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Water Dance



SWIMMERS, by María José Ferrada. Illustrated by Mariana Alcántara. Translated by Kit Maude.
THE SUMMER OF DIVING, by Sara Stridsberg. Illustrated by Sara Lundberg. Translated by B.J. Woodstein.
SWIM TEAM: Small Waves, Big Changes, by Johnnie Christmas.

“What do you think about when you think about swimming?” I asked this recently of a classroom of high school students, and though their answers ranged widely — “fun,” “a little bit of fear,” “family,” “summer” — one answer led the pack: “freedom.” I love that our human relationship with water spurs conversations about so much more.

Two new picture books and a graphic novel treat swimming as an expansive state of being, slippery with promise. They entice young readers of various ages to interact with the world in unconventional ways.

The idea for “Swimmers” began with charcoal, collage and fluorescent ink artwork by Mariana Alcántara, to which María José Ferrada added poetic fragments that tell a fanciful story about fish dreaming of becoming Olympic swimmers, and Olympic swimmers dreaming that they’re fish.

The story is nonlinear, but the form supports the idea that water is a place of play and possibility. The normal formal rules we live by don’t apply here — we see a clock half-submerged in a fishbowl, fish in swimsuits and swimmers with fins, indicating a fluid interplay between worlds.

“The fish all wake up at the same time, just when they’ve finished the 150-meter race. Even though it’s never a dream they want to wake up from, they aren’t sad. … It’s a dream that has been dreamed by fish since the world was the world and the sea was the sea, and it always will be.”

The ability to imagine that things can someday be different is critical for Zoe, the young girl at the center of “The Summer of Diving,” the second picture book from Sara Stridsberg, an acclaimed Swedish novelist and playwright.

The book opens with Zoe and her mother at the breakfast table one morning, rendered in the lush, color-saturated art of Sara Lundberg, winner of both the Swedish Book Award and the August Prize. Zoe’s father is suddenly, inexplicably missing: “A long time passes before I find out where he’s gone. Maybe everyone else has known all along.” The suspension of knowing stretches across the first few pages, poignantly evoking the all-too-common childhood feeling that no one tells you anything. The truth is revealed when mother and daughter arrive at a hospital to visit Zoe’s father, who is suffering from severe depression.

Zoe puzzles over the locked doors, the “angels” who watch over her father, the sadness that holds him down. Later, an intriguing woman named Sabina appears, wearing a red swimsuit under a blue bathrobe. “Shall we swim?” she asks Zoe.

No pool? No sea? No matter. Awash in imagination, she spins a globe. “Sabina has been in the World Championships in Toronto and one day she will swim across the Pacific Ocean.”

Days unspool into seasons, and Sabina becomes an unexpected angel for Zoe, who visits even when her father is too sad to see her. In the spring, Sabina and Zoe practice dives from a park bench and swim strokes in the grass.

It’s not clear what Sabina’s illness is, but sometimes Zoe watches her disappear: “She dives into another world. I wait until she comes back.” Zoe asks Sabina if her father will come back, too. “How would I know that? I’m not psychic, am I?” Sabina responds with characteristic bluntness. There are no easy answers. But the waiting is easier with a friend.

“When my dad finally comes, Sabina and I have swum around the world a few times,” Zoe tells us. “My dad is like the trees. In the winter he pretends to be dead. Then he is reborn in the summer.” Stridsberg’s child’s-eye view of mental illness conjures how young people explain gaps in knowledge, their openness to unlikely friendships, the vulnerability of a formative age — and what memories of it survive into adulthood.

Memory, both individual and collective, is vital to connecting multiple generations of “swim sisters” in “Swim Team,” a sparkler of a middle grade graphic novel from the comics creator Johnnie Christmas (best known for collaborating with Margaret Atwood on the “Angel Catbird” series and for his graphic-novel adaptation of William Gibson’s lost “Alien 3” screenplay). His latest protagonist, Bree, is navigating a move from New York to Florida, a change of school and her usually super-attentive single dad’s failure to show up for her ever since he started his time-consuming new job. When she finds out that the only elective still open at the new school is Swim 101, she must confront one of her biggest fears: water.

Etta, Bree’s elderly upstairs neighbor, is a former swim champion. After she rescues Bree from nearly drowning in their apartment complex’s pool, she teaches her to swim, and that’s just for starters.

