starred, Publishers Weekly

“This inspiring tale will appeal to soccer fans, of course, but also has applications for problem solving and determination.”—Booklist

“An intriguing true story elevated by striking illustrations.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This is a book for soccer players, soccer lovers, friendship partakers, diverse culture lovers, DIY builders, dreamers, or anyone who loves a good story!” –Good Reads with Rona

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