Rummanah Aasi
   I'm privileged to have Alex Flinn here on the blog today. Though she's mostly known for her sweet, romantic, and popular fairy tale retellings such as Beastly, A Kiss in Time, and Bewitching, Alex is first book is the gritty, realistic fiction novel, Breathing Underwater, which was challenged but ultimately retained in the Richland School in Washington this year. I actually read about the challenge off of Alex's facebook page and asked if she'd be willing to chat about her experiences of having her book challenged and the writing process of Breathing Underwater. She graciously agreed. Before I get to the interview, I wanted to give you a brief bio on Alex.

   Brief Bio: Alex was born in Glen Cove, New York. Before going to law school, she received a degree in vocal performance (opera) from the University of Miami. She practiced law for ten years before becoming a full-time author. She based her first book, Breathing Underwater, on her experiences interning with the State Attorney's Office and volunteering with battered women. Breathing Underwater won the Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award in 2004.

  Thank you so much for doing this interview, Alex. How did you find out that Breathing Underwater was challenged? What were your first thoughts upon hearing the news? 

  I found out from a Google alert. I've actually been surprised Breathing Underwater hasn't been challenged more, since it has a few swear words, and I know some people think that's important. I think I've had an easy time because, since Breathing Underwater is a problem novel, maybe its value is more obvious (i.e., schools can say that it teaches about dating violence) than with another type of novel. That said, I was sorry it was being challenged because I do think it has great value and the kids might not get to read it. I was also surprised there wasn't more of an uproar about it. The same district challenged Sherman Alexie's book [Rummanah's note: The book Alex is referring to is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian which is awesome and a must read] last year, and everyone was up in arms. I don't know if my book is viewed as having less value so the censorship doesn't matter or if people are just bored, but it didn't seem like anyone really said anything in its defense.

 What does censorship mean to you as an author and as a reader? 

I think it's a shame because it keeps kids from being able to read a book they would enjoy and that might benefit them. In the case of Breathing Underwater, the challenges I have had have either been based on someone not reading the whole book (I've heard comments about not liking Nick's attitude toward women which, of course, is the whole POINT of the book, which someone would understand if they read the whole thing) or a few swear words that everyone has heard anyway. I'm a parent too, and I do pick and choose what my own kids would be exposed to, but I think it should be an individual decision. Also, it sort of amazes me that parents will let their kids see all sorts of violent PG-13 movies in grade school but will recoil at a mild swear word in a book. I guess that attests to the power people give books.

 In your opinion, what is the purpose of realistic fiction? Why is this genre so easily targeted by censors?

Realistic fiction portrays the world in a realistic way. Some readers don't care for it, but a lot of kids (including kids who don't read much at all) will read nothing but realistic fiction. I think it is easily targeted by censors because they either don't want to face that their kids are aware of certain issues or language or because they wish they weren't and want to blame a book. Also, I've seen reviews indicating that a parent was upset that a character in one of my books didn't share their values. Unfortunately, books can't all be about good kids doing wonderful things or they wouldn't have much of a story. A character needs to have flaws in order to have personal growth. For example, Kyle in Beastly is a jerk. He swears. He treats women as objects. I'm not advocating those things and I think readers know that. But that is why he needs to have a book written about him, because it is about him learning that those things are wrong. If he was a great guy, there would be no story. I think the kids get that but, again, if you skim, it's not as obvious.

  Most of the challenges arise from parents. As a parent yourself, have you previewed books for your kids? What advice would you give parents who are completely new to the YA realm? 

Frankly, I'm pickier about movies, but I do notice what my kids are reading. For the most part, my daughters haven't been all that interested in reading books above their age group (The one exception was the Twilight books, and I allowed my daughter to read the first three but not the fourth at age eleven). If I have a real question about a book, I have checked the School Library Journal reviews, which any parent can see on Amazon. Common Sense Media, though sometimes maligned by authors, is not a bad site either. I think they usually place a book as being about a year older than I would. Language, for the most part doesn't bother me, but I recommended that my daughter hold off on reading The Hunger Games until she was twelve just because it was scary. If she'd really wanted to read it, I would have let her, but I suspected she wouldn't like it. She did wait but eventually read the books.

 What is your favorite challenged/censored book you've read and why?

To Kill a Mockingbird because it's a great book.

Why did you want to write about dating violence? 

I volunteered with battered women and I thought it was an important and interesting issue.

Most of the books, at least the ones that I'm familiar with, on dating violence are told from the female point of view. What made you decide to write it from Nick's point of view? 

