(Farrar Straus and Giroux (BYR))
Publication date: March 31st, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Middle-Grade
Breathing Underwater is a sparkly, moving middle grade novel from Sarah Allen, and a big-hearted exploration of sisterhood, dreams, and what it means to be there for someone you love.
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.
For so many writers, myself included, writing is a coping mechanism.
Breathing Underwater got its earliest start during my senior year of college. I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University, and so excited about the classes I was taking and what was ahead of me after graduation. I was busy making plans, figuring out the life I wanted for myself, and the stories I wanted to tell. I was, for the most part, doing pretty great.
My best friends, the closest people to me, were not.
During my freshman year, I was lucky enough to land with a group of girls who understood me in a way not many people had before. I’d found my squad. We stayed together for the rest of college, and I was so grateful to have them. They were my found-sisters. And then during senior year, life came at us fast. Every one of them had serious challenges they were facing, including incredibly tender and difficult mental health challenges. I was desperate to help in any way I could, but didn’t know how. So I wrote.
Along with these found sisters, I have seven younger siblings who I adore. I think because of this, I naturally find myself gravitating toward sibling stories, especially sister stories. I remember going on road trips as a family in our big twelve passenger van. (My seat was back row on the driver’s side!) One summer we even took an RV. When I look back on the most fun, important, and formative memories from my childhood, those road trips are definitely right there in the center. So as I was building this story, once I had my two sister characters, I couldn’t wait to put them together on a road trip across the country.
That’s where the easy parts of the story ended. This book has been nearly eight years in the making and has gone through a myriad of forms. In the earliest drafts there was a cousin along for the trip too, and even some supernatural elements! I had mentors help me take it from the early version to the next, my agent helped take it a step further, and finally my brilliant editor really helped bring it all together to where it is now. Even while the story went through all these changes, the heart and core of the story—the relationship between Olivia and Ruth—was always the centerpiece. That didn’t change. In fact, each pass I made through the story focused it more and more on the sisters, and brought out those elements that I really cared about and put them in the spotlight.
Along the way, I had so much fun Google Mapsing my way along the route Olivia and Ruth take, looking up pictures of amazing places like the Cafe du Mond and Wreck Alley, and researching photography and SCUBA diving. With the help of my mentors, editors, and generous sensitivity readers, I learned so much about mental health, about the urgency of representing it in children’s literature, and even about myself. It’s an honor to share Olivia and Ruth’s journey with you!
Sarah Allen has been published in The Evansville Review, Allegory, and on WritersDigest. She has an MFA from Brigham Young University. Like Libby in her novel What Stars are Made Of, Allen was born with Turner Syndrome.
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