Talk about come-from-behind challengers. I was so certain I had my Carnegie nominees sorted, and then I read the The Weight of Water. I almost didn’t read it. It’s getting close to the end of the school year, and in a week’s time I’ll be on a plane back to Canada for the summer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest the time in reading this book, particularly because it is written in verse. Poetry and I are … fairweather friends.
Not reading this book would have been a huge mistake, one I’m glad I didn’t make. Sarah Crossan has created an utterly engrossing story about a Polish girl whose mother has uprooted her and brought her to England in pursuit of her father, who has left their family. Kasienka is devoted to her mother but confused by her father's desertion and her new situation in England. She is upset about being placed in a Year 7 class, despite being nearly thirteen years old, just because of her English skills. And moving schools makes it hard enough to find friends and wage the wars of popularity; moving to a new country and learning a new language makes it even harder.
I come from Thunder Bay, a city that is somewhat multicultural but not exactly a bastion of diversity like one would find in Toronto or, indeed, many major towns in England. My experience dealing with the intersections of different cultural backgrounds, and particularly the psychological effect on a child of moving around the world, is limited. Having taught at a school with a significant proportion of students for whom English is a second language, I have a better idea of the challenges that students—and teachers—face on a daily basis. Crossan captures all of these in the voice and verse of a twelve-year-old girl.
The verse works well because it forces you to pay attention to every word. With prose, it is so easy to skim and still get the gist of the plot. This book has a plot, but the story is definitely about the trajectory of Kasienka as a character. She begins as a scared girl and matures, with each challenge teaching her something valuable about who she is becoming. She faces down the Popular Girl, develops shy affection for a boy in Year 9, and even struggles with keeping a secret from her mother that could tear them asunder. Because everything is narrated in her poetry, we only ever get a sense of Kasienka—the other characters are more like shadows of themselves than real people—but that’s enough.
The best "plot point", if you will, concerns Kasienka becoming aware of her father's new life before her mother does. She has to choose whether to keep this a secret from her mother or reveal it, risking both parents’ disapproval. As Kasienka”s relationship with her mother deteriorates, her relationship with her father improves, to the point where his new partner invites her to come live with them. She would have everything she doesn't have in the one-room living space she shares with her mother: a bedroom, a bed of her own, a computer. She could be more like a “normal” English girl her age. But it would mean leaving her mother, and even the thought of that makes Kasienka feel so guilty. You can see her thinking about it though, feel the pain as she considers her options.
The book takes its title from Kasienka’s newly found love of swimming. Several people encourage her involvement, and she persists until she gets to go to a national competition in London. Again, the poetry works well here, communicating through vivid imagery the relief that Kasienka feels as she swims. Her mundane worries slide off her body; she revels in the feel of the water on her skin, the intensity of the competition of which she is a part. For her, the weight of water is something special, something almost holy. Crossan portrays the refuge that children (and adults, often enough) seek in a hobby or singular activity, something they can focus on—something they can control.
I'm having a hard time, now, deciding which nominee I’d like to win the award. I loved Code Name Verity: it was tops, because I was entertained even as I nearly cried. The Weight of Water, which I almost spurned, is a strong challenger. It is something that would work for children around twelve or thirteen, provided they can swallow their prejudice against poetry like I did. And I think it has a very rich message, both for people who are not from England as well as people who have grown up here and lived here their entire lives. It's a potent book, and one I’m very glad I deigned to read.