Jack Wong, a self-declared jack of all trades, makes his author-illustrator debut with When You Can Swim (Orchard Books, out now), which explores the joys that nature’s waters can bring. He also has two upcoming picture books, one slated for this fall and one for early next year. Interestingly, Wong’s path to children’s books wasn’t a straightforward one.
As a child, Wong was keen on drawing and writing and showed aptitude in math and science. Following the direction of the adults in his life, who were educators, he took a practical approach to his future and completed studies in math and science followed by engineering. But during a backpacking trip through Europe Wong realized he had no interest in thinking about space or buildings. “That was a hard realization,” he recalls. “But it also came at a time when I was travelling, and I fell back in love with going to art museums and looking at art.”
Wong left engineering behind and pursued his bachelor of fine arts at NSCAD University in Halifax. His fine-art skills led him to his first experimentation with children’s illustration, The Brightest Night. The gallery installation, combined with a series of live and online readings, was presented as part of Visual Arts Nova Scotia’s Mentorship Program Exhibition in 2020. “I was finding ways of drawing with detail and richness, but at the same time, not making it so overly realistic or overly bogged down that it didn’t still have that childlike joy and sparkle to it.”
It’s this joy that Wong brings to his picture book When You Can Swim, which was born out of the sketches he made and poetry he wrote sitting on the sidelines during camping and hiking trips with his wife and friends. “I was looking back at all these things I captured in nature, and the scenes and the passages about water just kind of jumped out at me,” Wong says. “Even more than that, it started turning itself into a book about swimming because it was so much about the water and the enjoyment of being in the water.”
Each page shows the reader what can be experienced if they take a dive into natural waters – “landscapes as foreign as the moon” and a “million pebbles telling of countless days.” For Wong, who is not a particularly strong swimmer, When You Can Swim is about finding the courage to swim, finding the wonder that overcomes fears and anxieties. “It was neat because while I was writing this for a young reader, it was the pep talk I was giving myself to do more research, which involved swimming and getting into the water,” Wong says. “The fact that it’s an encouraging, uplifting book came about organically because it was actually what I needed.”
The text, which was derived from the humble notes Wong took while in nature, came about organically, too. “The feeling comes in little phrases. Even if I were to try to flesh it out and do a full scene taking those little fragments I’d get in my head,” Wong says. “That little phrase that popped in my head while I was walking is great just the way it is, and I can’t even improve it.”
The aspect that Wong did improve upon was the illustration. Preferring to draw from life rather than photographs, Wong found his pastels difficult to handle on his excursions. So, he developed a new way of working: he took different mental notes while in nature and drew the scenes from memory back in the studio. “The overall purpose of that way of working is that even as you’re trying to replicate reality or replicate a natural phenomenon, it also goes through a transformation process,” Wong says. “You’re not getting it exactly like nature. You’re inventing little ways of translating what the real thing is. It permanently shaped what the pictures look like.”
As is true for many immigrant families, Wong wasn’t exposed to camping or hiking as a child. It was after his move to Halifax, where nature lovers surrounded him, that he cultivated a relationship with the natural world. His experience as a first-generation Asian Canadian is part of all the work he does.
Wong believes that swimming is something we have the agency and the right to discover, but is keenly aware that people of colour, Indigenous people, immigrants, and people of a lower income are all either actively discouraged or disadvantaged, or not able to see themselves swimming. For Wong, part of creating When You Can Swim, which depicts children of many different heritages and backgrounds, is “to allow them to see themselves in the book. In case they were ever made to feel otherwise, they can see someone like them enjoying swimming,” Wong says. “It’s not only about swimming, but also about being in nature. It’s about being encouraged to look closely and discover the wonder that’s everywhere.”
Jack Wong: Nicola Davison