Flinn, Alex 1966-
FLINN, Alex 1966-
Born October 23, 1966, in Glen Cove, NY; daughter of Nicholas (a ship chandler), and Manya (a homemaker; maiden name, Ellert) Kissanis; married Eugene Flinn, Jr. (an attorney), May 23, 1992; children: Katherine, Meredith. Education: University of Miami, bachelor of music, 1988; Nova Southeastern University Law School, J.D., 1992. Religion: Greek Orthodox. Hobbies and other interests: Volunteer work, theater, opera.
Writer and attorney. Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, Miami, FL, intern; Martinez & Gutierrez, Miami, practicing attorney, 2001.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, both 2001, American Booksellers Association Pick of the Lists, Book Sense 76 list, New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, Tayshas (TX) State List, Iowa Educational Media Association High School Book Award Master List, Rhode Island Teen Book Award Master List, Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults List nomination, and Children's Literature Choices List, all 2002, Oklahoma Sequoia Young Adult Master List, 2003-04, and Maryland Black-eyed Susan Award, 2004, all for Breathing Underwater; ALA Quick Picks and Young Adults Books nomination, both 2002, both for Breaking Point.
Breathing Underwater, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Breaking Point, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Flinn's works have been translated into Spanish, Catalan, and Slovenian.
Both Breathing Underwater and Breaking Point were both adapted for audiocassette by Listening Library, 2002.
"I write for teens because I never finished being one," commented author Alex Flinn in an interview with an online contributor for Embracing the Child. Despite her own fond memories of growing up, Flinn's young-adult novels, which include Breathing Underwater, Breaking Point, Nothing to Lose, and Fade to Black, have been praised for their edgy realism. Using the point of view of a male teen in each of her books, she tells about an abusive relationship and dating violence in Breathing Underwater, while in Breaking Point she focuses on school violence and peer pressure. Nothing to Lose again focuses on abusive relationships, this time as they escalate in violence and create emotional fallout, while Fade to Black follows a high schooler who must confront discrimination and fear when he is publicly announced to be HIV positive. Praising Fade to Black in Kirkus Reviews, a critic noted that the author "draws perceptive pictures of family relationships" in a novel that presents a "readable exploration of ethical issues." As Paula Rohrlick noted in a Kliatt review of Nothing to Lose, "Flinn doesn't hesitate to tackle disturbing topics and succeeds in making the experiences and emotions of her protagonists realistic and gripping."
Born in New York state, Flinn grew up in both Syosset, New York, and in Miami, Florida. Reading was an early habit for her, with her list of favorite authors including Astrid Lindgren, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Marilyn Sachs, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Flinn also noted that she has read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess fifty times. She decided to be a writer at an early age; when her mother suggested that the five year old should be an author, Flinn recalled on her Web site that "I guess I must have nodded or something because from that point on, every poem I ever wrote in school was submitted to Highlights or Cricket magazine. I was collecting rejection slips at age seven."
By the time she was in high school, Flinn's artistic aspirations had expanded to include performing arts. While attending the University of Miami she studied opera, singing as a coloratura, "the really loud, high-pitched soprano," Flinn explained on her Web site. Following graduation, she enrolled in law school and then interned with the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office in a misdemeanor court and volunteering with battered women. As an intern, she became involved with domestic violence cases, and she would later draw on this experience in her novel Breathing Underwater. She thereafter went into private practice for a time and married a fellow attorney. Eventually, however, Flinn rekindled her old love, and while on leave for a pregnancy, she decided to devote full time to writing.
Flinn's legal work and volunteer work with battered women strongly influenced her choice of topic for her first novel, as did a startling statistic she discovered: about twenty-six percent of high school and college women report having been in an abusive relationship. Additionally, one of the clients in the shelter for battered women where she volunteered was murdered by her husband in front of the woman's children. This tragedy convinced Flinn that the subject of abuse needed wider understanding. Researching the subject, she read books on counseling and on abuse, and interviewed several women who worked in a domestic violence program. Additionally, she began reading young-adult novels, for she saw her tale as one dealing with teenagers. "I knew that I wanted to write Y.A.," she told Sue Corbett in an interview for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, "and I saw little out there about this subject. I had a daughter and thought there should be something out there so that girls would recognize the warning signs of such a relationship."
The work of author Richard Peck particularly impressed her; as she noted on her author Web site, "Reading [Peck's] books is like listening to Mozart—you learn the right way to write a novel. Then you fill in your own style." She subsequently attended a workshop given by Peck. "When I close my eyes, I am still thirteen years old," Flinn explained of the way she gets inside her teen protagonists. "I remember everything about that time in sharp focus, the pain of not really fitting in at school, struggles with schoolwork (Math!), wondering if I'd ever meet the guy of my dreams, and wanting so bad to grow up because I felt it was the light at the end of the tunnel. I write my books for that girl, what she would want to read."
