Swim Team: Small Waves, Big Changes by Johnnie Christmas

SWIMMERS, by Maria Jose Ferrada. Illustrated by Mariana Alcántara. Translated by Kit Maude.
THE SUMMER OF DIVING, by Sara Stridsberg. Illustrated by Sara Lundberg. Translated by BJ Woodstein.
SWIM TEAM: Small Waves, Big Changes, by Johnnie Noel.


“What do you think of when you think of swimming?” I recently posed this question to a class of high school students, and although their answers varied widely – “fun”, “a little scary”, “family”, “summer” – one answer led the pack: “ freedom”. I love that our human relationship with water sparks conversations about so much more.

Two new picture books and a graphic novel discuss swimming as an expansive, slippery, and hopeful state of being. They inspire young readers of different ages to interact with the world in unconventional ways.

The idea for “Swimmers” was born from a work of art in charcoal, collage and fluorescent ink by Mariana Alcántara, to which María José Ferrada added poetic fragments that tell a whimsical story about dreaming fish to become Olympic swimmers and Olympic swimmers dreaming that they are fish.

The story is not linear, but the form supports the idea that water is a place of play and possibility. The normal formal rules we live by don’t apply here – we see a half-submerged clock in a fishbowl, fish in bathing suits, and swimmers with flippers, indicating a fluid interaction between the worlds.

“The fish all wake up at the same time, just when they have finished the 150 meter race. Even though it’s never a dream they want to wake up from, they aren’t sad. … It’s a dream that was dreamed by the fish since the world was the world and the sea was the sea, and it always will be.

The ability to imagine that things can one day be different is essential for Zoe, the young girl at the center of “The Summer of Diving”, the second picture book by Sara Stridsberg, an acclaimed Swedish novelist and playwright.

The book opens with Zoe and her mother at the breakfast table one morning, rendered in the lush, color-saturated art of Sara Lundberg, winner of the Swedish Book Prize and August Prize. Zoe’s father is suddenly, inexplicably missing: “It’s been a long time before I know where he’s gone. Maybe everyone knows that from the start. The suspension of knowledge spans the opening pages, poignantly evoking the all-too-common childhood sentiment that nobody tells you anything. The truth is revealed when mother and daughter arrive at the hospital to visit Zoe’s father, who is suffering from severe depression.

Zoé wonders about the locked doors, the “angels” watching over her father, the sadness that holds him back. Later, an intriguing woman named Sabina appears, wearing a red bathing suit under a blue bathrobe. “Are we going swimming? she asks Zoe.

No swimming pool? No sea? No matter. Flooded with imagination, she spins a globe. “Sabina competed at the World Championships in Toronto and one day she will swim across the Pacific Ocean.”

Days unfold into seasons, and Sabina becomes an unexpected angel to Zoe, who visits her even when her father is too sad to see her. In the spring, Sabina and Zoe practice diving from a park bench and swimming in the grass.

We don’t know what Sabina’s illness is, but sometimes Zoé watches her disappear: “She plunges into another world. I’m waiting for her to come back. Zoe asks Sabina if her father will be back too. “How could I know? I’m not a medium, am I? Sabina responds with characteristic frankness. There are no easy answers. But the wait is easier with a friend.

“When my dad finally arrived, Sabina and I swam around the world several times,” Zoe tells us. “My father is like the trees. In winter, he pretends to be dead. Then it is reborn in summer. Stridsberg’s childhood view of mental illness touches on how young people explain gaps in knowledge, their openness to unlikely friendships, the vulnerability of a formative age – and what memories of it survive into adulthood. .

Memory, both individual and collective, is key to connecting multiple generations of “sister swimmers” in “Swim Team,” a spark of a mid-level graphic novel by comic book creator Johnnie Christmas (best known for his collaboration with Margaret Atwood on the “Angel Catbird” Series and for its graphic novel adaptation of William Gibson’s lost “Alien 3” screenplay). Its latest protagonist, Bree, navigates a move from New York to Florida, a change of schools, and the failure of her usually super-attentive single father to show up for her since he started his time-consuming new job. When she discovers that the only elective still open at the new school is Swimming 101, she must face one of her greatest fears: water.

Etta, Bree’s elderly neighbor upstairs, is a former champion swimmer. After saving Bree from drowning in their apartment complex’s pool, she teaches her how to swim, and that’s only just getting started.

Swimming is joyous, but what swimming is like in America reflects the history of pools and beaches as white-dominated spaces of privilege and exclusion, especially for black Americans. Christmas brings it all to the rich life of Etta, whose complicated childhood as a black swimmer motivates Bree.

Enter the Enith Brigitha Manatees. Bree’s new school is named after the first black woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming, and her swim team is the underdog fighting a threatened pool closure and the team of an arrogant rival school. The characters are drawn with warmth and personality – even the villains contain multitudes.

Christmas written with the heart. When he was young, he too survived a near drowning. Issues of belonging, ability, racial justice and who can swim are handled with thought and care. This is the first work of Christmas for middle school students, but its nuanced storytelling and visual appeal will have outsized reach and significance beyond this age group.

Growing up, I loved my swim team and the lessons I learned from the experience – how to be a good teammate and a good citizen, how to make sure the water supports us all – stay with me. I love “swimming team” for the same reasons. It took me a long time to figure out how to talk about the importance of being in a swimming community with diverse bodies of all shapes and shades when I was a kid. I would have loved this book at the time. I’m glad he’s here now.


Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim”. Her first children’s book, “Sarah and the Great Wave: The True Story of the First Woman to Surf the Mavericks”, was published last year.


SWIMMERS, by Maria Jose Ferrada | Illustrated by Mariana Alcántara | Translated by Kit Maude | 32 pages | Tapioca Stories | $19.95 | 6 to 9 years old
THE SUMMER OF DIVING, by Sara Stridsberg | Illustrated by Sara Lundberg | Translated by BJ Woodstein | 48 pages | Square Triangular | $18.95 | 5 to 8 years old
SWIM TEAM: Small Waves, Big Changes, by Johnnie Christmas | 256 pages | Harper Alley | Cloth, $21.99. Paper, $12.99. | 8 to 12 years old

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