EXCLUSIVE: See the cover of THE ART OF NOT BREATHING by Sarah Alexander + read an excerpt!


We here at YA Interrobang are cover addicts. We love beautiful covers. So we’re super excited to share with you the cover of The Art of Not Breathing, the new contemporary YA novel from Sarah Alexander!

the art of not breathing by sarah alexander

In The Art of Not Breathing, Elsie Main lost her brother to the ocean when she was 11. Elsie has spent the last five years trying to remember what really happened that day – but when a boy named Tay introduces her to free diving, Elsie realizes that the answers she’s looking for may be at the bottom of the sea.

The Art of Not Breathing will hit shelves this spring from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[EDIT] The team at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt changed the cover in October 2015.

the art of not breathing sarah alexander

To tide you over, the team at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has given us a snippet from chapter eight to share with you.

Fortrose is the biggest town on the Black Isle, but it’s still small. It doesn’t even have a cinema or a bowling alley. The high street wiggles through the middle of it with poky shops crammed next to each other, selling buckets and spades in the summer and umbrellas in the winter. The only useful shops are Superdrug, Co-op, and the bakery. The people here like to know everything about everyone. Nearly everyone in Fortrose knows who I am.

“You’re Elsie Main, right?” they ask. “You’re Colin’s wee one.”

My father knows a lot of people, women mostly.

Sometimes I lie and tell them they must be mistaken, but they just tilt their heads in sympathy.

Despite being small and full of busybodies, Fortrose does have plenty of places to hide. On one side of the town is Rosemarkie beach, where jagged rocks line the coast and the otters hang out. On the other side there’s a small harbor hidden from the main road where a handful of fishing boats are moored. Dillon and I aren’t supposed to go near the water unsupervised—at least, we never used to be allowed. Sometimes I think the rule doesn’t stand anymore because Mum and Dad don’t say much, but then every now and then one of them will freak out if we’re home late and accuse us of going swimming. It’s an insane rule anyway, because how can we not go near the water—we’re surrounded. I have my own rule: it’s okay to go near the water; just don’t go in it.

Dillon goes off with Lara after school, probably to avoid my questions, so I head straight to the harbor—and the boathouse. Set back against the trees that shade the narrow pebble beach, the boathouse is a tall wooden structure with big arched doors painted red and a corrugated iron roof. Right next to the boathouse is a rickety old clubhouse on wooden stilts that used to belong to the sailing club. The sailing club moved to the shiny new harbor in Inverness a few years ago, so now the clubhouse is all boarded and the boathouse no longer in use. This is my secret hiding place.

As I walk along the beach a seagull nearly flies into me, making me turn to the water.

That’s when I see the boat.

It’s a small boat with a loud, jittery engine, which chucks out a plume of black smoke as the boat pulls up to the harbor wall alongside the other fishing boats. There are four boys in the boat, joking around, shoving each other. They’re older than me, maybe seventeen or eighteen. I sit on a bench and pretend to gaze out to sea. Three of the boys are wearing what I first think are leggings, but then notice are actually wetsuits with the arms dangling down like extra legs. One of the boys is bare chested, and even from here I can see he’s muscly. Two are wearing T-shirts, and a fourth boy is dressed in black from head to toe: black jeans, a thick hoody, and sunglasses. They all seem to be experiencing different weather conditions. They clamber up onto the stone jetty via a rusty ladder bolted onto the wall. The boy at the front, in the hoody, carries a heavy-looking bag over his shoulder, and two pairs of flippers. Their laughter carries out into the dusky evening, and I feel sad that I don’t have a group of friends to hang out with. Hoody boy looks in my direction, and I turn away. When they have their backs turned, I crouch down under the clubhouse and crawl across litter and pebbles to the loose panel in the side of the boathouse. It’s just big enough for me to squeeze through.

Inside the boathouse, there’s one boat—a moldy kayak that must have been orange once but is now a peachy-white color. The kayak sits near the arched doors as though it can’t wait to get back in the water. The rest of the boathouse is empty, with wooden beams across the walls and ceiling where I suppose other kayaks used to hang.

