The “giver of life” characteristic of water is proverbial. Yet for many people of African descent, particularly those in the diaspora, the water we swim in carries a darker history of enslavement and death. It is in the wake of this generational trauma that we meet Kaya, a 10-year-old girl for whom water simply means love.
In Water Love, a picture book written by Natalie Hodgson and Rajean Willis, Kaya’s origin story arrives with the waves. This is a memory of a simpler time when sticky summer days were spent barefoot, drinking in the wonder of the lake at the back of her grandmother’s house. With the cadence and style of a dub poet, she begins her tale with a declaration: “This is when I fell in love with water …”
Her aunt attempts to restrain the younger Kaya’s curiosity. “Don’t get too close,” she says. All Kaya sees is possibility. When she decides to ask her parents if she can learn to swim – “Dad got no fear of water” – readers realize that convincing her mother is the true test. Despite her mother’s memories of her own near drowning and those aforementioned whispers about what lurks in the deep, Kaya’s unbridled joy melts her fear.
Sahle Robinson’s illustrations that show Kaya suited up for the pool and wearing a brave face while her crown of kinky curls is combed will be endearing to Black girls and women everywhere. In fact, Robinson is masterful at complementing the verse that flows from spread to spread. The story artist and character concept designer, whose film and television credits include How to Train Your Dragon, demonstrates the power of a creator who knows who he is drawing.
Hodgson and Willis, who are Indigenous Black Nova Scotians and mothers, create a sense of empathy for Kaya. Hodgson is a counsellor and impact of race and culture assessor in the justice system, while Willis is a social work clinician and scholar. They succeed at developing a character that is as conflicted as the times she is born into. Kaya is caught in a prepubescent maelstrom of “fittin’ in,” which includes leaving swimming – “No one else looks like me at the pool …” — and for a time “playing the Black sport.”
In the end, young Kaya changes the narrative thanks to a local youth program where she learns how to surf. Readers cannot help but root for her, reminded that the only way out is through.