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Halifax illustrator Jack Wong’s debut book invites readers for a plunge in nature

When You Can Swim wins Governor General's Award

4 min read
caption Jack Wong believes his book works as an encouragement for both children and adults.
Yuan Wang

An author who is not that keen on swimming and is even afraid of it has won the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Award for a children’s book about learning to swim.

Jack Wong, a Halifax-based author and illustrator, was the winner for young people’s literature – illustration (English), and he’s the only Nova Scotian among all winners, which were announced last Wednesday.

The prize, run by the Canada Council for the Arts, is worth $25,000 for seven English and seven French categories, including fiction, nonfiction, young people’s literature-text, and drama.

When You Can Swim is Wong’s debut book. The book presents different scenes of kids learning to swim outdoors, with short poetic descriptions of what it’s like to swim in different waters, and what the body feels in nature.

It’s a book that seems like it’s teaching people to swim, from the title to the content, but Wong said that he didn’t set out to create a book for that purpose, and he is not even an avid swimmer himself.

“The book really became an encouragement for myself first,” said Wong.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, Wong grew up with a fear of swimming, especially in the local pools, where he felt social anxiety from kids his own age. It wasn’t until he moved to Halifax in 2010 and started trying to swim outdoors, that anxiety was replaced by the raw fear of being in the water and being unable to see the bottom.

caption A sense of wonder and all colours in nature outweighed Wong’s fear for swimming. This image is a pastel study of colours to create the effect of being underwater.
Jack Wong

Swimming outdoors became more appealing when he realized that the natural environment offers a marvellous sensory experience. “They outweighed or at least balanced my fear,” said Wong.

He began documenting scenes and experiences of himself and his family and friends swimming in nature with photographs, paintings and notes. Wang said once he had accumulated a great deal of material, the book took shape almost organically.

The image of the little girl on the book cover was inspired by one of Wong’s nieces, who’s also hesitant about swimming. Wong thought about how his experience could be a message for kids, but his niece did not change her attitude towards swimming after receiving the book and its encouraging message.

caption Wong said his sketches and notes revealed his own hidden interest in nature and swimming. This image is an early sketch of one that appears in his book.
Jack Wong

A passion for arts

Wong had a passion for arts when he was a kid, but he was also good at math and science. When he was told by everyone around that he should aim to become an architect, he studied engineering at the university, earning a bachelor’s degree.

During a trip to Europe, he realized that he had no interest in buildings or engineering after visiting a few places. Then he spent the rest of the time immersing himself in European museums and galleries and chose to pursue fine arts at NSCAD at the end of the trip.

“I always loved to draw from life,” said Wong. “Just the idea that a few lines, and scribbles and turn into a picture of something always fascinated me.”

Wong recalled being impressed by his father’s simple doodles of a motorcycle as a child, and his father was not an artist at all. “Nothing beats just like being able to make something out of so little, just a pencil and paper,” Wong said.

Wong doesn’t consider himself to have a style of painting; he has a slight addiction to novelty and likes to try new things. Some people at art school may have artists they love and follow for life, said Wong, but he may like one this week and discover a new favourite next week.

Wong said that When You Can Swim could represent drawing the way he knew best for the first book, but each later project is a different story and he wants each to have a unique style.

“I’m gonna have fun figuring out what it’s supposed to look like, but without the assumption that just because it’s coming from me, it should look the same,” said Wong.

Wong’s second book, The Words We Share, was released in September and was nominated for the 2024 Ontario Library Association Blue Spruce Award. His latest picture book, All That Grows, will be published in the spring of 2024.

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About the author

Yuan Wang

Yuan Wang comes from China. She has an interest in international news and non-fiction. She also has a background in documentary production.

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