He was the only character that knew that side of the story. I've always liked to consider why people do what they do. When I was a young teen, I became familiar with Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd, which was the first time I'd ever seen someone give voice to a character who was doing something really bad, yet sought to see his point-of-view. I also had the bizarre experience of being in three different English classes (in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades -- I switched schools) that read The Crucible and then being in a production of the opera in college, as one of the crying out girls. This is another play that really explores the roots of evil, what makes people do what they do, if they know it is wrong or not. I researched that era a lot and found that one of the girls (in real life) portrayed in that play (Actually, the girl I played) actually did apologize to the families of the women who were hanged on her evidence. So, did she know at the time? Did she not understand what it meant to accuse people who would then be killed? Was she too young and just following her parents? Or was she just so caught up in what was happening, as Mary says in the courtroom scene, that she didn't realize what was real and what wasn't? I am very fascinated by people's motivations. In my mind, and from the research I did, Nick (abusers in general) really did not realize he'd done anything wrong and was able to justify his actions to himself. The story, of course, is about him realizing that he can't continue to do so.

What character surprised you the most while writing Breathing Underwater

Nick. I started writing the book in the girl's viewpoint with just a scene or two in Nick's viewpoint, but I became completely obsessed with him.

I was surprised to read Nick's clarity in his journals, which made the book that much more powerful to me. Why did you decide to use the journal motif instead of the group therapy? 

I like split narrative books like this, such as The Prince of Tides or Rob Thomas's Rats Saw God. That was what I wanted to do, two stories that dovetailed. The journals seemed like the best way to do that.

It's been 11 yrs since Nick's story was written. Where do you imagine him to be today?

I always tell teens he's going to go to college and lead a blameless life, which is why I can't write a sequel to his story.

  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Alex. I would like to think the quietness surrounding the book to mean that the book's purpose is quite obvious. 4 out of 5 board members agreed to leave the book on the 12th grade curriculum list and I've read teachers views on the book's importance and power.
   As a librarian I feel obligated to let parents know of any red flags that are found in the books that I feature on my blog just as if they had asked me about the book on my library shelves, which is how I came up with the "Words of Caution" part on my blog. I want to give the parent enough information so they can make the ultimate decision. Only a parent and child can know what is right for them.
8 Responses
  1. Jenny Says:

    "I think it's a shame because it keeps kids from being able to read a book they would enjoy and that might benefit them."

    Exactly! I couldn't agree more. This was an absolutely fantastic interview Rummanah and Alex, with really important and interesting questions and answers. To Kill a Mockingbird was my favorite book in school as well - it would have been extremely disappointing if I had missed out on it then because it was challenged.

  2. What an insightful interview. It disturbs me that people are quick to get up in arms and judge before they have read all the facts. Have they forgotten that this country was founded on the right of free speech? Banning a book over a few mild swear words is ridiculous. I guarantee that kids hear those words everyday on the playground and in the halls. I am certain this book has an important message and
    I would like to check it out.

  3. "Also, it sort of amazes me that parents will let their kids see all sorts of violent PG-13 movies in grade school but will recoil at a mild swear word in a book."

    What is even more alarming is how willing parents are to allow their kids to play violent video games!

    Amazing interview. Thanks for your candid answers, Ms. Flinn.

  4. There's so many books about abuse from the victim's perspective so it's kind of interesting that the author chose to write her story from an abuser's POV. I missed your review yesterday so I'm checking it out now :)

  5. I love it when a book is challenged. It means that it hit the mark somewhere! In fact, when I read an important book I always hope it is challenged. I know that sounds strange, but I think it makes it more interesting to kids to read. That's a good thing. :)

  6. What a great follow up to your review! Very good questions I wouldn't have thought to ask. Especially about what Ms. Flinn's own practices are with regards to her children's reading choices. I really am going to get this one, maybe not on my Kindle. I think maybe the journal writing might lose some of it's impact. And I have teens, boys, that should know what can happen.

    My kids don't like to read out of their age level either even though one has a reading level much higher. It's interest, I guess.

    Awesome interview!

  7. Candace Says:

    Such an amazing interview! I love that it's told from HIS POV rather than the victims. I think it's fascinating to read more into the mind of those doing the bad things, like she said.

    One positive about a book being challenged is that it gets attention again. This is a book that's been out for several years, I bet sales have gone up since it was challenged!

    I watched a panel with Ellen Hopkins last year that was about book banning and it was really interesting. I think *most* people feel the way you do, that the choice to read it should be there and the parents can make the final decision. By high school I don't think I would restrict my children reading at all. They would be free to read what they like.

  8. This is a fabulous, thorough interview! Embarrassingly, I always assumed Alex was male (although I haven't read her books yet) simply based on her name. Silly me.

    I've never understood censorship. Well, I understand the temptation, but I disagree with it. I especially remember having a book that was emotionally very important to me that my friend's grandma tried to ban. There's not allowing your own child to read a book - which is different from not allowing anyone to read it. Although censoring your own children's books probably just makes the book more enticing.

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