The Backstory: WHEN YOU CAN SWIM
I am happy to welcome author and illustrator, Jack Wong to The Backstory today. Jack is here to share the inspiration behind his book, WHEN YOU CAN SWIM (Scholastic, 2023). Jack's poetic voice paired with his beautiful illustrations flow together to create a book about swimming and so much more. Keep reading to learn more and for your chance to win a signed copy.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind WHEN YOU CAN SWIM.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
When the reader opens up WHEN YOU CAN SWIM, they’ll find text and imagery that paint scene after scene of swimming in nature—all being conjured up for a young child who’s hesitant about embarking upon their first swim lesson. In my mind, the book is about a lot of things: swimming, of course, but also courage, family, togetherness, and lifting each other up in our communities (of which, encouraging each other to swim is only one example). It’s also about appreciating nature, about trying to capture its beauty with art and poetry.
I don't know what is more beautiful, the poetic language, breathtaking illustrations, or meaningful messages. You have delivered on all fronts and I can't wait to share this with students, teachers, and all of my writing friends.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
I didn’t set out to write a book about swimming! I’m not actually a strong or avid swimmer, though when every summer rolls around, I’m keen to take a few dips in good weather. WHEN YOU CAN SWIM began as just sketches or notes I took over a season of camping, hiking, and swimming outdoors, and when I looked back wistfully at these jottings in autumn, a number of ideas about water floated to the surface, so to speak. Several lines in the book, like “the clinking of waves passing in and out of a million pebbles,” were actually taken verbatim from those original notes.
That is wonderful how reflecting on and revisiting previous doodles and scribblings allowed this idea to reveal itself to you.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now WHEN YOU CAN SWIM? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
I’ve answered this question to the best of my recollection several times for other interviews, but just for The Backstory(!), I dug deeper into my records—I found one Word document entitled “The Summer We Swam,” supposedly the original working title, which contains a list of framing devices for organizing the raw imagery I had captured in nature. It appears that the idea of someone who is reticent to swim (which you see in the final book) was there from the beginning, but I also had an alternate outline that starts with the words, “My cousin came to spend the summer.” It proceeds with a dialogue between two kids, both of whom love to be outdoors, but one likes to be very active, while the other prefers to draw in their sketchbook on the sidelines (an autobiography, you could say!)
I greatly appreciate the deep dive you did on our behalf. I often think about published stories and the infinite directions they could have gone in. It is fascinating to hear your take on this for WHEN YOU CAN SWIM and one of those possible alternate paths.
Did WHEN YOU CAN SWIM undergo any major changes/revisions from the original version? If so, what led you to make these changes?
The different versions just mentioned were, nonetheless, just the framing—the meat of the manuscript was really the poetic language that built off of direct observation from nature, and that came to me pretty quickly at the start and stayed fairly intact throughout.
Two notable revisions came thanks to 1) my wonderful critique partner and fellow author, Sara Graybeal, who was the first to really see WHEN YOU CAN SWIM as a poem and encourage me to push it in that direction, removing extraneous words until the text was down to its essentials, and 2) author-mentor Shauntay Grant, who had some great notes for pacing which led me to extend the climactic moment over several pages.
Thank goodness for critique partners and mentors! Their ability to help us see the heart and potential of our stories while also pushing us to stretch our craft is priceless.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
Being out in nature, for one! But in general, just being in that semi-autopilot brain mode, whether in the shower, in the car (I’m a good driver, I promise), playing basketball or, often, during the sometimes tedious task of illustrating. I’ll typically work on a story in my head for a while, or jot down fragments in a sketchbook or a text/email to myself, before I actually sit down with those ideas and try to work them into manuscript form. Wrangling fragments of ideas into a working story is the part I dread, and since I’m not a very disciplined writer, I usually put that off for quite a long time!
