Barely Floating

­Penguin/Kokila. Aug. 2023. 240p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780593323120.
Gr 5 Up–Twelve-year-old Nat has never hesitated to speak her mind or to stand up for what she believes in, even if it sometimes gets her in trouble for being angry and confrontational. But when her parents forbid her from joining the L.A. Mermaids, a local synchronized swimming team, she is afraid to try to convince them. Her mother has always actively opposed any activity that is overly focused on physical appearance or traditional female beauty norms. Nat joins the team without telling her family, and although she loves the way synchronized swimming makes her feel, she is soon struggling to pay for equipment, find transportation, and juggle her practice schedule, homework, and time with her best friend. She also has to find ways to deal with people who imply that synchronized swimming should only be for thin white girls, not Latinas with curves like hers. Eventually, her secret is discovered, and Nat has to find a way to explain her feelings to her parents without damaging her relationship with them. The strength of this novel lies in its complex, believable characters. Nat loves and respects her parents, who are presented as encouraging and progressive, but she chafes against her mother’s dismissal of fashion and make-up, and sometimes wishes her mother would take time away from her various political causes to be with her. She is extremely confident and self-assured, but still has occasional moments of doubt when faced with comments about her physical appearance. One subplot featuring a cousin who becomes estranged from her mother for being gay, is left unresolved at the end of the book. But it serves as a counterpoint to the complicated yet ultimately strong relationship between Nat and her mother. The novel features a diverse cast of characters from a wide range of backgrounds, and Nat's first-person narrative is sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases.
VERDICT This compelling character-driven novel will leave readers wanting to spend more time with Nat and her family.

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