Review: Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Keuhnert

Ballads of Suburbia Stephanie KuehnertBook Title/Author: Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Keuhnert
: MTV Books 2009
Genre: Contemporary YA
Series: No
Other Books From Author: I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

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I purchased this book with my own cash money back in the day!



It’s the 90’s in Oak Park, IL — a suburb of Chicago — and teenage Kara just wants to fit in. She’s always been an outcast but she’s always had her best friend Stacey by her side. When Stacey moves away right before high school and they slowly drift apart, Kara internalizes her pain by cutting herself. When she meets new student Maya, who is confident and cool, she eagerly accepts her invitation to meet up with some friends at Scoville Park where a new side of the suburbs awaits her. Finally feeling like she could be accepted, she starts going to their parties, smoking weed, drinking and meeting guys. She discovers that some of her friends in the group have started a notebook called Stories of Suburbia — containing crazy newspaper clippings of things that happened in suburbs amidst their own handwritten stories about their lives. The only rule is that you can’t read everyone else’s stories until you write your own — a task that Kara doesn’t get a chance to do before she suddenly flees Oak Park at the end of her junior year.

Wow! I’ve had Ballads of Suburbia on my shelf unread since I bought it when I first started blogging in summer of 2010! WHY did I not read this one before then?? It was really a fantastic book– raw, gritty and powerful in both its story and the emotional impact it had on me as it weaved together this story of family, heartbreak, losing control and then making the choice to regain control amidst the chaos.

The book begins by Kara coming home for the first time in four years and being reunited with her friend Stacey. It was quick to grab my attention because we aren’t told the whole of why she has left Oak Park but we understand how hard it is for her to return but how important it is so that she can move forward. You get the sense she was in a lot of trouble before she left and I immediately was invested in wanting to piece together the story of how everything spiraled out of control from that beginning part.  The rest of the story unfolds by Kara telling her story, her ballad that she’s finally able to write, and interspersed in the book are the “ballads” of some of the more main characters she spends time with and are central to her own story whom have written in the notebook — which I found to be so touching to get to know some of these characters more and really added to shaping them to these real, fleshed out characters.

This was definitely a darker, more gritty read. Don’t go into this looking for something light and for happy endings for all — because there aren’t for everyone. There’s a lot of drug use (heroin, ecstasy, coke, acid) as it’s pretty central to the lives of the kids she meets in Scoville Park.  A lot of them have really rough pasts and your heart can’t help but break as they are numbing a lot of it in different ways and trying to cope the best they can. As much as obviously their shared drug use was dangerous, I felt little pieces of hope in this small moments where they were there for each other and were the family and the support that they never had — which, to me, is a lot of what brought them together.ballads-of-suburbia-review

What I LOVED about this book, besides the heart and soul of the story, is that the drug use was NOT used as this preachy thing and this books was NOT an “issuey” book (which I totally DO love) but sometimes it’s incredibly powerful to read a story where it’s not an issues type novel and the drugs are just part of their life. It’s clear, as you’ll read, that there are consequences to some of their more reckless behavior but I never felt like there was this preachiness to it and I loved that.  The story was told and not hindered by a “hugs not drugs” message but told freely and powerfully — giving me a glimpse of lives I’ve never lived but that I know are true for some. Face it, this story is a reality for some and I’ve seen it effect the lives of family and family friends. Ballads of Suburbia TELLS a story that shows a side of growing up and being a teenager that is a scary and heartbreaking reality for some and it’s not one that is always addressed.

Ballads of Suburbia is a book will take you out of your comfort zone a bit with it’s gritty and dark exterior but will move you greatly with the heart and soul in Kara’s story and the ballads of her friends. Their stories are heartbreaking and tragic but there were small little glimmers of hope amidst some really heavy stuff. Stephanie Keuhnert will wow you with this intense story that, on the outside, could seem like a story about kids who do drugs but it soars far beyond that and never ventures into preachy. It’s a story of kids you may or may not have known that are looking to be accepted, learning how to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt and making the choice to finally take control and figure out the way their story is going to go — for better or for worse. The story is so real that I could feel that feeling of spiraling out of control or the weight of the problems and I couldn’t shake these characters. AT ALL.


For Fans  Of: grittier books, a darker YA book that you don’t often get to see, a YA book dealing with drugs without being preachy, books set in the 90’s (or those who can remember when MTV was pretty much ALL music), fans of books that integrate music, characters that jump off the pages



Let’s Talk: Have you read this one?? Heard of it? If you’ve read it before, what did you think? Did you enjoy (that seems like a weird word in this case) like I did or feel differently? I want to know! Have you read any other books that deal with drugs that aren’t issuey or preachy? Not that I have a problem with “issues” books, but I’m just finding it rare in YA to see a story integrate drugs without it being preachy. It was nice to see the clear consequences and effects in this book without the author really preaching and to just TELL a story that shows a side of growing up and being a teenager — one that is scary & heartbreaking. Your thoughts?

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About Jamie

Jamie is a 32 year old married lady (with a new baby!!) who is in denial that she's actually that old to be a married lady and a mom. When she's not reading you can find her doing Pilates followed by eating ice cream, belting out Hamilton (loud and offkey) and having adventures with her husband, daughter and rescue dog.


  1. I have honestly never heard about this book. But then. it sounds like I’d totally miss out on a great book. I do love darker and edgier books and what I hate most when books want to patronize me also doesn’t seem to be the case here..

