Review: Breathe and Count Back From Ten - Natalia Sylvester
Genre: YA Contemporary, Disability Published: Clarion Books, May 2022
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
“ Unable to see my legs, I feel a kinship to the mermaids. My cast covered my left leg in its entirety and my right down to my knees. It created a dividing line between the upper and the lower parts of my body that I could and couldn’t use. Like the mermaids, I too, was a hybrid creature with two halves that didn’t match. Until I first encountered them, I’d never considered this could be beautiful. ”
Considering the rarity of good representation of chronic illness in books in general, but especially the ones for children and teens, it’s a joy to find gems like this one! Breathe and Count Back From Ten is an unforgettable YA-contemporary about a Peruvian-American girl navigating her painful hip dysplasia, overprotective immigrant parents, and first love, all while chasing her dream of becoming a professional mermaid.
Verónica has always loved the water. Not only is gravity so much kinder, allowing her to move as freely and gracefully as she wants, it’s also the home of her favourite mythological creature: the mermaid. When an opportunity opens up for a performing mermaid in the elite under-water show of a local historical site/theme-park: Roni jumps at the opportunity. The life of a performing mermaid isn’t easy however, especially when your parents, as well as the rest of the world have different ideas about what’s safe and “appropriate” for your body to do.
Having been a disabled teen who loved the water herself, I related to Verónica in many ways. I adored the many important discussions that were had here. From Roni’s split between wanting to love her body, and feeling like the world wants to erase its flaws, to her relationship with her overprotective parents who want the best for their daughter, but end up holding her too tight… It all works in this story, and clearly comes from a place of understanding and experience from the author herself. Even the romance, despite being a little too insta-love-y for my taste, won me over eventually thanks to the wonderful discussions of mental health and bodily difference had between the two.
The parallel with the mermaid mythology is where the story truly shines, as speaks from the quote above. Roni’s feeling of displacement in a world that doesn’t cater to the needs of her body, and only seems to accept her when she “masks” her differences to create the illusion of perfection struck a deep cord with me. The same goes for the performance-aspect of this elite mermaid-troup. To use Roni’s own words:
“The way she said crutch makes me feel like needing one is a bad thing. Like maybe the “magic” isn’t just about believing in mermaids; it’s about believing people like me don’t exist. Like maybe admitting I’ve needed crutches dispels the myths we want to believe about people. That we’re not perfect. That our bodies have needs. That this doesn’t make us any less real. Any less human.”
Breathe and Count Back From Ten does disability representation justice. It’s not a “inspirational tale” written by able-bodied people, for able bodied people to pity. It’s a story without a tear-jerking, preachy agenda; a love letter to bodily differences, and a tale that invites readers to see themselves in.
I truly hope this book gets the recognition and support it deserves. Not just to help (young) disabled readers see themselves in a story, but to show publishers that this is the new era of disability-fiction we want!
Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. You can find this book here on Goodreads.
Read-alikes: Like Water