Swimming is joyful, but what swimming looks like in America reflects the history of pools and beaches as white-dominated spaces of privilege and exclusion, especially for Black Americans. Christmas brings all this to rich life in Etta, whose complicated girlhood as a Black swimmer motivates Bree.

Enter the Enith Brigitha Manatees. Bree’s new school is named after the first Black woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming, and its swim team is the underdog battling a threatened pool closure and a snooty rival school’s team. Characters are drawn with warmth and personality — even villains contain multitudes.

Christmas writes from the heart. When he was young, he too survived a near drowning. Questions of belonging, ability, racial justice and who gets to swim are handled with thought and care. This is Christmas’s debut work for middle graders, but its nuanced storytelling and visual appeal will have outsize reach and meaning beyond this age group.

Growing up, I loved my swim team, and the lessons I took away from the experience — how to be a good teammate and citizen, how to make sure water buoys us all — stay with me. I love “Swim Team” for the same reasons. It took me a long time to figure out how to talk about the importance of being in a swim community with diverse bodies of all shapes and shades when I was a kid. I would have adored this book back then. I’m thrilled it’s here now.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim.” Her debut children’s book, “Sarah and the Big Wave: The True Story of the First Woman to Surf Mavericks,” was published last year.

SWIMMERS, by María José Ferrada | Illustrated by Mariana Alcántara | Translated by Kit Maude | 32 pp. | Tapioca Stories | $19.95 | Ages 6 to 9
THE SUMMER OF DIVING, by Sara Stridsberg | Illustrated by Sara Lundberg | Translated by B.J. Woodstein | 48 pp. | Triangle Square | $18.95 | Ages 5 to 8
SWIM TEAM: Small Waves, Big Changes, by Johnnie Christmas | 256 pp. | HarperAlley | Cloth, $21.99. Paper, $12.99. | Ages 8 to 12


Love, Absence and Loss, Filtered Through Philosophical Poems



This makes perfect sense, because in the Shaughnessy multiverse, everything contains everything else, or has that capacity. “There are no opposites,” the poet tells us. “There are only dimensions, relations, recurrence, series.” Elsewhere she says: “But nothing’s natural./And nothing’s unnatural either.” For Shaughnessy, the self is fluid, inquisitive, acquisitive and porous. “One person, that tangle of matter and energy, that bag of broken clocks dreaming of ness-ness, can never be only that one person nor the entirety of that person, but they can be more.”

If you had told me when I was in college that I could love a book of poetry that mentioned “the self” as frequently as this one does, I would have heaved a dictionary at your head. Yet Shaughnessy’s vibrant dives into the possibilities of that phrase invest it with multitudes. “I always wanted self/to be a magic scroll/the universe kept safe,” Shaughnessy writes. Me too. Maybe that’s why my younger self became irate when she felt poets were flinging the concept around lightly. Luckily, the self and its youthful prejudices can sometimes be revised.

Femaleness and iterations of feminism provide a framework for “Tanya.” The collection can be seen in part as a version of midlife stock-taking, via odes to women artists, mentors, lovers, frenemies and former selves. Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” Shaughnessy’s doing that here, tracing her own derivation and education through myriad mothers, stretching definitions of “mother” to include frictions, crushes, heartbreaks and inspirations that became part of her DNA.

No surprise then, given all this permeability and interpenetration, that boundaries, outlines and doors, those would-be enclosers and barriers, occur frequently in these poems. Shaughnessy asks whether artists have the right “to weigh and lay/to rest the question of half, of division, of border, of definition, of edge?” Elsewhere, in one poem she describes a ballerina as crossing “the strange wide water/between flower and force.” The beauty and economy of that line called up for me an image of the dancer bridging a riverlike division between delicacy and power, embodying both.

The book ends with the “long, careening” title poem, a 43-page surge that feels like high tide after the rising ocean that precedes it. (Structurally, this is similar to the way the last and title poem in Shaughnessy’s earlier book “Our Andromeda” becomes a crescendo, rallying and deepening the collection’s concerns.)

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And You Thought Your Family Had Problems



Indeed, one questions the motivations of a woman who casually relays to her brood over spare ribs and scallion pancakes that her late father was in fact a Black man. Sandy has always known, though he presumed she might spend a lifetime explaining away her kinky hair and olive skin: “Who knew that instead she would carry those facts like a suicide vest into a Chinese restaurant on Amsterdam and 69th? On Christmas Day, no less, the year’s strangest day for Jews, no less for him, a former celebrant.”

