black history, black lives, history, middle grade, social-emotional

Middle Grade Must-Reads: Swim Team

Swim Team (HarperAlley)
Written & Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas

For ages: 8-12
The story of how white supremacy erased beautiful cities has been shielded from white people’s view for at least a generation or two since it happened. Only in the last year have I learned that many cities across the country used to have public swimming facilities and even public amusement parks with rides. Where did these places go? When segregation was finally ruled unconstitutional, and these places were opened up to Black families, only then did the municipal leaders decide to shutter and demolish them. Now, most American suburbs and small towns have an absence of places for young people to play safely. I know the small Southern town I come from has nothing for the youth and plenty of drug problems caused by this cancerous boredom. How foolish that some white people should be filled with so much hate that they would torpedo their own children’s & grandchildren’s enjoyment of public spaces. 

Bree has just moved from Brooklyn to Florida with her dad. She is excited to see what new opportunities await them in their new home. She is eager to join some Math extracurriculars as that is her passion but finds she’s too late. All the spots are full. The counselor enrolls her in a swimming class which does not sit well with Bree. Firstly, she doesn’t know how to swim. And she also struggles with negative thoughts & anxiety that can overwhelm her. An older neighbor, Black, like Bree and her father, begins to notice the little girl and takes her under her wing. This older woman was a great swimmer in school and wants to ensure Bree does her best. Along the way, new friends are found, those friendships are challenged, fears are conquered, and we get a little history lesson on why the stereotype of “Black people can’t swim” was perpetuated via the reasons in the paragraph above.

Swim Team is an excellent graphic novel that has already proven extremely popular among the intended age group. It’s everything that the comic book form should be. Currently, the major comic book publishers of DC and Marvel can’t wrap their heads around the growing middle-grade & young-adult markets. DC does a little better with a line of books aimed at younger readers, but Marvel can’t seem to get there. Looking at the best-selling middle-grade books of the last few years, the top sellers are consistently graphic novels. For a long time, comic books were looked down on, but books like Swim Team are just as challenging and beautifully written as any prose-only novel. The themes woven throughout the book touch on timeless ideas that help children develop as thinkers & good people. 

Author/illustrator Johnnie Christmas has given us such a fantastic protagonist in Bree. She is not an unrealistic portrayal of a middle schooler but a complex figure. Christmas does a tremendous job visually communicating how negative thoughts overwhelm the girl, showing her becoming increasingly cramped within panels as the words close in. But her triumphs are just as beautifully presented, letting the exuberance of Bree overcoming an obstacle leap off the page. There are great lessons here about preserving friendship while ensuring everyone is respected for who they are. If your students still need to discover this fantastic book, you have an extraordinary opportunity to introduce them to it.

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