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About The Book

“Readers will feel every wave of Tully’s emotions as she risks everything to try to get her mom’s attention. A powerful novel in verse.” —Lisa Fipps, author of Printz Honor book Starfish

A middle grade novel in verse that “packs a powerful punch” (Kirkus Reviews) from acclaimed author Jamie Sumner that spans one girl’s marathon swim over twelve miles and six hours, calling her mom back home with every stroke.

Six hours.
One marathon swim.

That’s all Tully Birch needs to get her life straightened out. With the help of her best friend, Arch, Tully braves the waters of Lake Tahoe to break the record for the youngest person ever to complete the famous “Godfather swim.” She wants to achieve something no one in the world has done, because if she does, maybe, just maybe, her mom will come back.

The swim starts off well—heart steady, body loose, Arch in charge of snacks as needed. But for Tully, all that time alone with her thoughts allows memories to surface. And in the silence of deep waters, sadness can sink you. When the swim turns dangerous, Tully fights for her survival. Does she keep going and risk her own safety and Arch’s? Or does she quit to save them both, even if it means giving up hope that her mother will return?

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Deep Water

by Jamie Sumner

Book Description

Twelve-year-old Tully is determined to be the youngest person ever to swim twelve miles across the icy cold waters of Lake Tahoe and complete the “Godfather” swim. Tully is sure she can do it. After all, she was trained by her mother, who taught her how to be a winner. Tully’s mom left months ago, but if Tully finishes the swim, her mom will have to take notice and come back, right? At first, Tully is swimming strong, supported by her best friend, Arch, in his kayak. But spending hours in the water leaves a lot of time for thinking. Painful memories soon begin to bubble to the surface, along with doubts about her ability to finish the swim. When a lightning storm arrives, Tully and Arch are in serious danger, but if Tully gives up now, her mom might never come back. Will Tully let Arch haul her out of the water, or will she push through the danger and finish the swim?

Discussion Questions

1. What is the “Godfather” swim? Why does Tully decide to do this swim, even though no one her age has done it before? Why does she train for the swim in secret instead of telling the adults in her life?

2. What did you learn about open water swimming from Deep Water? How is the kind of open water swimming Tully does different from swimming in a pool or swimming outside for fun? Have you ever done, or would you ever want to do, a long-distance athletic event like this? Why or why not?

3. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story as a series of poems? What are some things that can be told differently in poetry than in prose? What did you like about reading a story in this format? Were there things that were challenging about it too? If so, how?

4. Why does Tully’s mom leave? How does losing her mom make Tully feel? What does she do to cope with her feelings? What does her dad do?

5. What is Tully like as a person? What is Arch like? Why do you think they’re such good friends? What is your best friend like? Are you very similar, or are there a lot of differences between the two of you?

6. Why do you think Arch agrees to help Tully complete the swim across Lake Tahoe even though he’s what Tully calls an “Indoor Person”? Does he approve of her decision?

7. At the start of the book, Tully says, “I don’t make mistakes.” (p. 7) Do you think this is true? Do you think Tully makes any mistakes in the book? What value is there in making mistakes?

8. Tully says that “The scariest thing / … is the monster that lives in your head. / Mom taught me that.” (p. 48) What do you think Tully means by this? Why does she say this is something her mom taught her? Do you agree that the monsters that live inside our heads are scarier than anything else?

9. What event does the poem that starts on page 113, titled “The Best Day of My Life” describe? Why is it such an amazing day for Tully? This poem is immediately followed by one titled “The Worst Day of My Life.” What is the worst day of Tully’s life?

10. This is how Tully describes her parents: “Dad is the lake on a windless summer day– / so calm and clear you can see all the way to the bottom. / Mom is the chop of waves on a yellow-flag day / that you cross your fingers won’t turn to red.” (p. 127) What do you think she means by these descriptions? What is Tully’s dad like? What is her mom like?

11. “I heard Mom call her depression / ‘a prison in my mind.’” (p. 61) What do you think Tully’s mom means by this? In what ways is depression like a prison?

12. “All systems go, I think, and smile / at the idea of myself as a machine, / circuits buzzing with unstoppable energy.” (p. 26) Why is this an appealing way for Tully to think of herself? What makes you feel like you have unstoppable energy?

13. For Tully’s mom, “Once the challenge was done, / there was nothing left to hold her up.” (p. 60) What do you think will hold Tully up once her challenge is done? Who or what holds you up during difficult times in your life?

14. What is dangerous about swimming in a storm? Why does Tully insist on continuing her swim even after the storm rolls in? How does Arch feel about this?

15. When Tully decides to leave Arch behind and continue swimming through the storm, she thinks, “It’s better this way. / He’ll be better this way.” (p. 191) What does she mean by this? Do you think it’s true? Will Tully be better without Arch? Will Arch be better without Tully?

16. Of the swim, Tully says, “I have dragged [Arch] into another fight.” (p. 91) When has Tully dragged Arch into fights in the past? In what way has she dragged Arch into a fight now?

