Aniana del Mar knows how to keep a secret. At her papi’s insistence, Ani keeps her swim meets and the medals she wins hidden from her mami, who fears the water after a hurricane destroyed her home and killed her brother. So when Ani’s body starts to ache, her joints swelling and her limbs radiating with pain, it’s not a difficult decision for Ani to keep it all a secret in order to continue swimming.
But then one morning, Ani wakes up in so much pain that she cannot move, and her life changes irrevocably. To help her doctors understand what might be happening, Ani must reveal to them—and to her mami—the truth about swimming. After Ani is diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), she feels as though she’s losing her swim team, her ability to focus in school and her mami’s trust. She clings to her hope of getting back in the water, but how can she convince her family to let her swim again when all they seem to do is worry?
Characters with chronic pain are underrepresented in children’s literature, and in Aniana del Mar Jumps In, Dominican American debut author Jasminne Mendez offers a welcome addition to this small but growing group. The novel has many strengths, including Mendez’s excellent portrayal of Ani’s family and skillful juxtaposition of Ani’s religious mother with her more spiritual godmother, but it shines brightest in Mendez’s approach to writing about Ani’s JIA.
Ani’s initial realization that her aches aren’t typical, her choice to conceal her pain and the spiraling effects of that choice all offer realistic glimpses of what it’s like to deal with chronic illness at a young age. After her diagnosis, Ani struggles with the disconnect between how everyone around her treats her—as someone who is courageous but fragile—and the fact that she views herself as a girl who isn’t brave, but just “managing [her] life now.” Her realization that she’ll never be able to return to being “Old Ani” is reassuring and empowering. In a poem titled “New Ani,” she reflects, “New Ani knows that this is her body and she can / decide what to do with it. // New Ani is learning that she is strong enough, / like Galveston, to survive storm surges and sea sickness.”
Mendez conveys all of this through clever, accessible narrative verse. She makes creative use of added space between words, lines and letters (l i k e so), as well as capitalization (“DriBbLe CrOsSoVeR / SHOOT!”). Young readers will not only immediately recognize many of these techniques from their own text messages but also be able to easily replicate them within their own poetry. For those especially eager to try their hand, Mendez includes a short guide to the various poetic forms she employed.
Aniana del Mar Jumps In will be enjoyed by aspiring poets and readers who like moving novels in verse such as Jasmine Warga’s Other Words for Home and Andrea Beatriz Arango’s Iveliz Explains It All. It will strike an even deeper chord with any reader who, like Ani, has experienced chronic pain—even if they try not to let it show.