Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: SWIM TEAM by Johnnie Christmas
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Kate McCarron
Perfect for fans of NEW KID and GUTS, the graphic novel SWIM TEAM by Johnnie Christmas hits the mark. Although the focus of a Newbery is on the words, Johnnie Christmas does an amazing job of combining words and illustrations, making it a complete package. It’s hard not to immerse yourself in the beautiful illustrations and beautiful blue hues of the swimming pools.. It will have middle schoolers jumping right in!
The novel opens up with Bree’s move from Brooklyn to Florida. It is obvious that she and her dad have a comfortable, joking relationship. Readers will instantly relate to Bree’s worries about making new friends. It seems everyone in town is awash in the glory of the prestigious Holyoke school and its domination in competitive swimming. Bree finds instant friendship in Clara who helps her navigate the halls of a new public school. Of course, one is not surprised when the puzzle elective is filled and Bree must sign up for the dreaded Swim 101. Here is where her panic and anxiety come in. Bree grapples with her fear of swimming and must come clean with her friends that she cannot swim. I love how Christmas uses thought bubbles that are heavily outlined like cement to illustrate the weight of the self-doubt that Bree feels. Many kids will relate to feelings of anxiety and self-doubt.
In an exchange with Keisha and Tinsley it’s easy to root for Clara, Humberto and Bree as the private school girl berates everything from their school, their clothes and their swimming. Bree even is swaddled with the unfortunate nickname “Kiddie Pool.” However it’s not that clear cut and the water gets murky as they witness Keisha getting cut from the Holyoke team. Now they must accept her as their new teammate.
Although it seems as if the Manatees are in an impossible match versus Holyoke, one cannot discount the determination and support the team gets from their community. This is where Ms. Etta, a former swimmer and Bree’s neighbor plays an important part in teaching not only the mechanics of swimming but a real history lesson. She dispels the misconception that blacks cannot swim by highlighting the truth about discrimination that prevented blacks from using many pool facilities. As teammates bicker, you wonder if they are going to repeat history and let their differences stand in the way of success.
This book has you cheering for the underdog team! Graphic novel enthusiasts will be drawn to the cover but hopefully they will leave with what’s embedded in the pages-a lesson of integrity as well as a history lesson. It is never too late to do the right thing and stand up against injustice.
If you’ve ever had a fear of trying something new, this is a must read. Even if you’ve never dipped your toes in the water, this story of middle school friendships is for everyone. Johnnie Christmas writes from the heart as he too experienced a near drowning experience in his younger years. I hope to see more from Johnnie Christmas.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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