Lucy Ruth Cummins is an author, illustrator, and art director of children’s books. Her new picture book, Our Pool, is an ode to the connection she experiences with her son and neighbors at her community pool in Brooklyn, N.Y. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, Jack Wong holds a BFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada, where he currently lives. His debut picture book, When You Can Swim, is inspired by his first experiences in the water. We asked Cummins and Wong to discuss their new books, the expansive and liberating pleasures of swimming, and the challenges of capturing water on the page.
Lucy Ruth Cummins: Hi, Jack—it’s a pleasure to meet you, and to get the opportunity to talk about our books! I’ve had a chance to read your beautiful book. Can you tell me what inspired you to make it?
Jack Wong: Sure—but before telling you that, I think it’s really neat that we’re looking at these books as a pair, because even though they’re very different swimming books in some ways, I think they’re sides of the same coin.
So, as a kid, I was never really comfortable swimming at the local pool, mostly for typical shy-kid reasons, even though I did learn. Then I moved to Halifax [on Canada’s east coast] where going into the lake or the ocean is such a pastime, and I found I became a lot less self-conscious about the act of swimming, even if there were people around, because of how stimulating nature was, and also kind of scary at times too. Because it’s really the unknown—like when you can’t see the bottom—and that excitement kind of takes over.
When You Can Swim tries to capture all that, and how it’s worth the effort to learn to swim so you can experience it. But the whole book starts and ends indoors because, at the end of the day, you have to start somewhere—and for most kids that’s going to be learning at the local pool. And this is where your book comes in perfectly!
Cummins: I love how varied all your locations are—it’s really visually rich and interesting page to page.
My book, Our Pool, follows the arc of a day of swimming in a public swimming pool. It’s based on my experiences visiting the pool in our neighborhood with my son Nate here in Brooklyn.
It’s a gigantic swimming pool—the largest I’ve ever seen. It was built more than 100 years ago, fell into disrepair for some time, and was rebuilt and reopened in the last decade or so and it’s incredible. It’s just this gorgeous, vast space.
So I had a moment there a couple of years ago when I’d taken my son, who must have been three at that time, and I was in the water with him in the shallow end.
I was looking around and I was struck by what a unifying force it was to be in water with other people. And this was families and older people and babies and teenagers and all these people who wouldn’t naturally ever probably spend a whole day together. And we’re all completely engaged in what’s fun about being in the swimming pool.
And that went from people who could swim to people who could not swim, who just enjoyed being cool at a pool. I had this moment when I was holding my son and I thought: this is such an obvious good thing. It’s so true for everybody how good this feels, when the weather’s like this.
And next, I realized as an artist, while looking around, that it was not only this super obvious good… but it was also really beautiful. For all the different ways it looked and felt and all the sensory things that were happening for everyone around and all the shared experiences that we were having.
Wong: There’s one aspect that really drives home the notion that everyone’s having a shared experience: your story is so evidently being narrated in first-person by one particular speaker who wakes up in the morning and goes back to the same bed at night, and yet, in the pictures, it could be anybody speaking the words. It sounds simple, but it’s actually not; I feel like there are even some author-illustrator sleights of hand going on to make that happen.
I was wondering if the order that you did the images and words in had anything to do with this effect?
Cummins: For this book I did the full set of interior sketches to get the sequential story to a place where I felt like it “read” pretty decently, wordlessly—where I felt like you could follow the sequence of events.
Then I took a couple of runs at actually drafting a text directly on top of the artwork to see what words told the story correctly, what underscored the overall theme, and what would feel fun to read aloud. When I arrived at this particular text—when I got the rhythm of it—it sometimes called for some varied text placement, and sizing, to get it to read right, so I was working back and forth at that the whole time, too.
So ultimately it really moves around the pool. Hopefully you get that indirect feeling of going across a pool, edge-to-edge. I hope it draws the eye around a lot.
Wong: Wow, now I’m so interested to go back and read this book and momentarily ignore all the words to see what you were seeing when it was a working, wordless sequence. And so it was like interpreting your own sketches to come up with the words?
Cummins: Yep—and where I landed, ultimately, was that I felt like I could get across the idea that this is not just one person’s experience, but everyone’s experience, by making sure I kept that perspective in the text and in the images. I had to work back and forth between the text and the art, always making sure no one character looked too central, adjusting things, adding details, hoping that the ultimate effect would be that this could be anyone’s story—this is how we all feel when we’re in water, whoever we are. By making sure a reader wouldn’t be able to pinpoint whose’ day it was, when looking at the art, hopefully they would come away feeling what I felt—this is everyone’s day, everyone’s swim, everyone’s pool.
And what was your process—are you a sketches-first or a text-first type?
Wong: I vary from project to project, but actually When You Can Swim really came text first. I carry a sketchbook with me whenever I’m out in nature, like camping or hiking. I’ll do sketches, but a lot of times I’m writing these little notes about things I’m seeing—not poems, exactly, but fragments. And it’s the fragments that often most succinctly capture something special even better than drawing, like seeing fish jump out of water at dusk.