A fiercely unapologetic Naomi dismisses her own disclosure out of hand as “an asterisk.” In Row’s studied 2014 satire “Your Face in Mine,” white characters gladly volunteered for “racial reassignment surgery”; for Bering, though, the news is shattering, a core truth of her selfhood cruelly withheld.

By then she has already begun and ended a sexual relationship with her brother — a bombshell the book returns to intermittently as it bobs and weaves between other fraught narratives: Patrick’s post-collegiate spiritual quest in Nepal and monastic self-exile to Berlin; Winter’s struggles as an immigration lawyer in Trump’s circa-2018 America and the looming deportation threat against her Mexican-born fiancé; Sandy’s emotional reckonings and Naomi’s fresh romance.

Looming over them all is the novel itself, an anthropomorphized thing that serves alternately as spirit guide, secret architect and scamp — one that Row both engages with and interrogates, like a recalcitrant pet. “Suddenly, the novel wants to say. Suddenly something happened,” he writes, on the occasion of one startling revelation. “The novel opens its hand. Let me shock you, let me embarrass you. Cover your eyes, cover your mouth. Turn the music up.”

And the music here is very much turned up, a symphonic chorus that can be undeniably stimulating but also wearing. Can’t the Wilcoxes ever catch a break? Or, one wonders, do they want to? Likability might be for the lazy, but this family eschews it to an almost heroic degree: They are strident and congenitally stubborn, hamstrung by grievances and wounds they can’t or won’t close.

Even from the grave, Bering — her Hotmail drafts folder becomes a primary posthumous source for the text — remains something of a prickly enigma: a mercurial girl too scantly explored to really be known before she’s gone (though her journey allows Row to paint a deft, vivid sketch of the quagmire that is Palestine and Israel). The incest subplot feels like gilding an already rococo lily, the pure shock of it never entirely earned or explained, and Row’s heady prose occasionally tips into lit-major bombast, his paragraphs dappled with references to Barthes or Borges.

It can be delightfully tactile though, too: TV makeup is troweled on, “the consistency of hummus”; root vegetables lie in a crisper, “the warty stepchildren of the vegetable kingdom.” This is a book of warty, messy things, intractable and strange — but stumbling, maybe, toward a state of grace.

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Welcome to Immortality. Your Body Can’t Come With You.



The novel is set circa 2030. In America, the authoritarian right has jettisoned democracy, surveillance drones sweep the sky, deportation officers in skull masks patrol the subways, Florida has been nearly wiped out by tsunamis, there is talk of cannibals and doomsday cults running amok and … whatever. This critic feels as if he’s perpetually wandering, lately, through a mall bookstore called Dystopias R Us. The bookstore has locked its doors and will not let him out. Aiieeee!

Kalfar’s dystopia feels thirdhand. Happily, he has other things to work with. His heroine, Adela Slavikova, lives in a Czech village. On the novel’s first page, she learns she has not long, perhaps a year, to live. Her doctor, “a great poet of the macabre,” doesn’t give her the option of denial. He is determined to tell her exactly how awful it’s going to be: “crumbling bones, renal failure, death by brain bleed or fungal infection.”

Not long after, Adela is drunk on box wine in her bathroom, sliding off the toilet, as one does, when a carp she is keeping in the tub begins to speak to her. “Find your daughter, go, go now,” it says. “Idiot. Your destiny awaits in the New World.”

Adela gave a daughter up for adoption at birth, and she decides to go to America — the world according to carp — to find her. Kalfar’s inventiveness rolls as if on wheels. Adela flies on an ultra-budget airline where the seats have no cushions, each passenger is limited to one cup of water and you have to pay in cash to use the toilet. In New York, at MoMA, she sees a life-size hologram of Vincent van Gogh pop up and chastise a boy for touching a painting.

There’s a slight tentativeness to Kalfar’s written English (he was born in the Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at 15) that endears his protagonists, and renders them believable. He makes a virtue of a limitation. He has a Kurt Vonnegut-like satirical touch, at his best, as well as Vonnegut’s interest in science. He also has an old-world melancholy, beneath the humor, that will put some readers in mind of writers like Mordecai Richler and Jerzy Kosinski.

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