Since my kids and I are well involved in the summer community swim team, I wanted to pick up the tween graphic novel Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas (Harper Alley, May 2022) to celebrate our summer season. I have to say, it left me quite disappointed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly went wrong, whether it was the inaccuracies in depicting learning to swim and swim team practice, or the lack of an engaging plot and a compelling adversary.
The story revolves around Bree, a young girl who has moved to Florida. A new friend in the apartment complex is Clara, a star swimmer on the middle school swim team, which is exactly what Bree does not want to be a part of. But soon, Bree reluctantly finds herself enrolled in a beginning swim class in Florida. The problem is, she doesn’t know how to swim and is terrified of the water. After skipping swim class for a few days and getting into trouble, she decides it’s time to face her fears and take swimming lessons. Unfortunately, she becomes the subject of teasing and mockery because she attends a “kiddy” lesson with young children.
Luckily, Bree’s neighbor, Ms Etta, comes to her aid. Here is where I began finding holes in the plot. With Ms Etta’s swimming expertise, Bree is able to learn how to swim in a short amount of time, and is able to join the middle school swim team that same school year. Then she begins winning races along with her team! Never again is Bree’s Swimming 101 middle school class mentioned. No learning curve is included in her swimming progress: she goes from never having been in the water to learning strokes. As a former swim instructor, I found all of this hard to believe. Even older swimmers struggle with the basics if they have zero experience in the water.
Speaking of realism, the depiction of the middle school and its students also seemed off. In the graphic novel illustrations, they appeared much younger than actual middle school-aged kids. And when they participated in swim meets, the girls competed in 25m events, which is not something you’d expect from middle schoolers. Typically, kids that age would compete in at least 50m events, if not longer. This lack of authenticity made it hard for me to fully connect with the story and characters.
The main adversary in Bree’s life is not just learning to swim. As the team begins competing locally, there is an underlying racial tension. The swim team faces off against a snobby private school called Holyoke. The characters from Holyoke are mostly depicted as white, while those from Bree’s school are portrayed as having darker skin. This racial divide turns the book into a story about race, especially when Clara mother decides Clara will join Holyoke Prep Academy the next year. Bree feels betrayed and their friendship is essentially over.
Eventually, Bree realizes that the only way they can win the medley relay and overcome their differences is by uniting. Ms Etta was a middle school swim star, and she and her friends who were once part of a winning team. However, after an incident involving racial segregation, their friendship was broken. These four women, who still live in the same town, haven’t spoken to each other for 50 years due to this incident. The only way the girls on Bree’s team could unite together was, for some reason, to help Ms Etta gather with all her former friends as well.
I couldn’t understand why Ms Etta’s team would help Bree’s team come back together, especially since Bree was the only one who quit. And Bree is now the one rounding up the friends? Further, it felt somewhat immature to me that the four older women held onto a grudge for so long, especially considering they assumedly went through high school together. If the grudge was so long they intended to keep for 50 years, how could they then overcome it so quickly when Ms. Etta reached out.
So, the book briefly touches upon the history of segregation in public community swimming pools and how it impacts the lack of swimming skills among black children today. While this added a bit of educational value, I felt that the racial contention and the strained relationships between the older women didn’t contribute much to the overall story of the young girls.
In short, Swim Team is a quick read that younger tweens might enjoy, particularly if they’re interested in a story about conquering fears and joining a winning swim team. However, the racial tension among four elderly women felt like a distracting side story, and the unrealistic portrayal of being on a swim team didn’t quite resonate with me. The characters appeared much younger and less mature than they should have been for middle schoolers. So, although the characters are depicted as middle schoolers, most middle schoolers would find this book immature. I believe it is best for younger tweens, ages 7-11.