By Gray & Zoe D.

Editor’s note: I was lucky enough to hear Sylvester speak at a recent Texas Book Festival panel. All quotes are from that event. 

Have you ever read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and thought: gosh, I really wish someone would turn this into a contemporary YA about a disabled Peruvian-Floridian girl who likes mermaids and a boy in her apartment complex with running themes of accepting your identity and a happy ending? Then look no further than Natalia Sylvester’s Breathe and Count Back From Ten!

Sylvester’s book is perfectly serviced by her bold writing style with a poetic edge that keeps the story whimsical while staying grounded in reality. In fact, Sylvester herself didn’t start writing fiction until college. She hesitates to call herself a poet because she feels like her work doesn’t qualify, but judging from her prose, a childhood spent in verse was key to her development as an author. Even though she may have discovered it later, fiction suits Sylvester brilliantly. She uses her work to emphasize reality, allowing her characters to have good character arcs that mirror her own life. I don’t mean to come off too English-teacher-telling-you-the-color-of-the-blinds-is-important, but Sylvester genuinely uses fiction to its’ greatest extent, flawlessly hitting on all its strengths. Sylvester’s work is “rooted in a deep and true part of [her]”, with her characters and stories branching off from a place of shared experiences. The main character of her latest novel, Veronica shares many traits with the author. Both have hip dysplasia, and because of that have scars from a multitude of surgeries. Veronica, much like Sylvester’s younger self, feels at home in the water because her scars aren’t visible. 

Even though Breathe and Count Back From Ten contains plenty of themes about growing up, asking for help, and the intersections of different parts of one’s identity, that’s not to say it’s boring or even feels too heavy. At its core, the novel is about a girl who just really wants to work at a mermaid theme park (don’t we all?) and gets to be happy. When asked what she wanted readers to take away from her book, Sylvester simply said, “I want them to enjoy it…if it’s not a page-turner, then what’s the point?” If you’re tired of reading about people with disabilities/young women suffering all the time, I would highly recommend this book. It hits the perfect balance between deep and fun and leaves you with the feeling of sunbathing on the beach after swimming for hours. 

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