It’s dark inside today, but the afternoon light pushes through the cracks in the front door, making pale triangles of yellow on the floor. It smells musty too, like old wood and moss, but over the last couple of months I’ve made it quite homey—with blankets on the floor and one to wrap around me when it’s cold like today. There’s a small cupboard that I found discarded on the beach one day and managed to drag inside. This is where I keep my stash—Coke, sweets, matches, cigarettes (if I have any), pens, paper, and playing cards. I play solitaire if I’m bored, but mostly I sit and listen to the wind and rain outside. Sometimes the fog makes its way inside.

My stock needs replenishing. I unwrap the last Mars bar and eat it as slowly as possible, trying to remember the details of the flashing images I saw at the Point, wondering if they contain any new information about what happened the day Eddie disappeared.


It’s not that I don’t know what happened—I remember the whole day—it’s just that there are a few black spots in my memory. I can’t remember what Eddie and I were talking about right before he disappeared—our last conversation together, his last conversation ever. And the moments after I realized he was gone are hazy. During the Laryngitis Year, I tried to work it all out—I even drew maps of the Point and tried to place everyone, but I ended up more confused. I don’t know why my brain wants to remember now, but I think it must be something to do with Eddie being around so much.

I make a list of the facts.

Things I know about that day:
1. Mum was at home making our chocolate birthday cake.
2. Dillon was swimming with the dolphins.
3. Eddie and I were wading close to shore.
4. One minute Eddie was there, and then he was gone.
5. Dad was supposed to be on the beach, but I couldn’t see him.
6. Mum arrived later after the police called her.
7. I collapsed and Dad came to get me.
8. All my memories are tinged with a blue haze.

I remember the morning. We opened our birthday presents after breakfast. Eddie got a remote control helicopter, which he crashed within a couple of minutes, and I got a new football, a real leather one. It was a bit drizzly and windy outside so we dribbled it around the living room until Eddie smashed a glass on the coffee table and Mum got really cross. Eddie had a tantrum because he didn’t want to wear the blue T-shirt. Blue wasn’t his favorite color anymore, but his red T-shirt had a big rip in it. And then Mum told Dad to take us to Rosemarkie beach to get us all out of her hair.

Rosemarkie is the village next to Fortrose—it’s beautiful and old and has the best beach and the best ice cream on the Black Isle. But Eddie really wanted to go to Chanonry Point to see the dolphins. Dillon was on Eddie’s side because he liked swimming around the Point—the strong currents were good practice apparently, and he had a swimming competition coming up that he was determined to win. Dillon was already the Black Isle 1km open water champion—he wanted to be the Highlands champion too.

We were just leaving when the phone rang. Dad answered it, and it was my friend Emily’s mum saying Emily was too sick to come to our party later. I got in the car in a sulk and no longer cared about the ice cream. It was too cold anyway.


After a little while, I wonder if anyone at home has noticed that I’m not there. Sometimes I feel invisible, like a wisp of air that tickles the back of someone’s neck before they close the window to block the draft.

I’m about to head home when the panel door creaks open. I hold my breath and move back into the corner. It better not be my dad.

“Hello?” a voice calls from outside.

The voice is young.

“Someone in here?”

Then a face appears. A boy with floppy brown hair and a bit of stubble. He has a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from his mouth.

“Ah, I knew there was someone in here.” He climbs through the panel and walks toward me. My pulse races as I start to gather my things.

“Don’t leave on my account,” he says, and sits beside me, stretching his long legs out along the concrete floor. The bottoms of his black jeans are scuffed, and when I see the sunglasses in his hand I realize he’s the boy in the hoody from the boat.

“Who are you?” I ask, hoping the quiver in my voice isn’t too obvious.

He lights up, and it’s not just a cigarette. The boathouse fills with a thick fog and the fumes get in the back of my throat, sickly and sweet.

“Tavey McKenzie,” he says as he exhales. “Call me Tay. You like to smoke?” He holds the joint out to me, smiling.

I’ve never smoked a joint before, but the other S4s smoke behind the school field all the time. They are much nicer to me in the afternoon, patting me on the shoulder, smiling, and sometimes even offering me a cigarette. I never take one, though. I don’t want to owe anyone.

“Yeah, of course,” I say, and reach out my hand. I think about how I’m going to get out of here.

