In When You Can Swim, readers explore the joys of swimming in various bodies of water—oceans, ponds, lakes, rivers and more—in a text set primarily in conditional statements (the “when you can swim” of the title), as spoken by a parent to a child. This phrase is a refrain that conveys the abundant possibilities and delights of moving in the water: the “clinking / of waves passing in and out / of a million pebbles,” the ripples on a pond, the whitecaps on a river, “the smoke on the lake” and much more.
In Jack Wong’s breathtaking watery landscapes, strong currents surge beneath “rushing waterfalls,” and sunlight shimmers on ocean waves and the surface of a river. Text and illustrations merge seamlessly to illuminate the ways in which swimming animates all the senses, and Wong writes with beguiling lyricism and figurative language: “When you can swim, / you’ll reach landscapes as foreign as the moon / no spaceship required / except the craters are squishy and filled with reeds / ready to swallow loose sandals / but like good explorers, we’ll leave only footprints.”
Wong’s playful perspectives are captivating. In one spread, from the perspective of lying on our backs in the water, we see “treetops drift by” and a dragonfly buzz near. In another, we turn the book for a stunning vertically oriented image of two girls who dive down after breaking the surface of a lake. A rich apricot-colored light adorns the top of the spread with darkness below, and Wong describes “tannin-soaked lakes / pitch dark from tree bark / like oversteeped tea.” The book’s ending features the same child in the book’s opening, ready to take swimming lessons at a public pool.
An appended note from Wong, striking in its tenderness, explains his hesitancy as “an immigrant kid” in Canada to swim at public pools and his desire to tell a story with “differently colored characters” because “representation is power”—a point he makes incisively and beautifully in this splendid picture book.