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Bookworm: ‘Why We Swim’ makes a nice splash

‘Shared Room’ has a heaviness that stays well beyond the final page

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Why We Swim”

  • By Bonnie Tsui
  • c. 2020, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • $26.95, $39.95 Canada; 288 pages

One step, another, and a hop outward. Somersault once, kick back, arms up, and knife cleanly through the surface of the water like a sword through cake. Clean. Not a drop out of place in that dive, hardly a splash. So why did you do it? Says Bonnie Tsui in "Why We Swim," there could be many reasons.

"Why We Swim" author Bonnie Tsui.

If there's one thing you know about summertime, it's that it can get hot. Like, melt-your-shoes hot, crispy-grass hot, sweat-til-you're-wet hot. And that's when any size pool of water starts to look mighty tempting. But, says Tsui, "We... are not natural-born swimmers..." Throw us in the water and, without lessons, we flail.

Lessons aside, though, cave art discovered in 1933 shows that humans have been swimming for at least 10,000 years and they probably learned how by watching those who figured it out even before them. That likely happened in the "Green Sahara," where there were once verdant meadows and cool pools.

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Bottom line: we are land animals that are attracted to water, and not just to drink. Scientists call us "'secondary'" swimmers although, in some cultures, it seems as though our fellow humans are half-fish. Hailing from Southeast Asia, the Moken people can see underwater in ways that most of us can't; many Bajau from the same area are born with spleens that allow them to stay underwater for minutes, rather than the pathetic seconds most of us can manage. Japanese ama are able to deep-dive hundreds of times a day. Yes, even some Americans can swim with an endurance that may sound superhuman.

"Why We Swim" by Bonnie Tsui.

But it's not, not really. For some people, it's a matter of genetics and having been blessed with a physical quirk that allows impressive feats in the water. For others, it's a challenge, a lifesaver, an obsession, a hobby, or pain to overcome. And for some, says Tsui, it's a matter of ensuring that "we... teach ourselves how to live with water, not how to keep it at bay."

So, you say you're landlocked. Not much more than a puddle in sight. And that's okay: instead, dive into "Why We Swim" for some cool refreshment.

Indeed, author Bonnie Tsui's writing brings such strong images to mind – of water, of cold or heat, of the kicks and reaches that swimming requires – that you'll almost hear the seagulls and you'll want to reach for a towel. This will remind you of swim meets in high school, of skinny-dipping in the lake, and building sand castles on the shore.

But it isn't just the sense of beachiness that's inside this book: Tsui also offers readers history and science, psychology, and several interesting mini-bios of people who've astounded researches, both accidentally and on purpose, with their prowess in the water. She also includes personal stories as a sort of glue to hold this book together.

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If you're heading for the water today, or staycationing by the pool, you'll need something to read, right? So take "Why We Swim." For you, it'll make a nice splash.

“The Shared Room”

  • By Kao Kalia Yang, illustrations by Xee Reiter
  • c. 2020, University of Minnesota Press
  • $16.95, higher in Canada; 32 pages

Sometimes, things change in a minute. You look, and it's one way. You look again, it's different, and you didn't even see the change happening. You might not like it but that never matters. As in the new picture book "The Shared Room" by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrations by Xee Reiter, that's when it's best just to take a deep breath, roll your shoulders, and move on.

"The Shared Room" author Kao Kalia Yang.

If it were any other winter day in Minnesota, it might've been nice. It was warm enough for the snow to melt and you could almost see that spring was coming. But inside the house in east St. Paul, there were shadows across a dark fireplace and quiet floors. There was light in the house, but no sunshine.

Pictures hung on the wall but it was hard to look at them because they reminded the family inside the house that one of them was missing. It had been seven months since the girl with the shiny brown hair and big toothy smile, the happy little girl in a framed picture, had walked into a lake, misstepped, and accidentally drowned.

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Nobody had seen it happen and nobody in the family could forget. The mother and the father couldn't even bear to take the sheets off the girl's bed and for seven months, they visited her room and cried once, twice, three times a day. The house was quiet, except when someone would play a video of the girl on their phone, and everyone watched.

"The Shared Room" illustrator Xee Reiter.

But then, something shifted.

Ever since the youngest brother was born, the oldest brother shared a bedroom with him in the house in east St. Paul. There were four bedrooms, four children and two parents, so there had to be sharing – until the parents asked the oldest brother if he'd like to have his sister's room. He'd have her bed. He would have her dresser and her closet.

But he would never have her back. Would he miss his sister forever?

Is "The Shared Room" a book for children?

You may wonder that after you've read it through once – and you should, to gauge its appropriateness for your child before you present it. It's a lovely story, but it's also deeply, unbearably sad.

"The Shared Room" by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrations by Xee Reiter.

While the artwork by Xee Reiter may soften things a bit, author Kao Kalia Yang's tale starts with silence and ends like a grey tattered shawl draped over every page. This profound mourning leaves a heaviness over the story that stays well beyond the final page, and you'll feel it in your chest.

And yet, if you can withstand the pall, there's a sliver of hope inside this book and a reminder that life goes on. It also serves to tell a child that it's best to come to terms with death but that never forgetting is okay, too.

Again, read this book through once before you give it to your 8-to-12-year-old. "The Shared Room" may prove to be too much, too early, too overwhelming – or it may change your child's grieving.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.