There are major changes happening in Bree’s life. She and her dad are moving to Florida, where he’ll be doing double duty in a training program and as a delivery driver. She’s leaving her whole life in Brooklyn behind, but hey, maybe she’ll see a gator or manatee around her new home. Their move kicks off Swim Team, by Johnnie Christmas, a middle grade graphic novel about facing your biggest fears and the strength that can come with changes.
Bree can’t wait to start at Enith Brigitha Middle School, named after the first Black woman to medal in swimming in the Olympics. Swimming seems to be a pretty big deal all over this new town. Even the diner has swimming themed names for their dishes! But for Bree, it’s not even an option. She’s ready to join the Math Club and take the Math Puzzles elective, two things she adores.
Until Bree finds out that Math Puzzles is full, along with every other elective she’s interested in. The only one left with space is. . . Swim 101. There are no puzzles in swimming! Just the thought of going near a pool fills her with dread. Plus, that annoying voice in her head keeps popping up to remind her that she’s doomed, it’s her fault she can’t swim, and maybe she should just hide in the locker room.
When Bree falls into their apartment complex’s pool, Ms. Etta, her neighbor and fellow puzzle lover, rescues her and offers to help her conquer her fear of the water, setting off a chain of events that kick the story into full gear. Can Bree overcome her fear of the water and make it onto the team? Will the Mighty Manatees finally beat their rivals, Holyoke Prep, and go all the way?
Throughout the book, Ms. Etta shares swimming history with Bree. Eventually, Bree admits she’s nervous because, “Black people aren’t good at swimming.” Using the ongoing metaphor of puzzles, Ms. Etta puts the history of Black swimming in America together. She explains the years of racist segregation laws limiting and preventing Black people from using pools, beaches, and other recreational facilities, as well as the violence committed by white people against Black people for using these public spaces. Together, the puzzle pieces slowly come together, but not without Ms. Etta acknowledging there are still problems faced today with swimming continuing to be inaccessible and the need for it to be more diverse.
Swim Team is full of characters with realistic, distinctive personalities, including the group of swimming bullies from Holyoke Prep and the many adults in Bree’s life. Every character we’re introduced to is more than just what they initially appear. Readers will find someone to relate to and find themselves cheering for Bree and the rest of the team. To extend the metaphor, by the book’s end, all the pieces fall into their right spot and multiple puzzles are solved.
The art is colorful and highly detailed. One particular highlight is the dark clouds that surround Bree when she is anxious, her worst fears coming alive around her. These overpower the pages, much like these thoughts do for anyone dealing with anxiety and fear on their own. The swimming scenes are another highlight of the art, as well as the frequent puzzle imagery.
Readers will find themselves rooting for Bree and might even walk away with a newfound interest in swimming themselves. If you know a reader who loved New Kid looking for their next poolside read, Swim Team is right up their lane.
By Johnnie Christmas
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 8 to 12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Black
Character Representation: Black, Anxiety