    • When I first started blogging I went to a small YA festival (very small!) and I met the author and picked up this book…and there it has sat on my shelf until now. SO WORTH IT. I do hope you pick up this gem! It’s kind of nice to read a book I’ve never really heard other people talk about and find it to be awesome!

  2. I loved Ballads of Suburbia! Ballads broke my heart a million times while I was reading it. I’m was about the same age as Kara in the 90’s and even though we are not even remotely similar I felt connected to her. I found it really hard to like a lot of the characters, and normally that would bother me, but I think in this case it made Ballads seem more complete. I think if I would have liked the characters more I would have been disappointed that I didn’t get my happy ending.

    I completely agree with you that this was not a preachy issue book at all! She did such a fabulous job of showing all the bad stuff about addiction without having to come out and say “don’t do drugs!”

    • I’m so happy you loved it too!!

      It really WAS hard to like some of the characters! Some of them never redeemed themselves but I didn’t really feel connected to some of them so I was still sad for them that they never turned it around (in the scope of the book) but it def felt more realistic.

      And I’m so glad you agree about the not being preachy thing. It was perfectly done! We saw, in the story, the different and varying effects it had on people and she trusted as as readers to come to our own conclusion.

  3. I LOVE this book sooo much. It’s so raw and realistic. You’ve made me want to reread it.

    • YAY! I’m so excited seeing people who also loved this book bc I never really heard it talked about!

      Did you read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone? I want to go get it immediately!

  4. I don’t usually read contemporaries, but I do love dark & gritty. I agree with you on the preaching thing…tell the story and let the reader learn the lesson on their own.

    • Exactly!! It was so refreshing. I find it’s so rare to see books in YA where it’s not preachy or issuey. Like obviously drugs are bad but that doesn’t mean that people who do drugs don’t have a story to tell. They do. For sure. I’m glad Stephanie was able to give us characters like that to tell that story…esp because it’s never something I struggled with.

      I recently read Wild Awake and there was a lot of pot smoking in that and it was refreshing because it was never an issue. Because sometimes perfectly good kids smoke pot or drink. It doesn’t mean they are addicted and they grow out of the pot maybe or they are just experimenting but I love a realistic portrayal of different facets of teen life. Not just the ones who are 100% drug free nor the opposite end just showing the ones with addictions. How about some in between where a lot of us probably were?

  5. I haven’t ever heard about this book before, but your review does make me very curious. I am nt sure if it is my kind of book, because sometimes I like dark and gritty and sometimes not so much. I also have something against drugs, not sure why actually. I am not sure if reading a book about drug use will give me a better idea of what it really is about. Not sure yet if I will be reading this, but you certainly piqued my interest.

    • Yeah, I typically don’t read a ton of books with drug use. It’s always been hard for me to relate to because I (with the exception of a few times as a college student smoking weed with my sisters) never did drugs. BUT I love that 1) I’m seeing a side of teenage life I never experienced and 2) this book is sooo much more than just a book about drugs and kids doing drugs.

      It’s fantastic and I hope you’ll give it a try when you are in the mood for something darker and grittier! I’ll be interested to see what you think!

  6. Wow, the way you talk about this book really intrigues me. I enjoy the dark and gritty stories sometimes, but the idea that these stories have a glimmer of hope of them too as well just makes me want to read it more. Everything about it sounds so beautiful, and I love knowing that it’s not preachy. Love your review… I am definitely adding this to my TBR pile!

    • Yay! I hope you enjoy it! I too like finding that glimmer of hope in the story but not the obvious OH EVERYTHING WRAPS UP SO PERFECTLY WITH A CUTE BOW!

  7. I *love* this book. I agree with it not being preachy at all, which I thought rang so true to the story being told. I loved the vast array of characters and how the story just unfolded as you read. It is definitely one I highly recommend for anyone who doesn’t shy away from the gritty, darker books (as you say). 🙂

  8. I love this book! i’m a huge contemporary fan but normally I read more fantasy/dystopian/paranormal YA books nowadays. Though I like to once in a while go back and read a good contemporary every once in a while. this one was one I was super happy i stumbled up a while back, i’m really picky with my contemporaries and this one was one i definetly enjoyed!

    • YAY! I’m so glad some of us our discovering this one even if we are a little late to the game 😛 Hopefully we can get more people into it!

  9. Oh my goodness!!! YAY! I LOVE this book SO hardcore. It showed up in the mail one day, signed to me (I still have no idea how/why) and then I read it and was completely blown away. This is one of those books that changed the way I view the world and just… Wow. I LOVE it. It makes me so happy that you loved it to, because it’s one of those books that I don’t think gets NEARLY enough attention.

    I’ve also read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and I really, really liked that one too. It didn’t hit me *quite* the same way this one did, but I definitely loved it.

    Seriously. !!!!

  10. OH WOW. This is one that I’ve heard of but TOTALLY judged by the cover, which I don’t love. But it sounds incredible and it is rated pretty high on Goodreads by some bloggers that I trust (and overall, actually). Wow. I totally need to consider reading this one as soon as possible.

    • Yes Asheley! This is one that I LOVE and definitely think you should read!! It’s definitely Contemporary, and it doesn’t go easy on you, doesn’t pull any punches, but I love it so much. Seriously. One of the most tragically underrated books ever.

    • I also think you would love it so much!!

  11. Oh wow, this sounds incredibly intense. While I often tend to prefer the happier, lighter YA books over the grittier ones, I’ve found that, when I’m in the right mood, I really end up liking books like this one. Though I’m hesitant to read it now, you can bet I’m definitely going to consider putting it on my TBR!