Calling CaldeNott Interview with Jack Wong

[This interview took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 14, 2023.]

Note: Jack was interviewed in The Horn Book's e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book, in June 2023. I deliberately decided not to tread the same water (sorry — the swimming puns are kind of hard to stop) and to ask different questions here. 

JULIE HAKIM AZZAM: Congratulations on winning the Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Award! What was your reaction to winning that award? 

JACK WONG: It took me off guard! For a book to come out in May and to win the award in June was a huge surprise! And the fact was, as a new author, you may know of an award but not how it works, how books are considered, and what the timeline is. In my heart of hearts, I hoped the book would be received well, but winning the award was beyond my imagination. 

JHA: I’m wondering if you can talk about the genesis for this book and why you felt compelled to write it. You get into some of that in your author’s note, but I’d love to know more. For example, who did you imagine your intended audience to be? 

JW: What’s in the author’s note isn’t the genesis of the book. I didn’t set out to write a book about swimming at all. It came in the spring and summer of 2020; that was a time when local parks were off limits because of the pandemic. As that eased up in the summer of 2020 and we could go to parks or camping, everything felt newly foreign and not to be taken for granted. I felt really in tune with my surroundings and took them in with fresh eyes. I typically go into nature with a sketchbook and draw, but something doesn’t always come out of that. During that period, I would draw and quickly write down observations about nature, whether it’s fish jumping out of water or what have you. It was a period so charged with an aliveness that the words I jotted down in nature were almost verbatim to what ended up in the book. The observations were directly inspired by that experience. 

At a certain point I realized what I had on my hand was about the experience of water and nature. I do swim in nature, but I don’t identify myself as someone who is an avid or strong swimmer. There are people in my life who would identify with that more so, and so I was wondering, is this really a book for me to write? I explore my relationship with water and the tone the book takes, which is a little sensitive and reticent; it’s gently encouraging the young reader, as opposed to the more exuberant call to swim. I think I did that because that was what I needed. I was encouraging myself to swim. I don't have a relationship with water where I just jump in full throttle. I have to explore it in a delicate way. 

JHA: I loved the endpapers of this book (in the front ones, the girl is on the pool deck looking down at the water and in the back one, the girl is swimming, already halfway through a lap). It’s curious, though, that even though images of a swimming pool bookend the text, what happens in the middle is outdoor or “wild” swimming that occurs in nature and not in swimming pools. Why did you choose to focus the book on outdoor swimming (instead of say, mastering pool swimming, competitive swimming, etc)? 

JW: The inspiration came from swimming outdoors. I didn’t like swimming, but swimming outdoors, I did enjoy. I created the bookends by referring to a pool — I referred to a girl who is just about to take her first lesson. That’s an acknowledgment that we have to start somewhere in order to experience the joys, and for a lot of people that is going to happen in a local swimming pool. The bookend framing device came after the fact, and it was me thinking through the question: how does the child have an entry point into the story if swimming outdoors was a foreign concept to her? Swimming at the local pool is the gateway. 

JHA: What is your favorite place to swim outdoors and why? Did it make its way into the book? 

JW: The fish jumping out of water at dusk was not only the favorite scene but it was the one that told me I had the beginnings of a book. Maybe the first spread and finalized piece of text was about that.

JHA: You are a master of visual perspective in this book. One of the things I really appreciated was that you captured what the world can look like from the perspective of one who is submerged fully or partially in water. And that’s something that I love about swimming, and so I was impressed that you were able to capture that in the illustrations, whether it be bubbles under the water, the way bodies look under water, or what the world looks like while looking up at a sky when you’re floating on your back. Do these images and sensations come from your own experiences? How did you get the idea to, say, show eyes peeking out of the water with fish jumping around? Or the view of a dragonfly flying in the sky as you lie on your back and look up?

JW: As much as I study picture books, I think our visual culture is so video- and film-centric that I can’t help but think about everything as a film, as well as the shots and the placement of a proverbial camera. When I’m illustrating, the first thing I’m trying to do is put what’s in my mind’s eye down on the page, and then I move my point of view around until one of them looks right. So a scene of fish in the water, for example, can be directly from the first-person perspective of a character, or it could be under the water; it could be from behind and you see them silhouetted, and so I try all of that and see what speaks to me. I explore the perspectives through sketches, but sometimes it takes doing the image to completion in color for me to realize no, that’s not what I want. So there are fully developed spreads of the book that I’ve done and not included. 

By contrast, I do admire picture book illustrators and their work when it has a strong 2D focus (such as Maya Tatsukawa’s Mole Is Not Alone), and that calls back to some of the traditions in picture book illustration, and I’m often so impressed that that’s the constraint they’ve chosen. 

