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- Also see: validating stories for kids with anxiety
From my archives
Swimming – finding a place of relief in the unbearable heat of summer, feeling safe in and around water – is an issue of racial and economic inequity.
‘Freedom Summer’ was the first story to successfully help my preschooler sympathize with the unfairness of systematic racism, at age 3.5.
This showed him how UNFAIR racism is in his guts. We already knew of the civil rights movement, but with this story, Q internalized the unfairness of the way we’ve treated our citizens, and how racism ultimately hurts us all.
We see the double-humiliation of forcing a black man to fill a pool he’s finally allowed to swim in with tar.
Beyond this story, the 60’s desegregation of public pools inspired white people to keep Black skin out of water filled with white bodies in a multitude of ways.
While it’s not included in this book – it’s important to know the history behind access to water and cooling stations in the US. White men poured muriatic acid on the heads of swimmers during MLK swim-in protests. There are hundreds of legends of pools filled, drained, or labeled ‘out of order’ to proactively keep black people from swimming in community pools. Present-day stories like this continue through the present.
I can’t stand books on bigotry that center the people who benefit from that oppression. In this book, however, having a white male narrator was a baby step for young preschoolers, to build empathy in young white children towards the burdens of racism.
The hardest part of reading this story was – when Q asked if it’s still like that, I had to tell him the truth.
Yeah. It is.
It sparked discussion on the invisible ways children of color are still held back today – how families locked out of public pools bars the next generation from feeling safe in the water.
Now that he’s older (age 6), we are using this story to tackle deeper discussions on how Black people are not safe in public spaces (or even their own homes or cars). We discuss how much scarier that feels in the places we all feel vulnerable, like when we’re clad in a swimsuit under the hot summer sun and the gaze of jumpy, fragile people who view us as ‘others.’
We’ll discuss the white author’s choice to narrate he story through a white character, the little ways in which we promote white supremacy, even while we try to fight it.
We’ll discuss the privileges we have swimming with our white/asian hair – how we aren’t pressured to maintain and keep dry ‘good hair’ in order to be respected as human beings.
As always, oppression attacks from a hundred, invisible angles. We’ll discuss that and the ways I don’t even know about – the ways access to swimming and water safety continues to be a racial issue.
Quick & Messy Book List:
Particularly Awesome Books
- Abigail The Whale – see BFL archived article
- Cannonball – Lovely. I’m super excited to see a book that normalizes Maori characters without tokenizing or whitewashing. #Ownvoices Maori pacific islander author? kind and gentle brown boys (he/him), influence of elders – grandparents, misfits, following your own path.
- Jabari Jumps – courage (for self), validates fear of trying something new and scary. shows him letting people go in front, talking with his dad. this was an okay book, but it has a limited shelf life. Normalizes gentle brown boys, dad as primary caregiver.
- Splash, Anna Hibiscus – Super cute, i like this better than the one about songs because it’s got a clearer plot. she wants everyone to play in the water with her but no one wants to, they are all too busy doing thier own thing. so she goes ahead and does it herself, and she has soooo much fun that everyone decides to join her. anna hibiscus’s mother is braiding an auntie’s hair, which i love. we did have to explicitly point out how close the water was to her mother, and that anna had both her family’s permission and supervision as she played. multiracial families, Black hair, large multi-generational family constellations, beach, ages 2-4 normalizing girls of color
Swimming as an allegory for exploration
- beyond the pond – a little boy imagines that the vernal pool behind his house is a bottomless pond, and he dives through caves to a magical world full of adventures on the other side. great inspiration for playing in the back yard and seeing ordinary things as imagination fodder, unschooling
- Pool – Not for us since I don’t want kids to believe there are sharks in swimming pools. fairly certain this would give them nightmares at 3y. pool gets overcrowded and he jumps in anyway, stays under for a long time and imagines it’s full of surreal creatures, wordless, AAPI maker
Stories about blockades to swimming as a symptom of oppression
- Abigail The Whale – see BFL archived article
- Freedom Summer – see BFL archived article. Caveat: be aware of the white centering & saviorism within the story. Q loved this book. the paintings were dark and dated, but at the age of 4 he really identified with the things the characters enjoyed doing – swimming in creeks, and inspired great discussion about how John Henry wasn’t allowed to go into stores and why they filled in the pool on the day he was supposed to be allowed to swim in it, it made a great introduction to the topic (and injustice) of segregation and the sneaky and humiliating ways racism is institutionalized. At 6, we talked about why the author chose to write this from the white boy’s perspective. his guess – maybe they hate Black people? and we discuss a little on what hate looks like, and how erasure is another form of violence beyond actively hating them. Q understood why we had to sit through this book at 6, R2 squirmed uncomfortably through it at 4. they both found it painful. hard to read to 2 kids, best as a 1-on-1 book. racism, whitewashing, white centering, white accomplices, jim crow, Black history.
