Today I get to share a stunning author-illustrator debut picture book with you. Just wait until you take a peek inside!
Jack Wong (黃雋喬) was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. In 2010, he left behind a life as a bridge engineer to pursue his Bachelor of Fine Arts at NSCAD University (Halifax, Canada), where he now lives with his wife and two cats. You can learn more about him at his website or follow him on Instagram or Twitter.
WHEN YOU CAN SWIM is a gorgeous picture book all about swimming everywhere you could possibly swim: lakes, rivers, ocean, and pools. It’s written in 2nd person point of view, addresses potential fears of swimming in the wild, and shares the joys and wonders of swimming in a variety of settings. The illustrations are gorgeous and capture a variety of angles that will keep every reader fascinated as they turn from page to page (and you’ll see what I mean in just a minute). Trust me when I say, this isn’t a book you will want to miss!
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that bring you to writing and illustrating this book?
Jack: I’ve been drawing and writing for as long as I can remember—but because I was also proficient at math and science, I was steered towards a more technical field. I completed a degree in engineering and briefly worked in the field, before my love of art came calling again… and even then, I went to art school, stayed at the university as a researcher, started a bicycle repair shop, and had a stint as an office administrator at a construction company, before finally taking the leap into writing and illustrating. It was the long road, but for what it’s worth I think it was an invaluable one. For one thing, I find that most author/illustrators in the picture book space identify more strongly with either illustrating or writing—they came by PBs via one route, and often downplay or even delegitimize their (often equally amazing) skills on the other side—but I actually identify 50/50 as a writer and an illustrator! I have my diverse occupational history to thank for that, since I tend to feel comfortable with not being any one thing in particular.
Me: That’s amazing. You have a lot of different styles and use a lot of different mediums. Can you talk about your art process for this book? Did you use traditional media or digital, or a blend of both? What made you decide to use this medium for this book?
Jack: I do work in a range of styles—my next book involves digital collage! For me, each project will hinge on certain needs that dictate style and medium, almost as if by process of elimination. I felt that When You Can Swim needed a material approach that allowed each page to be completely its own thing—for example, an underwater view of a tannin-soaked lake needed to be dark, while smoke on the water needed to be light and airy—and a combination of pastel, watercolour, and toned paper was what allowed me to cover that spectrum. That combo was new to me, and all of a sudden I had more than one way to achieve any given visual effect, so one of the frustrations in the process was actually having to redraw a spread multiple times in different material configurations, because I couldn’t envision in advance whether, for instance, the blue of the sky ought to be in pastel or paint.
Me: But the end result is stunning! I love the way you’ve combined a variety of natural settings, a variety of characters, and learning to swim. What gave you the idea for this story?
Jack: Thank you! I think the variety and synthesis you’re pointing to came about organically. The book didn’t even start out being about swimming(!)—I was just collecting random visual ideas and fragments of text whenever I was camping or hiking in nature, when a story about swimming evolved out of my journal. When I came to that realization, I actually felt like an imposter—who am I to write about that, when I’m not even that comfortable with swimming myself! In hindsight, I appreciate that it’s because of my particular point of view that the book embodies the dual trepidation and excitement of standing at the water’s edge; someone who’s a fish in water could equally write a book about swimming, but it wouldn’t be the same one.
I’m proud of the book for its emphasis on equity and representation—but I think it’s important to share that this too wasn’t a predetermined goal. Initially, I just felt that drawing the same characters over and over would be a boring creative choice when the environments around them were so rich and diverse. But as soon as I decided to introduce different characters for each scene, the question of who to depict followed suit—which led to new questions and learning opportunities that I couldn’t have anticipated, like speaking with several amputees (their terminology) about the practicalities they consider when wearing a prosthetic into a lake.
Me: What an incredible opportunity. I am blown away by the text in this story. It’s almost poetry! It’s a beautiful love song to the forces of nature found in and around water that reminded me of a haiku-like approach. Was this story always this tight? Or did it become this polished through many revisions with your critique group, etc.?
Jack: To answer your question honestly, I went back to the first drafts—and I have to say a lot of the text was already formed in my journal, before it even reached the word processor! All credit, however, goes to the special experience and true privilege of writing it in nature over time.
There were some evolutions though. My wonderful critique partner Sara gave the manuscript its first eagle-eyed edit, but will forever miss the stanza I nixed about little lobsters basking in the shallows (so I’m immortalizing it here in her honour). The order of stanzas also changed when I realized that I could create a slow buildup from the more relaxed swimming scenes to the more intense ones. Finally, after some sound advice about pacing from author Shauntay Grant, I extended the climactic scene into a series of verbs—“rising, floating, daring” etc.—which are all actions featured in previous spreads. I’m proud of this edit because I wanted to hint at the notion that all the experiences and skills gained on the other pages contribute to successfully tackling the biggest swim of the book—but I also wanted it to be subtle enough that it’s not the whole point of the story. We already have so much linear goal-oriented thinking and language in our lives, and kids don’t need more of that in their faces.
Me: I love that! You are both the author and the illustrator of this wonderful story. The illustrations are every bit as stunning as the text. This is an incredible debut picture book. What was harder, the writing or the illustrating of it? Why?
Jack: Thank you! I mentioned above that I identify 50/50 as author/illustrator, but illustrating was definitely the more intensive part of this project. Part of the reason was that I had more or less finalized the text at my leisure before submitting it to publishers, while the illustrating work happened after acquisition and was my first go at completing a book on a timeline and figuring out how long each step of the process needed (spoiler alert: it’s always more than you think). I also had so much to learn on-the-job, from digitizing the images properly to managing crises of confidence! I want to thank my art directors, Patti Anni Harris for her oracle-like wisdom, and Doan Buu for guiding me through every last step of the process.
Me: In your back matter, you mentioned several fears around swimming. You also mentioned the appropriate safety precautions to take in each environment as you researched. Yet your love of swimming and the water shines through here so wonderfully. Do you now love to swim as well? If so, was it one moment in time that changed your opinion of swimming?
Jack: I’m still kind of afraid of swimming—I think it’s a healthy fear, to be wary of open waters! However, my hesitations around swimming as a child had to do with things other than just the water, including being a Chinese kid among mostly white classmates (at least when we first moved to Canada) which contributed to a lot of anxiety around being singled out for body differences. There wasn’t a single moment when my opinion changed, but in my adulthood I moved to Nova Scotia (on the east coast of Canada), where swimming outdoors is such a popular pastime—and I learned to love interacting with the water in a way that wasn’t mediated within a confined social setting. So now, as much as the water still makes me uncomfortable, the thrill and magic of it keeps me going back for more.
Me: Yes! Any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Jack: Try not to write with an agenda. If the process for When You Can Swim is any indication (it certainly taught me a lot, upon reflection!), a book can start as just a series of sensory details, or an anecdotal event, without a message already worn on its sleeve… those ideas and themes can grow and become integral to the story, even if it didn’t come to you from the get-go. I do worry about seeing writing that feels strongly like it was agenda-first, rather than from a place of discovery.
That is such great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Jack.
Dear readers, this book was just released into the world this week. It’s a glorious exploration of the nature of water, the fear (or respect) of swimming in the wild, and all the joys and excitements that come from first learning to swim. The text and the illustrations both are exuberant and somehow manage to contain the zen I feel every time I enter the ocean to swim myself. Don’t miss this one!