BREATHING UNDERWATER, by Sarah Allen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), March 30, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 10-14)
Sarah Allen’s Breathing Underwater follows two sisters as they journey across the country in hopes of regaining the joy of their past.
Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt across the country, like pirates hunting for treasure, taking pictures and making memories along the way.
All she wants is to take the picture that makes her sister smile. But what if things can never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? Through all the questions, loving her sister, not changing her, is all Olivia can do ― and maybe it’s enough. —Synopsis provided by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Breathing Underwater is a thoughtful, middle-grade novel that focuses on depression and its impact on an entire family.
Author Sarah Allen adeptly shows the family dynamics; from how Olivia’s parents approach things to how Olivia is carefully watching. Olivia has gotten to the point where she knows the signs. She knows when Ruth will have a good or bad day. That sort of sibling understanding rings true.
Where things could have been better developed, however, is with Ruth. Some readers might construe her constant eye-rolling and iPod habit as that of a normal teenager. While Olivia’s observations add context and depression manifests differently in people, a little more depth, perhaps from Ruth’s perspective could have taken Breathing Underwater to a more impactful place.
Despite my quibbles, I don’t want to discount the value of Breathing Underwater. Mental health issues, including depression, manifest in so many ways that this book may find its way to readers for which it will resonate. Allen’s writing style is accessible and tender, making it a good addition to this genre.
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