Taking the Plunge
May 24, 2018 § 1 Comment
With Memorial Weekend upon us, swimming season officially kicks off. For the littles in our lives, the return to outdoor pools may be greeted by equal parts excitement and trepidation, for as much fun as splashing in water can be, it brings with it frequent demands for bravery. Whether it’s learning to swim across the pool without the comfort of floaties, jumping off the side, or navigating crowds of bigger, louder, more confidently swimming kids, the opportunities for intimidation are everywhere. And that’s just what our kids are feeling! We as parents are expected to walk that delicate line of encouraging but not pushing our hesitant children, of keeping up the pretense of patience even when it feels like we have been at this forever. All the time parading our post-childbearing selves around in a bathing suit.
Jabari Jumps (Ages 4-7), by first-time author-illustrator Gaia Cornwall, is a book I could have used a few years ago, as much for its young protagonist’s struggle to launch himself off the diving board, as for the beautiful example of parenting it holds up.
The story of how each of my children finally went off the diving board—in both cases, years after they were solidly swimming in deep water—is as much a testament to the evolution of my own parenting as it is to their different personalities. With my eldest child, there were months of discussion, deliberation, and negotiation. Should I do it? Should I not do it? What will you give me if I do it? (The answer: nothing.) There were countless false attempts: him perched at the end of the board, scrutinizing me beseechingly for encouragement, only to turn and climb back down, declaring he would “definitely” do it the next day. In the end, because our pool has two side-by-side diving boards, and because I was clearly going through a helicopter-parenting phase, we jumped together. (It turns out my over-mothering wasn’t the most embarrassing part. The impact of the water brought down the top of my bathing suit. I haven’t been able to look our lifeguards in the eye since.)
With my daughter, her hang-up was with her goggles—specifically, that our pool forbids the use of them off the diving board. No amount of rational argument could explain away her fear of water touching her exposed eyeballs. Clearly worn out from the first child, I took a backseat to this one. And so, for two summers, she watched her friends jump, always content to stay on the other side of the lane line, which separated the diving well from the regular deep end. And then, last summer, on our very last day at the pool, she pattered over to me after the lifeguards had blown the whistle for break. My nose was buried in a book (because this, my fellow parents, is the real payoff of years of swim lessons).
“Mommy, do you have any snacks?” she began. And then, not missing a beat: “I went off the diving board. Five times. You can watch later when I do it again.” On her own terms, with no warning, and away from prying eyes, she had taken the plunge.
In Jabari Jumps, the title character’s experience facing down the diving board is, in many ways, a perfect amalgamation of my two children’s. Moments before walking into the pool area with his dad and toddler sister, Jabari is bubbling over with confidence. “I’m jumping off the diving board today,” he triumphantly informs his dad. As far as Jabari is concerned, nothing is standing in his way: he has passed his swim test; he is fluent in deep water; and, besides, “I’m a great jumper…so I’m not scared at all.” (As much as I commend Caldwell for casting an African-American boy in a story that has nothing to do with race, I doubly commend her for choosing to herald a father, alone with his two children at the pool. Too often, dads get the shaft in picture books.)
Against soft, muted backgrounds, lovingly executed in pencil, watercolor, and collage, Caldwell effectively plays with perspective, reminding the reader just how big and intimidating things can appear through a child’s eyes. As Jabari catches sight of the giant rectangular pool—in particular, the tiny “bug-like” children on the edge of the diving board, springing “up up up” and then “down down down”—we sense a small shift inside Jabari, despite his continuing to talk the big talk (“Looks easy.”). His dad says nothing, but he does something infinitely more powerful: he squeezes his son’s hand. For as much dialogue as there is in the story, there is just as much loveliness in what remains unspoken in this parent-child relationship.
Predictably—at least, for those of us on the parenting side—Jabari begins stalling. He stands at the base of the tall ladder, staring up at it. He lets the other kids go in front of him, all the time keeping up his easy-breezy facade. “I need to think about what kind of special jump I’m going to do.”
When Jabari begins climbing the ladder, he can think of nothing but how endlessly tall it is. Time seems to freeze. Insert dad from the sidelines, who gently asks his son if he might like to take a “tiny rest” first. Jabari is quick to consent. “A tiny rest sounded like a good idea.” The dad might have shouted encouraging words at his son; or he might have thrown up his hands and called his bluff right then and there. But no. Because this is a parent who knows what he’s doing.
And then, a full crisis of confidence erupts. “I think tomorrow might be a better day for jumping,” Jabari says. Again, his dad neither agrees with him, nor attempts to talk him out of quitting. He simply crouches down and says, “It’s okay to feel a little scared…Sometimes, if I feel a little scared, I take a deep breath and tell myself that I am ready. And you know what? Sometimes it stops feeling scary and feels a little like a surprise.” In one concise paragraph, this parent validates emotion, then gently re-frames the situation. A master at his craft.
Over the next few pages, we see a new side of Jabari—thoughtful, careful, curious, courageous—as he fills his lungs with air, mounts the board, stands up straight, and walks carefully to the edge. With “his toes curled around the rough edge,” Cornwall renders an illustration that has our own breath catching in our throat, as we wait in mutual anticipation of the moment of letting go.
As Jabari takes flight, his jubilation is evident, from his wide smile to his splayed arms. But, look closer, and you’ll see my favorite part. Jabari’s eyes are closed, and his face is turned away from the direction of his father and little sister, who wave excitedly from the water below. Jabari is momentarily oblivious to his cheering squad, and that’s exactly how it should be. This is Jabari’s plunge.
Summer is almost upon us. Let us rejoice mightily when our littles at last flap their arms and jump. But let us also rejoice in the dance—even the two steps forward, one step backwards dance—to get there.
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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
Tagged: black American characters in children's books, books for father's day, boy main character, bravery and courage in children's books, children's books about swimming, children's stories about fear, fathers in children's books, Gaia Cornwall, picture book, summer, theme of growing up in children's books, trying new things