Learning Not to Drown

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
Learning Not to Drown Book Poster Image
Teen faces her criminal brother's legacy in gripping read.

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Kids say

age 14+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will learn about how the legal and prison systems work, the difficulties released prisoners have in reintegrating into society, and the stigma attached to convicted criminals and their families.

Positive Messages

There's hope for a bright future, even if you come from a troubled family. You can't change people, but you can learn how to protect and care for yourself. Developing your own support system outside your family helps.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Clare learns how to be self-sufficient and develop a support system away from her dysfunctional family. Her close friends are positive influences on her and demonstrate love, trust, and loyalty. A friend's mom takes Clare under her wing and advocates for her. One of Clare's brothers works through his own issues to become more caring and supportive toward her. 


Several physical altercations and assaults end with broken bones and stitches. Character's accused and convicted of rape. A character recounts witnessing a rape when younger. Description of the aftermath of serious car accident with bloodied driver.


Vague reference to a teen couple making out. A second-hand story of a girl sneaking out of a boy's house in the morning, implying she spent the night.


"S--t" and its variations, "f--k" and its variations, "crap" and its variations, "pissed," "God," "bitch," "dumbass," "a--munch," "a--hole," "butt," "butthole," "buttmunch."


Lucky Charms, Coors, Marlboro, Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Heineken, Corona, MGD, Guinness, SKYY Vodka, Speedo, Coke

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Underage and adult drinking, pot smoking, and cigarette smoking. A few characters get drunk. References to serious drug use and addiction. Teens drink and smoke pot at high school graduation.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Learning Not to Drown details the ways in which one person's demons can cause a serious ripple effect through the lives of the people around him. Clare Tovin is a smart, self-reliant teenager whose brother Luke has been in and out of jail most of her life. This causes many people in her small town to whisper and judge the Tovin family. Although Clare idolizes Luke, she comes to learn the reality of his crimes and her parents' enabling behavior toward him. Characters, including teens, drink, smoke, and use drugs. There are several violent altercations, and a character is accused and convicted of rape. Characters use strong language, including "f--k" and its variations and "s--t" and its variations.

User Reviews

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Teen, 14 years old Written bypepperoots August 31, 2014
this is one of the best dysfunctional family stories...EVER

What's the story?

LEARNING NOT TO DROWN tells the story of Clare Tovin and her dysfunctional family. Even though Clare's brother Luke has been in and out of jail for most of her life, he's good to her and she idolizes him. Because of Luke's run-ins with the law, the Tovin family is not always embraced in their small town. The book opens with Clare's vague flashback of discovering an altercation in her home; from there the action alternates between 17-year-old Clare's current life and flashbacks to her early family memories. As the recollections eventually catch up to present time, Clare's memories become clearer, allowing her to connect the dots of the her brother's troubles with the law and the ways in which her family has -- and hasn't -- dealt with them. Along the way, we meet Skeleton, the taunting, goading specter Clare sees whenever her family's troubles interfere with her life and happiness.

Is it any good?

In her debut novel, Anna Shinoda creates a gripping, realistic tale of living with the fallout of a relative's crimes and of the stigma that comes with being associated with a criminal. The story's told from Clare's point of view, and at first she is whiny and grating. But as she faces her family's secrets and learns to advocate for herself, her tone becomes more assured. It's enjoyable to watch her mature over the course of the book. Learning Not to Drown's structure of alternating between past and present builds interest and moves the story forward in a compelling way.

Clare's life is frustrating, and she gets no support at home, but the overall message is good: You can't change people, but you can take care of yourself and build a good support system outside of your family. The lurking character of Skeleton, a representation of Clare's embarrassment over her family, is a clever device. He taunts Clare, but she eventually learns to face him and deal with his near-constant presence. Clare's parents are infuriating characters, and her dad's role is somewhat confusing and poorly fleshed out. The story would have benefited from further exploration of their relationship and his motivations.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about sharing personal issues with others. How do you feel about the way Clare's mother refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of Luke's crimes?

  • How does Learning Not to Drown compare with other books you've read or movies you've seen about dysfunctional families?

  • How would you react if a friend's family member was accused of a serious crime? Would you try to get your friend to talk about it, or would you not want to bring it up for fear of upsetting him or her?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories

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