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Natalia Sylvester's BREATHE AND COUNT BACK FROM TEN - Navigating Identity

by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)

Book cover of Natalia Sylvester's Breathe and Count Back from Ten

Our February Unabridged Podcast Buddy Read pick was Natalia Sylvester's Breathe and Count Back from Ten ( | (I read this one via audio and highly recommend that format, narrated by Frankie Corzo.)

The novel, which won the Pura Belpré Young Adult Author Honor, AudioFile Magazine Earphones Award, and Schneider Family Book Award Honor, was a rich text to read and discuss.

The story centers on Verónica, who lives with her parents in central Florida and has dreamed since she was a young girl of being a mermaid at Mermaid Cove.

Verónica has always been most at home in the water, where she feels strong and in control. On land? Not so much.

Her parents are loving but very controlling. They immigrated from Peru to the United States to seek treatment for Verónica's hip dysplasia, and her mother, in particular, worries constantly that doing anything wrong could mean that they'll be sent back.

Her father shows his concern for Verónica by sheltering her. That means that they don't tell her everything about her medical situation and also that he has forbidden her from having any contact with boys.

Her parents' treatment of her reached a breaking point right before the beginning of the novel, when they found her with a boy at the pool in their apartment complex. What they don't know is that he was in the midst of a demeaning assault on Verónica that centered on her physical difference. Instead, they focus on her behavior, which they see as outrageous, and begin treating her as if she has shamed the family irreparably.

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.

I appreciated so much about the way the book develops from this premise. Verónica's understanding of her identity—as a Peruvian-American, as a young adult, and as someone navigating her physical disability—is keen but also still developing. She yearns for a true romantic connection with someone who can see every facet of who she is. She has that in her best friend, Leslie, and in her sister, who (despite some misunderstandings) provide wonderful support for her. When Alex and his mother move into their apartment complex, Verónica feels an instant connection and is tempted to risk her parents' disapproval by forging a relationship with him.

Sylvester's own experience with hip dysplasia informs the narrative, and Verónica works through her conflicts with her parents over her treatment and her feelings about others' reactions with incredible maturity and self-awareness that always felt realistic. Her frustration with her parents leads her to audition to become a mermaid, to follow her dream, in secret, and the experiences she has there enhance her understanding of who she wants to be and how she wants to live.

Breathe and Count Back from Ten is a powerful novel about growing up, about healing, and about taking control of our identities. Verónica's voice is a powerful one, and I was so thrilled to discuss it with our group.

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