By Andreina Rodriguez
Aniana del Mar once feared the water until her father shared the story of the first time he swam in el campo. He learned a lesson about the water while fighting a strong current – not to resist it. When Aniana jumped into the pool for the first time at six years old, she never felt more free. But there are one, or maybe two, setbacks. She cannot tell her mother that she's been swimming, and she can't tell both of her parents that her body is beginning to fail her.
Jasminne Mendez's debut middle-grade novel in verse, Aniana del Mar Jumps In, is the touching journey of a Dominican American swimmer who lives on the Gulf Coast of Galveston, Texas. The book, published by Dial Books, is set to be released on March 14.
Aniana is a ball of energy, both carefree and extremely active. Her father takes her on daddy-daughter dates to the YMCA for swim meets and practice, where she works on her backstrokes, breaststrokes, butterfly, front crawl, and freestyle, whenever he is not away working for the Coast Guard. When she's not swimming, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, Maria Tere, sharing secrets, or sitting under the orange tree in their front yard with her brother, Matti, teaching him things like blowing his food before taking a bite.
However, Aniana's life takes a dramatic turn when she receives life-altering news about her body – she has juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Her frequent daddy-daughter swimming trips come to a halt as her days are now filled with appointments, procedures, and pharmacy calls. The once carefree 12-year-old is no longer the same.
Aniana and her father share a love for the water, but the same cannot be said for her strict Christian mother. Her mother fears the power of the water as it took away her house, village, and her little brother, Mateo, during a storm that occurred when she was just a young girl.
“Mami calls the ocean ‘la mar’ instead of ‘el Mar’ because she believes the ocean is a strong woman who gives and takes life when she wants.”
Aniana tries to reassure her mother of her ability to handle the water, but it seems hopeless, especially as Aniana discovers the limits of what her body can handle.
“Some days when el mar’s waves have been wild and I’ve swam too much I get these aches and pains that pulse in my elbows and knees and my hips and shoulders feel hot to the touch.”
Mendez tackles various themes in the book, such as familial relationships, generational trauma, symbolism, faith, chronic illness, and disability. She uses several poetic forms that thoroughly emphasize the intensity of dealing with complicated issues at a young age.
Reading the story wasn't just about simply going through the words, but also feeling the weight of them and following at the pace that Mendez encourages.
Aniana's problems continuously progress, taking a toll on her body as she struggles with keeping secrets from her parents, longing for her father while he's away, and the disconnect with her overbearing mother. Although Maria Tere is by her side, Aniana fears a potential change in their relationship after learning she's growing closer to another girl.
In short, Aniana’s going through it. And her only escape had been swimming her troubles away in the water until she no longer has that option.
But despite the heaviness of Aniana’s journey, Mendez delivers a powerful and motivational story for children and adults alike. Aniana is not one to back down or lose all hope. She’s both a fighter and a champion.
In her author’s note, Mendez touches on the similarities between her and Aniana. They’re both Dominican American girls with chronic illness and disabilities whose fathers are or were in the military. The poet and author also shares that she made deliberate decisions while crafting Aniana’s journey, some of which I had no idea about prior to reading and which I believe readers would find interesting too.
There are several takeaways from this story, but one that particularly resonates with me is the powerful message about empathy for the trauma that our loved ones have endured and how change can lead to positive outcomes. Aniana del Mar Jumps In illustrates that just because something is different from how it was before, it doesn't mean it's not good. Despite being diagnosed with a disability and chronic illness, Aniana remains strong, confident, and maintains her carefree and athletic spirit.
About the Author:
Jasminne Mendez is a Dominican-American poet, playwright, translator and award winning author of several books for children and adults. She is the author of two hybrid memoirs, Island of Dreams (Floricanto Press) and Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays and Poetry (Arte Público Press). Her second YA memoir, Islands Apart: Becoming Dominican American (Arte Público Press) is forthcoming in May 2022 and her debut poetry collection, City Without Altar, was a finalist for the Noemi Press Book Award for Poetry and will be released in August 2022. Her debut middle grade book Aniana del Mar Jumps In (Dial) is a novel in verse about a young girl diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis and is set to release in 2023. Her debut picture book Josefina’s Habichuelas (Arte Público Press), was released last year.
Andreina Rodriguez is a journalist from Queens, New York. Her work appears on all 12 NBC local websites, Refinery29, CNBC, Latino Rebels, The Mujerista, #WeAllGrow Latina, and Modern Brown Girl.
You can follow her on Twitter @andreina_rodrgz and follow her work through andreinarodriguez.com.