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Where the Water Takes Us

by Alan Barillaro

A summer with your doting grandparents and tons of independence at a beautiful lake might appeal to some 11-year-olds, but for Ava Amato, the protagonist of Where the Water Takes Us, it’s a crushing sentence.

She’s being shipped off because her mother has been put on bed rest during a difficult twin pregnancy. Ava starts her summer not only feeling she’s a burden being shunted out of the way, but also terrified something awful could happen to her faraway mother.

Written by Pixar animator and Oscar-winning writer and director Alan Barillaro, Where the Water Takes Us is a tale about navigating anxiety during that in-between stage of being old enough to pick up on adult vibrations, but not yet able to fully contextualize what is happening. The inward-focused quality of Ava’s character – aided by the remote island’s refreshingly tech-free set-up – is balanced by a cinematic climax that boosts the book to a satisfying conclusion.

Barillaro establishes an idyllic atmosphere early on. Ava observes that her grandparents’ long tenure on their picturesque island has made them absorb its “same wildness.” At one point she witnesses a fawn swimming just inches away – striving, as is thematically appropriate, toward its mother.

From there we go with Ava on a journey of identity and understanding. When a bird dies and Ava is unable to help in its final moments, she decides her family has been cursed as vengeance for her inaction. It’s a heartbreaking moment highlighting how easily children can internalize family stresses and blame themselves for things entirely outside of their control.

Ava isn’t an idealized middle-grade protagonist, neither adorably awkward nor tough and capable. Rather, she’s often anxious and prickly – much like a real 11-year-old navigating the strange terrain between childhood and the teen years. When she meets Cody, the brash and outgoing boy from down the lake who is guilelessly friendly to her, she’s cold and disinterested, her concern for her mother crowding out all other connections. It’s rewarding to watch their friendship slowly blossom, and when Ava finds a purpose by raising two orphaned robins (another set of twins), her growing confidence helps round out her character.

The themes of motherhood and protection are woven deftly through the book, and when Ava is given a second chance to step up, she does so in an earned and satisfying way. Barillaro’s debut shines with an irresistible setting and an authentic heart.


Reviewer: Grace O’Connell

Publisher: Candlewick Press


Price: $24.99

Page Count: 208 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-1-53622-454-2

Released: July

Issue Date: July 2023

Categories: Children and YA Fiction, Kids’ Books

Age Range: 8–12