He doesn’t look like the boys at my school. They have styled and gelled hair; this boy’s hair is messy and long and hangs down over his ears. They have smooth round faces; this boy has a rectangular face with dark stubble. I wouldn’t describe him as good-looking but he does have nice brown eyes and really long eyelashes that I can’t help but stare at. He reminds me of a boy I saw on a documentary about youth prisons a few months ago. Even though the boy in the prison had been in a fight that ended badly (really badly), I remember feeling sorry for him because I knew he’d been misunderstood. I recognized the furrowed brow of the prison boy—the same furrow I see every morning in the mirror. Tay has this look too, like the world just doesn’t get him.

I suck on the joint and get a faint taste of his strawberry lip balm. My throat tightens and I try not to choke. Discreetly, I shuffle away from him so we’re no longer touching but watch him out of the corner of my eye. I want to show him I’m not afraid, and that I meet people like him all the time.

“I’m Elsie. Are you a friend of Dillon’s?”

The boy blinks. “Who?”

“Never mind. What’s your name again?”

“Tay,” he says slowly. “You’ve got a bad memory.”

“Like the river?” I ask. We’re learning about rivers at school. About how they flow, and how they carve out the land. He’s probably heard that thousands of times.

“Yeah, like the river. So you must be the mystery squatter. It’s quite the setup you’ve got here.”

“Have you touched my stuff? This is my spot, you know. You’ll have to find somewhere else to hide.”

Even though he seems okay and is named after a river, this is my secret place. The joint makes me feel lightheaded, so I pass it back. I quite like the taste of it, though.

Tay tilts his head back and makes rings with the smoke which float up and last for ages. I stare at them until my neck aches.

“I think you’ll find this was my spot before yours,” he says when the rings have dispersed. “I’ve just been away for a while.”

“Really? Where’ve you been, then?”

“Just away.”

“You must’ve been away at least a year,” I reply. There was no sign that anyone had been here before me when I discovered it.

“Over five years. I moved away when I was twelve,” he says.

Five years. Prison. I knew it. I wonder what he did. Although twelve is pretty young to go to prison, even a youth one. Maybe it was some kind of boarding school. This is actually good news, though, because he likely won’t know about Eddie.

“I have to admit,” Tay says, “I thought a small child had moved into my hideout.” He holds up an empty sweets bag as evidence.

“I don’t just keep sweets.” I point to the packet of cigarettes on the floor by our feet. Tay seems to find this amusing.

“Nothing wrong with sweets,” he says, and flicks the empty bag behind him. “So, you go to school in Fortrose?”

“Yeah, but I hate it. There are these girls that are always horrible to me.”

“I hated school. Girls were horrible to me, too, so I gave it up,” he says, laughing. “I go to the school of life now.”

“Is there a school of death?”

Tay sits forward and grins at me. His long eyelashes flutter and somehow soften his angular face. His teeth are shiny white and his lips look smooth. I wish I could apply another coat of lipstick.

“School of death? So you can learn to die?”

He seems amused. I hope he can’t see how red my cheeks are. “Maybe,” I mumble, trying to think of something else to say.

“You’re very interesting, Elsie.”

We smoke for a bit. I watch the way he maneuvers the joint to his lips and back down to the floor. I watch him cross and uncross his legs and play with a torn bit of leather on his shoe. He tells me that he once ran all around the Black Isle in a day and got attacked by farm dogs. I tell him that I once hid in a bus shelter during cross-country at school and only joined in for the last lap. He commends me on my initiative but says I should practice running in case farm dogs come after me. I tell him I’m not scared of dogs. I don’t tell him what I am afraid of. When the joint’s finished, he says he has to go.

“We should hang out again soon,” he says. “I’ll swing by.”

He slides gracefully through the panel, and I suddenly wish I hadn’t moved away from him before. I lie down on my back and smoke with my eyes closed, breathing in the tobacco, the cannabis fumes, and the lingering smell of Tay’s aftershave. I no longer care about Ailsa Fitzgerald or that scummy school, or even the flashing images. Eddie is deep inside me, laughing. I remember one of his favorite jokes.

“Why are there fish at the bottom of the sea?” I ask him.

“Because they dropped out of school,” he replies.

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