Johnnie Christmas’ graphic novel Swim Team thrives on the themes of community, perseverance and overcoming fear

Bestselling author Johnnie Christmas has an interesting story about water. As a child, after an incident in which he nearly drowned, he had a fear of the water and a reluctance to learn to swim. It wasn’t until he began taking swimming lessons as an adult that his relationship with water began to change.

His latest book is the middle class graphic novel swim team. In it, a young black girl named Bree moves to Florida from Brooklyn and struggles to settle into her new school. Until she reluctantly ends up in the school swim club and discovers her love for water. Encouraged and mentored by Ms. Etta, a local former lifeguard, Bree learns important lessons about forgiveness, sisterhood, community, and perseverance.

The graphic novel is fun and light-hearted while addressing how historical and systemic forces like segregation and lack of access to swimming pools have impacted the ability of many black Americans to learn to swim.

Johnnie Christmas is a New York Times best-selling author and illustrator who grew up in Florida and currently resides in Vancouver. He is the creator of comics like fire bug, Protected and fishes. He is the illustrator of angel catbirda graphic novel series written by writer Margaret Atwood about a cat/bird/human superhero.

Christmas spoke to CBC Books about the writing swim team.

Pages from the Graphic Novel Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas. (HarperCollins)

A close thing

“When I was five years old, I almost drowned in a pool. And that stayed with me and has shaped my relationship with water ever since. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started taking swimming lessons.

“But at the time I thought it was my fault as a kid. I don’t build swimming pools – I don’t have access to them. Who controls access? Who decides in which neighborhoods to place swimming pools? Where I Lived Growing up – in Miami, Florida – it was out of my control.

“I wanted to write a book for young readers, who are probably in the same situation, because unfortunately, at least in the States, the approach isn’t what it should be.

When I was five years old, I almost drowned in a pool. And that stayed with me and has shaped my relationship with water ever since.

“I wanted to have something for those readers to reflect on themselves and potentially see that if they have access to a pool, there’s a road for them.”

access required

“If I and a lot of youngsters had access, it would just be another mechanical thing they do. When you learn to walk you don’t even remember when it happened because you had so much access to it that it was just something you do And when we were little kids we had access to swimming and you went with us all the time swim safer instruction, it’s just another thing you do.

I wanted to have that front and center in the book – that it’s not inherent that black people can’t swim – it’s a lack of access.

“But when you first hit a pool, it’s you [a child] without direction it could be disastrous the first time. I wanted to have that front and center in the book – that it’s not inherent that black people can’t swim – it’s a lack of access. And once we give our children and our adults and everyone in our community equal access, they will have the same level in the water.”

Pages from the Graphic Novel Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas. (HarperCollins)

Mentors wanted

“I wanted the relationship between Bree and Ms. Etta to be part of being a mentor – someone you could imagine – and also being a caring, historical information figure. When it starts, it’s something of a slightly annoying neighbor in the building. But she becomes very central to Bree because Dad isn’t working. And now you have Ms. Etta stepping in to sort of fill that gap in terms of parenting but also mentoring.

Growing up in black neighborhoods, there were always those black women who somehow held everything together.

“Ms. Etta is someone who believes in Bree while trying to figure it out. She’s that one person who’s as solid as a rock. Ms. Etta is one of my favorite characters because she is so interesting and has her own life. She’s also got her own problems that she’s trying to solve.

“But every time Bree looks at her, she’s the rock. And growing up in black neighborhoods, there were always those black women who kind of tie everything together. So she’s sort of a composite of so many people I knew growing up.”

Pages from the Graphic Novel Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas.
Pages from the Graphic Novel Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas. (HarperCollins)

The power of community

“I hope people think about the power of connectivity, perseverance, forgiveness and communication. I want people to know it’s never too late. If there’s something you don’t know how to do, you can learn it… When I was a kid, I thought people were good or bad at certain things. I didn’t realize that you could just get better at it if you worked at it. And I think I would have been a better student – I would have been a lot better at a lot of things if I had known that.

I hope people think about the power of connectivity, the power of perseverance, forgiveness and communication.

“So that’s one of the really big lessons of the book, where Bree’s like, ‘Oh, well — black people can’t swim,’ or ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ or ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ But she’s learning, and it’s hard.

“She fails at a lot of things, but she keeps trying – and little by little she gets a little bit better at it. And the next thing you know, she’s a lot better at it than when she started. The main thing I want to convey This perseverance and tenacity, but also the importance of community.

“One of the things I really wanted to emphasize throughout the book was the connection and how important that is and how it all comes undone when people lean forward instead of leaning in. And every time they lean forward, that’s where the solutions begin to happen.

“And that’s on all levels — whether it’s blood, family, a swim team, or a community.”

Johnnie Christmas’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.


For stories about black Canadians’ experiences, see CBC’s Being Black in Canada.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.