Coming Up for Air: A Johnnie Christmas Interview About the One and Only Swim Team
Seems to me that when a man has the name “Johnnie Christmas”, the very least you can do is conduct an interview with him. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, his debut graphic novel for kids SWIM TEAM will be hitting bookstore and library shelves everywhere. You may have heard of the book since it’s been getting praise from all corners. This story description comes to you directly from the publisher itself:
Bree can’t wait for her first day at her new middle school, Enith Brigitha, home to the Mighty Manatees—until she’s stuck with the only elective that fits her schedule, the dreaded Swim 101. The thought of swimming makes Bree more than a little queasy, yet she’s forced to dive headfirst into one of her greatest fears. Lucky for her, Etta, an elderly occupant of her apartment building and former swim team captain, is willing to help.
With Etta’s training and a lot of hard work, Bree suddenly finds her swim-crazed community counting on her to turn the school’s failing team around. But that’s easier said than done, especially when their rival, the prestigious Holyoke Prep, has everything they need to leave the Mighty Manatees in their wake.
Can Bree defy the odds and guide her team to a state championship, or have the Manatees swum their last lap—for good?
It seemed to me that there was a lot to unpack here. If you’re familiar with America’s history of sequestering people of color from pools of all sorts, then you’ll be happy to hear that this book is thoroughly intentional. But to see why, you’ll need to read our interview:
Betsy Bird: Johnnie! So good to see you here today! Let’s start off by getting a sense of where SWIM TEAM came from. How did you come to write the book?
Johnnie Christmas: Betsy, it’s so wonderful to talk to you! It came from when I was a kid and almost drowned in a pool. The experience forever shaped my relationship to swimming and being in the water. Over the years, I examined that early childhood experience through making comics about it, starting very autobiographically and then other versions came using fictional characters. One version even had fantasy elements! Those evolutions of the story were never released, but making them were very helpful in crafting the story that I have now.
BB: Though your book looks ostensibly like just a fun children’s comic about swimming, there are some serious historical issues being tackled here. I know that in my own town where I live right now the YMCA for the city’s Black residents was razed in the 1960s, thereby depriving a lot of the local Black population their primary method of getting swim lessons. Was the history of swimming, pools, and Black swimmers in your mind at all as you wrote the book?
JC: Absolutely! Unfortunately what happened in your town is not uncommon, all across the nation there is a lack of swimming pools in Black communities. It’s the root cause for why Black youngsters like Bree in SWIM TEAM and myself, don’t learn how to swim at an early age, making Black children far more likely than their white friends to drown in swimming pools. But SWIM TEAM suggests a way forward, Bree eventually gets access to a pool and a good teacher in the form of Ms. Etta. That plus good friends, who also swim and the fun of team sports and Bree’s entire relationship with swimming changes.
BB: The book starts right off with our main character, Bree, moving to Florida. Do you have any particular connection to that state yourself? Why set the book there?
JC: Oh yes, I grew up in Miami. Setting the book in Florida made it easier to tap childhood memories: The way the air smells or how the sun felt on my skin, put me where I needed to be to write the story. Florida has an elemental quality that I wanted to include in the book. It’s almost a character all its own.
BB: I must admit that seeing your name on a middle grade graphic novel gave me a strange sense of deja vu. I just knew I’d seen your name somewhere else. Lo and behold I remembered that I’d recently purchased a copy of your adult graphic novel CREMA for my library’s collection as well. Having been primarily a graphic novelist for an adult readership in the past, was it intuitive to make the shift to a younger readership or were some growing pains along the way?
JC: Firstly, thanks for getting a copy of CREMA for your library! As for the shift, it’s been both: intuitive and a learning process. As a kid, comics like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts made me want to write for young readers (who were actually my contemporaries, when I think of it, haha). So in a way I never lost the tools for making comics for that age group. Now adult comics, especially North American comics, are geared more to action or superheroes which requires a different sort of storytelling. Mostly the crescendo involves some kind of physical fight. I don’t think that’s a helpful message with comics for kids. So that requires building the story in a different way, non-violent conflicts and non-violent solutions. Which requires a different understanding of the characters.
BB: Final question for you now. Are more children’s books in your future? Children’s comics in particular? If not, what else are you working on?
JC: Certainly! I’m excited to make more comics for kids, it’s what I’m currently working on. There are so many stories I want to share!
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