Five questions for Jack Wong

“Is a book about swimming really just about swimming?” When You Can Swim by Jack Wong (Orchard/Scholastic, 4–8 years) — winner of the just-announced 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Award! — is a joyful, inclusive, reassuring picture book that encourages all readers to take the plunge.

1. Did you have specific relationships in mind for the characters or did you purposely leave them open to interpretation?

Jack Wong: I’ll have my cake and eat it, too, if I can! I definitely had relationships in mind, but I also wanted readers to be able to have their own interpretations.

In my mind, one of the goals in showing connections between characters was to model good behaviors in lieu of pointing them out in the text. There’s a way in which this book appears relatively mum on water safety, but only at face value; the aspect of being responsible around water is extremely important to me. To get that across without being didactic, it was vital to depict an ever-present sense of partnership — one of mutual trust, care, and agency — between kids and their grownups.

Photo: Nicola Davison.

2. Your use of second-person narration really encourages inclusion. How did you land on that idea?

JW: This book has its origins in things I’d experienced that I just thought were really flippin’ cool. Like a time I went for a swim in a pond and there were fish jumping out of the water all around me — I’d never seen that before! So even though the final text was written to sound as though it comes from the mouth of a calm, reassuring adult, for me there’s this whole other way of reading it: in the voice of a kid who’s so excited to tell you what they did over summer vacation that they’re barely remembering to take in air between sentences! Second-person (or in some cases, first-person direct) voice is the voice of wanting to tell you about all the things.

Along with the choice of point-of-view was one about tense, which I think more closely answers your question. Telling this story in the future tense felt right (though it did take a lot of finessing for clunkiness) because it’s the tense of inclusion and participation: you’re reading about something that’s still to happen, so you have the chance to decide you want to be part of it too.

3. The art flows so beautifully. What tips do you have for illustrating water?

JW: I usually answer this question with “observe, observe, observe,” but here I’d like to add a corollary. There was a stage in my illustration, after having collected so much reference material through observing in nature, that my tendency was to want to add everything I knew water could do, in every picture: I’m talking sparkles and shimmers and waves and bubbles and reflections and refractions and distortions and gradients, everywhere all at once. Obviously, that would overwhelm the image! Ultimately, drawing water is one of those challenges that reminds us that we’re always in the act of abstracting when we make images. Drawing water means creating a shorthand that conveys something elemental about it, rather than trying to make it look exactly like the real thing.

Trees are another subject that serves as a reminder that drawing is always abstraction: most of the time, we don’t go about drawing every leaf. As it happens, another of my upcoming books, All That Grows (coming from Groundwood Books in 2024), had a lot of those — I kept having to relearn the same lesson!

4. You talk in the afterword about the historical exclusion of many people from the world of swimming. Do you see progress?

JW: That’s a good question! Since I arrived at my love of swimming through more personal experiences, such as those depicted in When You Can Swim, I’m not the most aware of the state of swimming as, say, an organized sport. But a few things I found in my research for this book lead me to believe that there has been progress, one of them being the number of organizations that exist to provide swimming instruction to racialized and other underserved communities. Another amazing example I came across was a museum exhibition, “POOL: A Social History of Segregation,” entirely dedicated to “investigating the nation’s handling of race as it relates to public pools” (which is on until September 30th at the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia). I haven’t had a chance to visit the exhibit myself, but it stands as a strong indicator that we’re as aware as we’ve ever been about the persistent legacy of racial disparity in swimming.

It’s also worth noting that everyday attitudes are not the only thing that stands to exclude certain people from swimming; in a broader sense, progress in inclusivity around swimming can only happen as fast as progress in social justice at large. There are still communities in North America (and beyond) in which the waterways are permanently polluted by government policy or industry practice; the freedom to swim outdoors that I advocate for in my book would be severely compromised for anyone experiencing what, in many of these cases, would accurately be identified as environmental racism.

5. What would you say to a child or adult who’s afraid of the water?

JW: I was going to start by saying that I’m still nervous of the water myself — but I’m in no position to wax poetic on someone else’s fear, which may range from a mild reticence to a real phobia. Instead, I might flip the question to: “What can we do around (if not for) someone who’s afraid of the water?” I don’t have a pedagogical response to that, but I do believe that often missing in the dialogue around any fear is a diversity of attitudes. Many children’s books that tackle negative emotions are binary: you’re either afraid, or you’ve crossed the great chasm to arrive squarely on the side of non-fearing. But I think it’s much more accurate to suggest people can feel everything from terrified, to uncomfortable, to just shy of excited — allowing those who feel afraid to feel they’re included along a spectrum, rather than just either “in” or “out.” This is the diversity of attitudes I tried to include in When You Can Swim, which I feel is just as important as a diversity of identities.

From the June 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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