Breathing Underwater

breathing underwater book


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Book Review

Thirteen-year-old Olivia and her older sister Ruth are taking a cross-country road trip—the reverse of the trip that the two took three years before when their family moved to Tennessee. Olivia is working hard to recapture all the incredible fun they had on that treasure-hunting and goofy picture-snapping excursion. In fact, it’s really important that she does. Ruth has been struggling with difficult bouts of depression lately, and fun sister times have been hard to come by.

Plot Summary

Thirteen-year-old Olivia and her 16-year-old sister Ruth are gonna jump into an RV with their aunt and uncle and take a road trip to California. Now, being in a vehicle for hundreds of hot miles might not necessarily sound like a fun time to you, but it does to Olivia. She has oh-so-many plans. Great plans, goofy plans, secret plans that she’s going to unfold along the way.

An observer would probably say that Olivia is trying to make this into the “road trip of her dreams.” That’s what her mom would say anyway. But the truth is, Olivia wants this to be the trip of her sister Ruth’s dreams. You see, Ruth has been struggling with depression over the last couple of years. Those difficult bouts—that Olivia thinks of as Ruth helplessly sliding into The Pits—have gotten more frequent and increasingly dark.

And each trip to The Pits is almost as painful for Olivia as it is debilitating for her sister. It works like that when you love somebody as much as she loves Ruth. However, Olivia is going to try and make things a little better on this cross-country jaunt. And with any luck, she might even make things incredible! Oh boy, she can’t wait!

OK, the key to it all is the fact that she and Ruth had made pretty much the exact opposite trip a little over three years ago when their whole family moved from California to Tennessee. They had so much fun they could barely stand it. They buried a treasure box of mementos, had a scavenger hunt, played imaginary pirate adventures, took all sorts of goofy snapshots and generally drove their parents crazy. And Olivia hopes to recapture that silly joy and oh-so-much more this go-round.

Olivia has her new camera slung over her shoulder, an Instagram account to memorialize the fun, and enough imagination and cool, memory-making ideas to fill up five or six trips. Now she just needs time and the best opportunity to surprise Ruth with the right gray cloud-shooing stuff.

It’ll work. At least Olivia hopes it will work. No, it must work.

She’ll do the right thing. And get that great picture. That perfect moment when Ruth is happy again.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

The fact is, Olivia is operating on the belief that some special, fun moments during their trip will transform Ruth and pull her out of her depression. But author Sarah Allen gently makes it clear that a magical transformation of that sort rarely happens. A character even says, “Nobody else can control or be in charge of your happiness or unhappiness.” That said, the story makes it clear that loving choices and expressions of love are always a good thing, even when things don’t go the way you plan.

Authority Roles

Olivia’s aunt and uncle, Ellie and Eddie, are both loving adults who are aware of their young charges’ needs. They keep an eye on Ruth’s dark periods, and Ellie in particular always seems to know just when and how to encourage Ruth to get food and water and other things she needs. But they both seem in tune with Olivia’s ups and downs, too. In fact, we later find out that Ellie had struggles with depression and emotional problems as a younger woman. And in a way, Eddie has the same kind of bouncy, positive personality that Olivia has. He’s just as much of a solid help for Ellie as Olivia often is for Ruth.

We never learn much about Olivia and Ruth’s dad, but their mom is very focused on both girls and makes an effort to connect with them regularly throughout the trip. Olivia makes it clear that they are both very loving and consistent parents.

The quartet of travelers run across Ellie’s former therapist in the course of their drive. And though Ellie finds the meeting slightly disquieting—reminding her of less-happy days—the woman is caring and sincere.

Profanity & Violence

During a strained moment between Olivia and Ruth, the older teen calls her sister a “pr–k” for wanting to tell their mom something Ruth wants to keep hidden. Ruth also growls out, “I’m sorry everything’s not always rainbows and glitter, that some of us actually have hard crap to deal with in our lives.” When tempers cool later, Ruth apologizes for her angry words.

Ruth regularly takes prescription medication. And Olivia keeps an eye out to make sure she does. In narration, Olivia talks about the different drugs Ruth and her doctors went through in an effort find the best medicinal balance for her.

There’s no overt or graphic violence in the story mix, but Ruth definitely has dark moments of depression to work through. There are arguments. Olivia envisions grabbing Ruth’s iPod (a 90’s style device she’s always plugged into) and smashing it. And at one point Ruth has an episode when her “pupils flip back under her eyelids” and she passes out and has to be taken to the hospital. But as disheartening as some of the tense and angry incidents may seem, the book uses them to point out the fact that severe depression is a very serious condition; one that can only be managed with the right kind of love and care.

Olivia, Ruth, Ellie and Eddie encounter a pounding, torrential rainstorm during their travels that makes being on the road dangerous.

Sexual Content


Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for other books at

Do you know anyone who struggles with emotional or mental health problems? What do you think is the best way to be a positive influence or a good friend to people who struggle in that way? Is there any way you can help? What can you expect from that relationship?

What about you? Do you ever feel depressed? What are some things that this story suggests might help (even if your depression isn’t anywhere as dark as Ruth’s)? Did you like Olivia’s ideas for fun photos and activities during the trip? Do you think they might be fun things you and your family would enjoy on a long road trip?

What do you think this book is saying about the love between siblings and other family members? Do you think about how much you love your family? Are there new ways that you can express that love?

What was your favorite part of this book?

Additional Comments

Breathing Underwater talks openly, but delicately, about the challenge of navigating mental illness, and specifically, depression. And author Sarah Allen does a great job of ushering young readers into that world—stressing how important it is to be aware and sensitive to the issue—without making it too dark or disturbing.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose

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