Book Title/Author: Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Keuhnert
Publisher/Year: MTV Books 2009
Genre: Contemporary YA
Other Books From Author: I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
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.
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?