17. Do you think Tully is a good friend to Arch during the events of this book? Why or why not?

18. What personality traits and skills does Tully have that will help her survive the swim across Lake Tahoe? What traits and skills do you have that help you face big challenges? What is the biggest challenge you’ve ever taken on?

19. The author uses the poetic form to express Tully’s thoughts and feelings. For example, she sometimes using very short lines with just one word or even a single letter. How do the very short lines change how you read these parts of the poems? Can you find other examples of how the form of the poem changes how you read it?

20. In the second-to-last poem, Tully realizes, “I am my father’s daughter.” (p. 204) What does she mean by this? How do you think Tully’s swim will change her relationship with her dad?

21. What happens when Tully’s dad finally arrives at the lake to get her? How does it make Tully feel? Did her dad’s decision surprise you?

22. After her swim, Tully thinks: “Maybe perfection isn’t possible / without sacrifice. / But I don’t want / to be perfect / if it means / ending up / alone.” (p. 210) What does Tully mean by this? Do you think Tully’s mom would agree? Explain your reasoning.

23. Were you surprised at the way the story ended? Why or why not?

24. Compare Tully at the start of the book to Tully at the end. How has she changed? How is she still the same? Give specific examples.

25. Do you think Tully’s mom will ever come back? If you were going to give Tully advice about coping with her mom leaving, what would you tell her?

Extension Activities

1. Create a poster, slideshow, or video about open water swimming on Lake Tahoe. What challenges does the lake present? What are the rules? What physical and mental preparation is required to complete a swim like this? Who are the current record holders? If you’d like, you can also include information about other long-distance swims and how they compare to the “Godfather” swim across Lake Tahoe.

2. In the poems “Zing,” “Dropping,” and “A Body in Motion” (pp. 148, 186, 193), Tully is caught in bad weather while she swims. These poems are printed on the page in unusual shapes. Choose one of the poems and write a report analyzing it. Begin by reading the poem aloud. Then, analyze how the author uses the poem’s form to express the events and Tully’s emotions. Be sure to consider how the poem looks on the page, line length, repeated words, where lines are broken, how the poem is broken into stanzas, and anything else you notice.

3. Write a poem in Tully’s voice, capturing how she is feeling and what she is thinking during an important moment in the story: the day after her mom left or when Tully comes ashore after her swim, for example. If you’d like, you can also write a poem about a frightening or emotional experience from your own life.

4. Deep Water is a novel in verse, which is a novel-length story written in poetry instead of prose. Research novels in verse. What are the features of a novel in verse? What were some of the earliest novels in verse? What are some well-known modern novels in verse, especially those written for young readers? Why do authors choose to write in this format? Present your findings as a report or a poster.

5. Create a poster or write a report about how losing a parent affects children. What problems can it cause for kids? What are some healthy and unhealthy ways for a child to cope with this kind of loss? What resources are available for kids who need support?

6. Working with a partner, each person should write a poem about a key event in their own life. Then, write about the same event in prose. Trade work and compare the two. Think about how the use of verse instead of prose impacts the mood, pacing, and emotion of the story. Which version of your partner’s story do you like better? Do you think poetry is better for some kinds of stories and prose for others?

7. Organize a poetry reading for your class, library, or book club. Each participant should choose a poem from the book to perform in front of the group. If you’d like, each person can also bring a poem they would like to read aloud from a different author.

Note: Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition of this title.

Chris Clark is a writer and reading teacher who lives with her family in coastal Maine.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

Photograph © Bethany Rogers

Jamie Sumner is the author of Roll with ItTime to Roll, Rolling OnTune It OutOne Kid’s TrashThe Summer of JuneMaid for ItDeep Water, and Please Pay Attention. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and other publications. She loves stories that celebrate the grit and beauty in all kids. She is also the mother of a son with cerebral palsy and has written extensively about parenting a child with special needs. She and her family live in Nashville, Tennessee. Visit her at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (April 9, 2024)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665935081
  • Ages: 10 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

★ “This touching and deeply affecting novel takes on difficult topics such as maternal abandonment and codependency and gives readers a peek into the feelings and thoughts that underpin childhood trauma.”


★ "Sumner sensitively maps a troubled relationship . . . The author vividly renders the extreme efforts required to finish the long swim, giving Tully’s inner progress like length and depth . . . Readers will be swept up in the currents and undercurrents."


"Packs a powerful punch."

– Kirkus Reviews

"Each mile not only propels the race forward but delves deeper into Tully’s life story, drawing readers into her struggles and emotions. . . A wonderful read that will resonate with athletes, those navigating family challenges, and even reluctant readers; a strong addition to all middle grade library collections."

– School Library Journal

"[In] this carefully crafted verse novel . . . Sumner compassionately examines the effects that living with a parent managing mental health challenges can have on a child."

– Publishers Weekly

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