Deciding to read Ballads of Suburbia was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made in a while. I’ve read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert and absolutely adored it. So when I saw that Ballads… was out, I got it and proceeded to devour it.
Overall, Ballads of Suburbia was a fine follow-up by Kuehnert. It was edgy, full of colorful characters, and had the story missing from my own high school experience. It was almost like I was a voyeur, seeing into a world so far from my own yet central to the experiences of others. Stephanie Kuehnert is absolutely one of my favorite new authors, as she brings so much to the table. In addition to bringing her own experience and excellent storytelling, she brings the passion of music, especially the vibrancy of punk rock. Her themes are the literary equivalent to the teen punk bands starting in a garage near you (only better, as her craft is much more developed.) Learn more about her writing process, how she uses music to write and the inside scoop to the music that inspired Ballads of Suburbia here.
Many reviews you’ll see will have comments questioning the book’s validity as a YA novel. Those reviews will say something along the lines of there being too much drug use, pre-marital sex, and self-injury. These elements, those reviewers will claim, should not be introduced to younger minds, as they may end up following the example in the book.
Anyone who’s actually read the book knows that all of these are deftly handled in Kuehnert’s hands. As a writer, Kuehnert has a wonderful ability to really slip into the voice of her main character, Kara, and make her come alive. The book follows Kara’s high school years while living in the suburbs of Chicago. Instead of living in a suburbia filled with high school sports and homework and college ambition, Kara goes from being a loner to being part of the crowd of Oak Park’s misfit collective. Weekends are spent drinking and getting high.
While drugs are central to the narrative, it is the relationships that keep the book afloat. While Kara’s actual family is falling apart, she finds her family in her friends that frequent Scoville Park. And like they do in real life, the relationships continue to be dynamic, not static.
The book itself is not a straight chronological narrative. While it is mostly from Kara’s perspective, it is broken up by the “ballads” of her friends, each written in first person from the respective character’s point of view. While these sections add some backstory to the supporting cast of characters, the first person narrative feels a little too much like the author telling us their story. The narrative in these ballads isn’t nearly as well developed, which is understandable, as these characters aren’t the Main Character. This is the only real issue I have with the book.
To me the relationships felt real, the characters were authentic and multi-faceted. The drug users weren’t just druggies, they were people, they were troubled, they had problems and stories and you felt their pain and as a reader want nothing more than to see them work it out. The main (human) antagonist of the book, Christian, is a stronger antagonist because of the realness of the characters. When you meet Christian he’s sweet, a good guy, an ideal boyfriend. But the dark side comes out and makes him that much more terrifying (and thank goodness, that dark side doesn’t include fangs or fur).
The book was poignant and acts as a great reminder of what family (both the related kind and the chosen kind) means. This book isn’t an easy read, by any means, but it’s worth it.
To parents afraid their children will read this book: get over it. Drug use is not glorified. The cutting is not glorified. And telling a high school kid that he/she can’t read it is not only ridiculous, it’s dangerous. If your high school student gets straight A’s and has a lot of after-school activities such as sports, social clubs, honor societies, reading this book won’t do a hint of damage. If I were to read this book as a teenager, the reaction I would have would be this: Drugs are bad. They mess things up. People lose sight of themselves and the world around them. And that is absolutely not cool. Not something a teenage me would find appealing at all. I’ve got a sister in high school, and if Ballads of Suburbia were mine (instead of a library book), I would absolutely pass it on to her. She’s a smart kid. And I would never insult her intelligence by holding a book like this from her with the excuse that she’s not old enough and I need to protect her. By “protecting” children from themes like this, all we are doing is hiding the reality and making them less able to respond in smart ways. Drugs are the forbidden fruit, but knowledge is power, and with knowledge, kids will learn quickly to say “no”.