- Dammit I can’t remember which one – but I think it was ‘I Am Jackie Robinson‘ – one of the books in that series. There’s a scene where we see how kids of color aren’t allowed in the community pools. I’ve seen this in multiple books, but often it’s reduced to white/Black. In this scene, we see how Asians are also blocked out – and that is a very important thing to point out. Most books about racism reduce the whole thing to a white/Black binary, suggesting that non-Black POC either aren’t impacted by racism or just don’t matter. For my kids, seeing themselves reflected as targets of racism in books validates the conversations we have and lights a fire under their asses to smash it.
Books for kids who are nervous about swimming
- no swimming for nelly – grandma makes it seem less scary, elders as mentors
- Ladybug girl at the beach – Similar to Jabari Jumps, but the kids enjoyed the story on this more. I’m nervous about the fact that in many scenes, we don’t see an adult present watching her near the water. I want my kids to be VERY CONSCIOUS and constantly checking to make sure they have an adult paying attention to them near water. I don’t want them getting the message that it’s ever normal or safe to go near water without an adult paying laser attention.
- Sergio makes a splash – 2+. I don’t even remember reading this. My notes just say “cute.”
- Jabari Jumps (see notes above)
- Saturday is swimming day – nice for kids who are nervous about swimming lessons in a pool. Either transracial adopted or multiracial / single mother / family constellation. Either way it’s normalizing for East Asian kids with a white mom. Kid wears feminine bathing suit and dress but doesn’t use pronouns so it technically fits into the implied nonbinary collection but I doubt it was intentional. AAPI maker
- swim, little wombat, swim! – 2.5+ Worked well for 3, but probably even better for 4-5. Learning how to swim, dangers of getting too close to the edge
- there might be lobsters – dog is afraid of everything on the beach, ESPECIALLY lobsters, and it’s a pretty funny and cute book. finally the dog finds herself braving the ocean waves to save her stuffed monkey – a lesson on how courage means doing something you’re afraid of to help someone else. very cute.
Problematic / Books Not Worth Reading
- don’t splash the sasquatch – nah. if he doesn’t want to get splashed, why is he sitting next to the pool? not much story, not worth reading
- Swimming swimming – skip, boring
- Noah’s Swim A thon – I like the courage – how he’s willing to do something scary for the benefit of others. BUT the first quarter of the book teaches kids to be nervous about swimming and risks introducing fears that might not exist. NOPE. Transparency: got a free copy from PJ library (I’ve donated it since then). Judaism, tzedakah, fundraising
- I’m a Duck – written to help kids get over fear of water. When he finally jumps in, there’s no learning, he’s just naturally okay. focuses too much on fear and not at all on practice and bravery. If I was a kid afraid to swim, how is that story supposed to connect with them? Of course this duck turned out okay. It’s a DUCK. Can ducks even sink? They float while ASLEEP. That doesn’t allay fears for humans, who can and do drown all the damn time.
Can i tell you a secret – frog is afraid of water, has to bring himself to tell his parents. fails to effectively break the 4th wall. it expects kids to answer back and hold a conversation with the frog, but that’s not clear and it’s kind of awkward and unnecessary (plus my kids are at a loss for what they are supposed to do, and several times said things that didn’t naturally lead to the next page). Beyond that, the message fails – shows how hard it is to tell his parents, but doesn’t address how to work up that courage, so it’s just him hemming and hawing and it’s just not really…helpful. then his parents are like “yeah we knew all alone” which is not helpful at all! I don’t want the Earthquakes to come to me with fears only if they suspect we know about them. it makes it scarier to approach us with fears they are nervous we don’t know about. this is worthless. AAPI maker.
- A Little Book About Safety – fine, but lack of story and clutter made this kind of forgettable for me, but R2 was excited to read a book about safety in public pools. It was kind of all over the place on safety but doesn’t address stuff like sunscreen, staying away from water when you don’t know how to swim, running & rough-housing etc. I wouldn’t read it again.