The swirling of ideas in our subconscious is a magical thing and a fruitful place to mine ideas as long as we can learn to spot them and capture them. I know all of us have had those ideas we were sure we would remember, but inevitably that slipped away.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
Any book I come across that doesn’t fit the mold, doesn’t follow the template. For a while now, I’ve kept Kitty Crowther’s STORIES OF THE NIGHT (published 2018) on my bedside table. It’s a book of three short fairytale-style stories, but none of them have any antagonists in them (even though Crowther works a bit of sleight-of-hand to momentarily make you think there is, before upending your assumptions and, therefore, your biases). I almost read this as, like, a book refusing to harbour conflict amidst the Trump-era political climate. It showed how radical a children’s book can truly be (and not just radical in the sense of wearing radical statements on its sleeve), and that’s the kind of writing I strive for, in my own way.
I love this take on inspirational stories! I think many authors and illustrators are hoping to create something unique and the idea of studying those rule-breakers so to speak, not to emulate but to be inspired and motivated by, is a great concept.
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
My writing workspace is, again, any place where my brain goes daydreaming (the kitchen is another one, and I also promise I haven’t cut the tip off my finger in the process!) When I do get to formal work, it’s just on a computer, and anywhere quiet can potentially work (although many times it still doesn’t work).
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Try looking at anything other than picture books! Of course, an aspiring writer should definitely undergo a period of really studying and appreciating the form they’re working in, but after that, it’s good to forget about the specifics. Art is, for the most part, a novel synthesis of existing ideas (the old biblical adage “there’s nothing new under the sun”), so if you’re mainly looking to be inspired by other picture books, you’re working from a limited pool of ideas to fuse together. Obviously, we all already consume other mediums—from fine art and theater to TV and magazines—so the only distinction I’m making here is to not forget that whatever artistry you see in other places is ripe for bringing into your own work.
That is amazing advice that I hadn't really considered before. The rationale that other mediums and genres hold the potential to spark new and different ideas than what currently exists in the picture book realm is inspiring to me.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
I just got back from two weeks of school tours in support of WHEN YOU CAN SWIM—and I’m hooked on speaking with young audiences! I found it to be some of the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done, striving to be the best version of myself in every interaction with a child and seeing the impact I’m making in real-time. So I’ll soon have a page on my website (www.jackwong.ca) where librarians & educators can find more info about speaking gig offerings!
How lucky are those kids to have you to inspire them! I hope our readers will pass along your information to their schools and librarians to help you continue this wonderful work.
Projects-wise, my next two books already off to the presses are THE WORDS WE SHARE (October 2023, Annick Press) and ALL THAT GROWS (Spring 2024, Groundwood). My work in the studio this summer is illustrating a picture book biography of acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma (written by beloved author James Howe—what an honour!—and published by Abrams Books for Young Readers).
Yay for more books! I am thrilled that we can already expect more work from you. I will be marking my calendar so I don't miss any of them.
Where can people connect more with you?
I’m on Twitter and Instagram (my handle on both platforms is @jacquillo_), but also, feel free to just shoot me an email via my website, www.jackwong.ca!
Readers, please give Jack a follow on social media and take a peek at his website. And while you are at it, check out WHEN YOU CAN SWIM (Scholastic, 2023). The lyricism and gorgeous illustrations will not disappoint.
Jack, thank you so much for joining us and sharing the story behind WHEN YOU CAN SWIM as well as giving us a glimpse into your creative process. You have created something truly beautiful and I am happy to play a small part in spreading the word about it.
Jack is generously offering one winner a signed copy of WHEN YOU CAN SWIM. (US & Canada only)
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT JACK WONG
Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, Jack Wong (黃雋喬) now calls Halifax (Canada) home, where he works as a children’s author/illustrator. A self-declared actual Jack-of-all-trades, he’s also tried his hand at bridge engineering, psychology research, bookkeeping, and running his own bicycle repair shop—a real education for creating children’s books, if you ask him! Through a diverse range of stories, he seeks to share his hodgepodge journey with young readers, so that they may embrace the unique amalgams of experiences that make up their own lives.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a teacher by day, parent by night, and writer in the nooks and crannies of life. When it comes to his books, Andrew aims to create stories that tickle the funny bone and hug the heart of readers both young and old.
Andrew is the author of the early reader, CURLILOCKS AND THE THREE HARES (The Little Press, 2024) and the picture book, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024). Additionally, his short story, THE TUNNEL, has been chosen for inclusion in the SCBWI anthology, The Haunted States of America.
Andrew lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three young children, and puppy, Gus.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.