Flinn began her first novel by introducing two characters, Caitlin and Nick, who she had once developed for a young-adult fantasy she partially wrote while still in college. At first she told of the abusive relationship between the two from Caitlin's point of view, but soon realized that it was Nick she wanted to use as her point-of-view character. As Flinn discovered in her research, it is the troubled home life of the abuser that sets the cycle of abuse in action, and she felt that through Nick she could better explore the root of the abuse cycle. Writing during her breaks and at lunchtime once she returned to her job as an attorney, Flinn finally finished her manuscript and found a publisher.
Told through the journal entries of Nick Andreas, Breathing Underwater examines an abusive relationship from the viewpoint of the abuser. At age sixteen, Nick has long been considered one of the cool kids in school. He is wealthy, good looking, popular, intelligent, a charmer, a football player, and drives a classic Mustang. That is his public face, however. Behind closed doors is revealed a different Nick, one tainted by the abuse of a father who continually labels his son a loser. Nick and his father live alone together, and Nick has not seen his mother since he was five years old. Angry, frustrated, and confused, the inner Nick is like a bomb waiting to go off.
Soon after school starts, Nick spies Caitlin McCourt, a pretty girl who, because of a recent weight problem, exudes little self-confidence. With the help of his best friend, Tom, Nick meets Caitlin and starts dating her. However, Nick soon starts recreating the only relationship he knows, transforming his controlling relationship with Caitlin into a verbally abusive and ultimately physically abusive one.
Breathing Underwater opens with Nick in court, facing a restraining order from Caitlin, whom he admits he has slapped. The court finds him guilty and sentences him to six months of counseling. He must also keep a weekly journal that explains his relationship with his girlfriend from the first time he met her up to the present. The book is told in a dual narrative, aligning Nick's journal entries with Nick's post-court return to the affluent Key Biscayne High School where everybody knows of his abusive behavior. At first Nick resists taking responsibility for what he has done, and he resists participating in counseling. However, a wake-up call comes in the form of a tragedy: another equally resistant member of his counseling program, Leo, manages to get his girlfriend to drop her charges, kills the young woman, and then commits suicide.
Critical response to Breathing Underwater was overwhelmingly positive. "The voice of Nick," Corbett wrote, "the most unsympathetic creep a reader will ever find herself feeling sorry for, is pitch-perfect." In reality, though, this cool exterior hides a kid who himself has been a victim of abuse and is desperate to find love. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly felt that the "correlation between Nick's controlling behavior and his father's abuse is subtle but effective." The same contributor concluded that Nick ultimately takes responsibility for his actions, an action which carries "heavy emotional weight in this gripping tale." Joel Shoemaker, writing in School Library Journal, felt that Flinn's narrative is an "open and honest portrayal of an all-too-common problem," while a critic for Booklist found the elements of the tale combine to provide "a quick and absorbing read." Reviewing the novel for the Voice of Youth Advocates, Beth Anderson wrote that the novel is "almost too painful to read," but that it also provides a "road map to warning signs" of abuse.
Flinn purposely set Breathing Underwater in an affluent community, amid high-achieving teenagers, so as to bring her message home: abuse can happen anywhere and is not simply an inner-city problem. Because of this approach, her message reached a broad spectrum of readers. In her interview with Embracing the Child, Flinn noted that she hears not only from victims of abuse, but also from young boys. One such letter came from two boys in a juvenile detention system. According to Flinn, "They said the book really related to their lives and their anger. Both of them said they didn't like to read, but they liked Breathing. "
Flinn tackles another serious juvenile problem—school violence—in her novel Breaking Point. Fifteen-year-old Paul, the narrator, is at a crossroad in his young life. His parents have recently divorced and his father, who is in the military, now wants no part of his son, while his mother uses the boy as an emotional crutch. Home-schooled before the divorce, nerdish Paul now enters an exclusive private school in Miami where his mother works so that her son can receive a reduced tuition. Paul and his mother also live in less-comfortable circumstances in a small apartment, making the newbie an easy target of the snobby, affluent clique at Gate-Brickell Christian School. At first made the subject of practical jokes, Paul surprisingly is soon befriended by one of the most popular kids at school, Charlie Good. Charlie has plans for Paul, and tests the teen by telling him to destroy mailboxes, steal, and drink alcohol. Desperate to fit in, Paul complies, even allowing himself to be manipulated into gaining access to the school computer and changing one of Charlie's grades. Ultimately, the angry and malevolent Charlie talks Paul into planting a bomb in the school.
Kimberly L. Paone, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, welcomed Breaking Point, commenting that not since Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War "have characters been drawn to be so brilliantly twisted." Francisca Goldsmith in Booklist found the novel to be "grim and emotional, … cathartic reading for teens." However, a critic for Kirkus Reviews viewed the book as "just one more variation on the familiar theme of paying a high price for popularity." Janet Hilburn, writing in School Library Journal, saw Flinn's novel as more noteworthy, concluding that the author "has succeeded in her goal" of understanding what can make teens angry and isolated. Hilburn further noted that, "Despite his actions, Paul comes across as a likable, although misguided, teen in a book that is well worth reading." Paone concluded, "This timely, engaging book is certain to grab the interest of teens."