So yes, it all came together as a manuscript before I technically got to work on thumbnailing each spread. But at the same time, for me there’s actually not that much of a separation—the sensory data is so baked into the text that I can’t even say exactly when I started working on the book visually, at least in my head.
I think even though we started from different directions, pictures or words first, there’s a similarity that, taking in an environment and the sensory experience of it was the catalyst. But by not being too prescriptive, the environment and experience captured on paper actually speaks to something larger than swimming itself.
Cummins: I get that completely! I feel like with swimming, a lot of it has to do with how freeing it can be, how young swimming makes you feel. At our neighborhood pool, it’s especially true because you’re also forced to be outside the context of your cellphone—they make you lock them up in your locker before you make your way onto the pool deck. So then you’re just hanging out and doing what feels good, truly playing. It cuts across every age and other factor. Like, if you get my dad near a swimming pool—and he’s 76 years old—he’ll jump right in, no hesitation.
I feel like a pool is a place for fun where we don’t feel our age or circumstances, we just feel the pleasure of the thing we’re doing—we all float! As a city person, when you’re in a public space that’s created just for fun, just for recreation, a place that’s seemingly frivolous but truly isn’t—it makes you really grateful.
Wong: That’s definitely a thing that Our Pool in particular conveys.
Cummins: I’m so glad it comes across!
Wong: When you say it’s also about celebrating a space, for fun and pleasure… I had this worry when I first started shopping When You Can Swim around, whether it would actually be seen as a very topical novelty book, like just something to gift to someone who just happened to be taking swimming lessons.
So intuitively, a lot of decisions I made throughout were about how, even if a person happened to be this hard set “I’m-never-getting-in-the-water” type, I want them to be able to get something from this book too. I feel pretty strongly that my book is ultimately about being in nature, observing and appreciating. All the ways you can do so in water—being still, or quiet, or boisterous, or active—you don’t have to be in the water to have that same experience of, “Wow, if I open my senses, there’s so much to take in here.”
Cummins: When I read your book, I was immediately imagining how you could share it with a child who is on the precipice of this really big thing, which swimming is, to me! It honestly made me wish I had it before [my son] Nate actually learned to swim—it captures the bigness very well. Because it’s not easy.
I see it as being the celebration of the activity itself, but also the relationship between an adult and child. It’s bigger than just swimming—it’s about watching someone grow and become other things, in such a nice way. So yeah, I don’t see ’it being niche!
Wong: Thank you!
Well, at the same time that it’s about more than swimming, the books are also totally about swimming, and about water. So I have one more question for you. There’ are so many different ways to draw water, from the simplest strokes of the pencil to the most detailed; it’s one of those things where no matter how you do it, the water is always bluer on the other side.
Cummins: Oh gosh, yeah! I have to tell you, Jack—I could barely look at other people’s water when working on this.
Cummins: You know, I remember early on in the process, I was talking to my husband about my “goals” for how I wanted to convey this visually.
It’s visually very different from any work I had made before. And I mentioned to him that a thing I’d always felt was really beautiful were those David Hockney swimming pool paintings. Do you know the ones?
Wong: Yeah. Yeah.
Cummins: And it was immediately a thing where I had to put a wall up in my brain because I thought, of course, I can’t even really consider how successful those are, and then try to make my own illustrations. I can’t hold the thought of them in my head and still put brush to paper. I’ll just stop myself completely.
And even still, after I turned in the artwork for this book sometime last summer, I had some amount of swimming that came afterward. And I would have this really annoying feeling sometimes when I was at the pool where I would think, “Crap, that’s what water looks like.”
It’s endlessly fascinating to me the way water changes, the way that we can communicate it with a few strokes or many, with highlights and things like that. But at the same time, it’s challenging to look at other people’s water because I do sometimes think, “Oh, that person understands water completely!”
Wong: I totally get what you’re saying. I’ll think I’m doing a good job, capturing all that complex water detail as best I can, and then I look at someone who’s done it in three strokes instead of belaboring over it for hours—like how you drew the page “JUMP-RIGHT-IN”—and, same thought. “That’s someone who gets how to draw water,” I wish I would’ve done that.
Also, don’t look at my endpapers, haha. Those have a lot of Hockney in them. So we drew from the same source!
Cummins: Yes! But sometimes when I talk to children about making books, I’ll say to them, if I tried to consider what I was making in the context of what everybody else was making all the time, it would be very hard for me to work. But if I try to imagine that my point of view is what I’m bringing to the table, how I see it—how no one can replicate that—so then I have something to offer.
So I think as an artist, as an illustrator, as a storyteller—it’s always a question of getting out of your own way. It’s about embracing what you’re good at, enjoying the process and finding your unique voice in it, and listening to the nice things that people say when they say them, and using all that to help you march on to the next thing. And feeling lucky you get to do so!
Wong: Absolutely. Thanks for reminding me of this at the start of my journey!
Cummins: And when does your book come out?
Wong: Mine comes out May 2. And yours?
Cummins: June 13. So hopefully people haven’t spent all their pool book money by then….
Our Pool by Lucy Ruth Cummins. Atheneum, $18.99 June 13 ISBN 978-1-5344-9923-2
When You Can Swim by Jack Wong. Orchard, $18.99 May ISBN 978-1-338-83096-5