When You Can Swim: Jack Wong's 2023 BGHB Picture Book Award Speech

Thank you to the Horn Book, the Boston Globe, and the awards selection committee for this tremendous honor.

I didn’t set out to write a book about swimming. Its seeds were planted over a particular period of time — namely, the spring and summer of 2020 — when everything around me seemed newly foreign and not to be taken for granted. I took particular solace in nature, collecting observations and imagery whenever I could be out in it. I felt especially attuned to the rhythms of the water, and my fascination with its many forms and phenomena became the basis for this book.

To say “writing a book without intending to” can, in one sense, be taken as a badge of honor — it is ­suspiciously close to self-congratulation for having been a conduit for some divine inspiration. In another sense, I share it to express real feelings of surprise and uncertainty about the work I made. I am not a particularly strong swimmer, nor someone who has thought much about rallying others to swim. Like in any work of “fiction,” I borrowed the experiences and perspectives and feelings of others to populate the voices and bodies you see on the pages. So perhaps it’s natural that I’ve also needed to borrow the insights of others to understand the final result for myself. That process has been a delightful one, and I’d like to share some of those insights with you today.

* * *

It was well after When You Can Swim had been written, and acquired, and revised, and illustrated, and designed, and produced, and released, while rubbing shoulders at an ALA event with my publisher at Scholastic, Liza Baker, when she told me, “What we liked, from the start, was that ‘when’ you can swim is not ‘if’ you can swim.”

Sometimes an artist can be so ignorant to the ­particular success of their choices because the alternative never even crossed their mind as a possibility. Indeed, when is accurate to the ethos of the book as I intended — the many aspects of representation exist, for instance, because I wanted as many readers as possible to see their potential future selves within its pages. But that particular word, when…could I really say I consciously made this choice of syntax, designed it to carry within itself the weight of something akin to a moral declaration?

It would be more accurate to say that the word when arrived on the page as a result of my excitement, and even a good dose of impatience, for the future to manifest. It’s true that the words of this book are ostensibly narrated by an ­encouraging adult figure toward a tentative child, but when I read it, there’s an alternate version that sometimes plays in my mind’s ear. For a long time I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that alternate version was, but when we recorded the audiobook, I was delighted to find that actor Shannon Tyo had uncannily­ channeled­ an undercurrent of it out loud — one I can now affectionately identify as “the energy of a second grader explaining an animated movie.”

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2023 BGHB Picture Book winners.]

So my thanks go, firstly, to everyone who embraced When You Can Swim for everything I knew it was, and a few more things I didn’t yet know it could be. This includes my formidable editorial and art team Andrea Davis Pinkney, Patti Ann Harris, Doan Buu, and Jennifer Thompson; flight companions in publicity Elisabeth Ferrari, Gui Filippone, and Nikole Kritikos; and the entire family at Scholastic invoked by the collective “we” in Liza’s quote — too richly numerous to name, many of whom, by expressing their individual connections to the book during the initial acquisitions process, were directly responsible for this story finding its spiritual home. The same gratitude goes to my tireless agent Wendi Gu and her colleagues at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates; fellow writers Shauntay Grant and Sara Heise ­Graybeal, who materially guided the direction of this text; and before all that, the many friends and family members, especially my wife, Ainsley Cunningham, who inspired the scenes in the story and inspired me to work on the book.

* * *

A weight that I had carried with me for many months leading up to the release of When You Can Swim was lightened when Lisa McMullin, cofounder of St. Louis–based SWIM ON (Safer Waters In Memory Of Nicholas) Foundation, wrote to me about the book. The weight I had been feeling was this: Out of all the matters of representation present in the book, representing a safe experience around water loomed, for me, the largest.

How I chose to address this was to model positive, responsible, and communally supportive behaviors in pictures as a visual complement that counterbalanced without precluding the sometimes daring play suggested in the words. But I also had the luxury of doing this on faith: I do not happen to have children of my own or young swimmers in my charge. And so I fretted at the possibility that someone without that luxury might find that I had not done nearly enough.

Lisa had written to say that When You Can Swim was different from any other children’s book she had read about water safety. By holding out an enchanting promise of the water, without emphasizing its hardships, it worked on encouraging a child’s desire to learn to swim first. The message was an affirmation of an “all carrot, no stick” approach to writing for children, and since receiving Lisa’s words I have become ever more sensitive to the fact that “sticks” — boundaries and cautions and even conflicts — are not always successful in a book, because the appropriate boundaries, cautions, and conflicts each reader may need to see vary upon their individual context and development.

What Lisa graciously left out is that she and other adult stewards implicitly agree to be the partners in this equation who do the dirty work and supply the “stick”: that is actually to say, to carefully and thoughtfully provide the context, the discussion, and the extended care for the young reader, so that my book and I are freed, for the moment, to just do the playing. My sincere thanks go to Lisa and the SWIM ON Foundation and to the many, many more partners to this book — booksellers (again, too many to name, but Lisa Doucet and Suzy MacLean of Woozles Children’s Bookstore deserve special mention), librarians, educators, organizers, supporters, and parents/guardians — who have helped When You Can Swim complete its journey safely to the young reader.

* * *

Finally, this book was not originally going to include an author’s note. For a time, I felt that providing external context was tantamount to an admission of failure — in simpler terms, if a story requires a whole other story to tell it, maybe I didn’t do such a good job with the first story.

What I had failed to appreciate was that you just get to tell two stories. In one book!

So many readers have connected specifically with the “second story” of the author’s note: not only adult readers, for whom the words evoke their own relationships with swimming and activate their shared concern for the book’s themes of inclusion and access, but also many young readers, for whom the little boy in the photos (me, begrudgingly swimming as a child), or the anecdote that my mother was once forbidden to swim, provoke their empathy and curiosity. The many diverse responses that readers have shared with me affirm, in case I was ever in doubt, that providing personal context and specificity does not impede the possibility for connection, but rather builds the necessary bridges to transit between the individual and the universal. I wish to thank every reader who has opened your heart to this book, and crossed those bridges, and arrived at places that are your own.

In one case, a bridge led me back home, when one reader wrote to wonder if the photograph of me as a child (at left), standing in the foyer of a swimming pool, had been taken at Provident Centre in North Point, Hong Kong, where she formerly lived. Amazingly, she had recognized the red-brick stairs and white tiled walls of the apartment complex that, before I emigrated at six years old with my family, I also once called home.

In the book, the photograph’s caption reads, “Me as a kid, trying to enjoy a trip to the local pool.” Trying is definitely the operative word. Someone is evidently on the other end of the camera, but within the frame of the photograph I stand isolated, stone-faced and on my own.

Many years later, I no longer have to go it alone.

From the January/February 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB23. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Jack Wong, and watch his conversation with BGHB23 Nonfiction winner, Jarrett Krosoczka, from our "Cover to Cover" event co-presented with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art on January 18, 2024.

Jack Wong

Jack Wong is the author and illustrator of the 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Award winner When You Can Swim (Orchard/Scholastic).

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