Breaking Point was a difficult book for Flinn to write; in the process she had to relive her own school experiences of feeling like an outsider and trying hard to fit in. As she recalled of the process of writing Breaking Point on her Web site, "I felt like I was back at that school I hated. But I know a lot of people have had that experience and will relate to Paul, if not his actions.… There is an increased awareness of kids who don't fit in. And, unfortunately, there have been kids who have been allowed these feelings of isolation—which are, in the end, temporary—to cause them to commit actions with permanent effects."
Nothing to Lose focuses on seventeen-year-old Michael Daye, who lives with his mother and stepfather in Miami. When the family violence escalates to the point of no return, Michael's mother fights back, and her ultra-wealthy attorney husband winds up dead. With his mother charged with murder, Michael adopts the assumed name of Robert Frost and joins a traveling carnival, working the Whack-a-Mole game and hoping to escape police interrogation, the trauma of his family's situation, and his feelings of guilt over not being able to protect his mother better. When the carnival winds up in his Miami hometown, Michael is forced to stick it out or lose his job, and once again he finds himself embroiled in his mother's high-profile murder trial and questions surrounding his stepfather's death. Telling her story by alternating between the events leading up to the stepfather's murder and Michael's ultimate decision to come forth and aid his mother in her legal battles, Flinn presents readers with what a Publishers Weekly contributor described as a "compelling premise and format" that combine to produce a "juicy story and edgy narration [that] will likely hook readers.
Praising Nothing to Lose as a "heartrending, unforgettable book," School Library Journal reviewer Lynn Evarts added that Flinn presents an accurate portrait of the aftereffects of abuse as well as explore "the legal implications of 'self-defense.' The author "does a masterful job of exploring domestic violence," added a Kirkus Reviews contributor, noting that Flinn "conveys that it's prevalent among all economic classes and destructive wherever it takes hold." Praising Nothing to Lose as a "fast-paced, readable mystery," Booklist reviewer Michael Cart added that the secondary story about Michael's life as a carney and his romance with a coworker named Kirstie "add gritty texture and a layer of emotional richness to the already intriguing plot."
Despite her focus on serious themes, Flinn considers herself first and foremost a storyteller. "The story has to come first," she commented in her interview with Embracing the Child. A YA novel must contain "a good story with characters they really care about, and the 'S' word: Suspense." Flinn finds the business of writing and publishing exciting in its own right. As she told Kathie Bergquist in a Publishers Weekly interview, "Sometimes I feel like I should be the one paying [my publishers]. It's just been so exciting!"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Book, July-August, 2003, Kathleen Odean, "Unanimous Verdict: For These Lawyers the Decision's In: Kids Are a More Rewarding Audience than Jurors," p. 31.
Booklist, August, 2001, review of Breathing Underwater, p. 2106; June 1, 2002, Lolly Gepson, review of Breathing Underwater (audio version), p. 1753; September 1, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Breaking Point, p. 16; March 15, 2004, Michael Cart, review of Nothing to Lose, p. 1299.
Horn Book, May-June, 2004, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Nothing to Lose, p. 327.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2002, review of Breaking Point, pp. 490-491; February 15, 2004, review of Nothing to Lose, p. 177; March 15, 2005, review of Fade to Black, p. 351.
Kliatt, November, 2002, Jean Palmer, review of Breathing Underwater, p. 19; July, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of Breaking Point, p. 21; March, 2004, Raula Rohrlic, review of Nothing to Lose, p. 10.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, April 25, 2001, Sue Corbett, "New Novels for Teens Tackle Domestic Violence, Other Mature Subjects," p. K2283.
Publishers Weekly, April 23, 2001, review of Breathing Underwater, p. 79; June 25, 2001, Kathie Bergquist, interview with Flinn, p. 26; May 20, 2002, review of Breaking Point, p. 68; March 29, 2004, review of Nothing to Lose, p. 64.
School Library Journal, May, 2001, Joel Shoemaker, review of Breathing Underwater, p. 149; May, 2002, Janet Hilburn, review of Breaking Point, p. 152; June, 2002, Tina Hudak, review of Breathing Underwater (audio version), p. 72; October, 2002, Barbara S. Wysocki, review of Breaking Point (audio version), p. 84.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 2001, Beth Anderson, review of Breathing Underwater; June, 2002, Kimberly L. Paone, review of Breaking Point, pp. 117-118; October, 2002, Barbara S. Wysocki, review of Breaking Point, p. 84; October, 2003, Jennifer Ralston, review of Breathing Underwater, p. 99; March, 2004, Lynn Evarts, review of Nothing to Lose, p. 210.
Alex Flinn Web site, http://www.alexflinn.com (April 2, 2005).
Cynthia Leitich Smith Children's Literature Resources Web site, http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/ (November 7, 2002), "The Story behind the Story: Alex Flinn on Breaking Point. "
Embracing the Child Web site, http://www.eyeontomorrow.com/embracingthechild/ (August 27, 2002), interview with Flinn.*