STARRED REVIEW
May 11, 2022

Swim Team

By Johnnie Christmas
This energetic, heartfelt graphic novel captures the joys and challenges of a sport that should be—but hasn’t always been—freely enjoyed by everyone.
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Bree, a middle school math enthusiast, has just moved to Palmetto Shores, Florida, with her dad so he can attend a technology training program. Bree’s friendship with her new neighbor Clara helps alleviate the nerves of attending a new school, but disaster strikes on the first day of classes: Nearly every elective, including the math puzzles course Bree had looked forward to, is full. Bree’s only option is Swim 101. The problem? Bree is scared of pools and doesn’t know how to swim.

It turns out that Palmetto Shores is utterly obsessed with swimming, from the fancy prep school that always wins the state championship, to the diner whose menu is full of pool puns (“Sea Biscuits,” “Orca Julius”), to Bree’s own Enith Brigitha Middle School, named after the woman who became the first Black athlete to win an Olympic medal in swimming. Bree’s new friends, Clara and Humberto, along with her neighbor Miss Etta, convince Bree to face her fears and learn to swim. When Bree turns out to have a natural talent for racing, she joins the swim team with Clara and begins to embrace the water, developing a passion for the way competing makes her feel. But faced with stiff competition from Holyoke Prep, mounting tension among the team and a busy schedule that prevents Bree’s dad from attending meets, Bree’s newfound love of swimming may fizzle as quickly as it sparked.

Featuring a countdown-to-competition plot, well-developed and relatable characters and expressive, inviting art, Swim Team delivers an energetic, heartfelt look at an exciting sport, as well as crucial context about its history. As Bree learns, racism and segregation directly impacted Black people’s access to public pools. Although this meant many Black people were denied the opportunity to learn to swim, it also created a stereotype—voiced by Bree herself at one point— that “Black people aren’t good at swimming.” While Swim Team includes a few minor inaccuracies that may be distracting to readers who swim competitively, its depiction of swimming’s joys and challenges is spot on.

Swimming is only part of the story. Author-illustrator Johnnie Christmas, best known for illustrating Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird graphic novels, creates an affectionate portrait of Bree and her friends, a group of kids who love their sport, long to win and get up to some funny hijinks along the way. Christmas conveys the enthusiasm that Bree and her teammates have for working hard, improving their abilities and supporting one another, excellently portraying the way that sports can serve as channels for personal growth and lasting relationships.

Swim Team captures the fun of an athletic endeavor that can—and should—be enjoyed by everyone.

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Swim Team

Swim Team

By Johnnie Christmas
HarperAlley
ISBN 9780063056763

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