Review of When You Can Swim

When You Can Swim
by Jack Wong; illus. by the author
Primary    Orchard/Scholastic    48 pp.
5/23    9781338830965    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781338830989    $18.99

With poetic text and gorgeous, inclusive illustrations, Wong invites readers to learn how to swim — to conquer fear of the water, and also to reclaim aquatic spaces for Brown, Black, and differently abled bodies. We first meet a young Asian girl suited up in a rainbow-striped one-piece with goggles perched atop her head; a female caregiver tells her of all the wonderful things that can happen “when you can swim.” Then the book segues to scenes of such wonderful things: we see varied groups of people of all colors and ages and sizes in ponds, lakes, and oceans, and splashing under waterfalls. The culmination is a four-spread sequence showing a woman and child setting out from shore with bright orange swim buoys, heading to a little island that looks “close enough” but “proves farther at halfway.” Yet: “rising, floating, daring, conquering, we’ll make it.” Pastel and watercolor illustrations play with perspective, showing the world through swimmers’ eyes: looking at the trees while floating on their backs, diving into tea-colored waters. The afterword delves into the author’s journey to discover and reclaim swimming as a welcoming pastime for all. This isn’t just a book about swimming but also “about our ideas of the world”; it’s a manifesto that “this belongs to you, too.”

From the July/August 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Julie Hakim Azzam

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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