Every artist/ illustrator has something they feel they can’t do, and I feel limited by that 2D perspective and it’s amazing that some illustrators are able to do that. 

JHA: Can you talk about your process of making a book as both author and illustrator? Does the writing drive the illustration process or vice versa? Do you do a lot of drafting and revising? What does your book making process look like? 

JW: I tend to write first. Sometimes I’ll read about an author/ illustrator (Jillian Tamaki’s They Say Blue or Sydney Smith’s Small in the City) who say they sketch until an idea emerges visually and words slowly materialize around those images. There’s a part of me that has an inferiority complex that I’m not the author/illustrator in the purest sense of what an author/illustrator is. That’s on a bad day! But I recognize that different processes result in different kinds of stories. And on a good day, I accept my process. I write a lot while picturing things in my head. Until the story gets further along, that imagery stays in my head, and I don't explore drawing it yet. I like imagery as it relates to the text that doesn’t necessarily depict the same thing it’s describing. In Swim, it is closer, and the distance between what the words and images show is wider. I tend to really let the words inspire the pictures, so that comes first. 

JHA: Can you talk through one of the illustrations in the book of your choice? Maybe something that is particularly meaningful to you?

JW: I didn’t want to make a book that was blue. I imagined a book that was more than blue, page after page. This came about naturally since each scene in the book is so different: you have a tannin-soaked lake, the pond at dusk, the greenery around in the woods, and different perspectives. So as I was drawing the pictures, I started by drawing a picture on its own terms, honoring whether it needed to be close up or distanced, fuzzy or evocative, and I started to panic that the book wouldn’t come together as a cohesive series of images. As I put them side by side, they didn’t look like they belonged to the same book. I fully intended for them to represent their environments and what I got was more than I bargained for, since they all looked so different. I worked out those issues on a technical level to make them more harmonious. Sorry, I’m going to invoke Sydney Smith again! His book with Jordan Scott (I Talk Like a River) was, for me, such a game changer. He renders different moments in different pages: some are very detailed, some are fuzzy wet, and other times it comes into sharp focus. For all someone can say about the conventional rules of illustration (consistency, continuity), I also like it when I flip the page and am thrown into a different experience. Children are also invigorated by novelty rather than something that stays technically consistent. I would throw away any concern about consistency if I can keep wowing the reader at every page turn. It can look different — if I can second guess it for a discontinuity — I am throwing that all out the window to make the experience that I want, which is to show the reader new things as they read. 

JHA: What kind of conversations has this book opened up for you as an author with your audience? What kinds of reactions have you gotten to the book from readers? 

JW: One of the conversations that have opened up that I hone in on my school presentation is about the fact that I don’t feel particularly like a strong swimmer and yet I wrote a book about it anyway. It opens a conversation about what it means to have different perspectives on a topic, whether someone who has a lot of inside knowledge, or an outsider looking at it, and that’s just as valuable. And also what is the value of being an artist? So I talk about being someone in the arts — whether you‘re a writer, visual artist, or performer, you are going outside your comfort zone. Art is a way to express ideas going outside your medium, it’s a juncture point of the thing you do and the subject matter and often that will push you outside your comfort zone. You don’t need to have the specific experience in a book to connect with it. Someone who is experienced with the water might not change their mind, but someone who has been on a swim team for twenty years may have a different connection. And they all have their connections with the book. A lot of readers say the book hearkens back to some kind of nostalgia for a childhood spent swimming. 

JHA: What are you working on now? 

JW: I’ve finished working on All That Grows (Groundwood) coming out in March 2024. I’m currently working on illustrations for a picture book biography about YoYo Ma written by James Howe. A second book with Scholastic is planned.

JHA: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

JW: One of the things I was thinking about with the illustrations in Swim was specificity. I was floored by the wide reception for the book, and it made me think that as an author writing a first book in Canada, that’s interesting. Do people in other areas also have fish that jump out of the pond? I decided that by leaning into specificity, I’m not really saying to the reader, "This is what you will find when you go out into nature, but it’s worth going out into nature to see what you can find." Every inch is full of uniqueness and beauty, and that’s how I reconciled what I found. This is a book about my surroundings, and someone else might not have the same experience, and that’s why it was important to make the illustrations as specific as possible. That was one way of inspiring a reader to go into nature — it could have been made more general, but I didn’t go that route.

Julie Hakim Azzam

Calling Caldecott co-author Julie Hakim Azzam is the assistant director of the MFA program in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds a PhD in literary and cultrual studies, with a specialization in comparative contemporary postcolonial literature from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Southeast Asia. Her most recent work focuses on children's literature, stories about immigrants and refugees, and youth coping with disability.

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