Stephanie Kuehnert's second novel, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, was published by MTV Books on July 21, 2009.
There are so many ballads. Achy breaky country songs. Mournful pop songs. Then thereís the rare punk ballad, the ballad of suburbia: louder, faster, angrier . . . till it drowns out the silence.
Kara hasnít been back to Oak Park since the end of junior year, when a heroin overdose nearly killed her and sirens heralded her exit. Four years later, she returns to face the music. Her life changed forever back in high school: her family disintegrated, she ran around with a whole new crowd of friends, she partied a little too hard, and she fell in love with gorgeous bad boy Adrian, who left her to die that day in Scoville Park. . . .
Amidst the music, the booze, the drugs, and the drama, her friends filled a notebook with heartbreakingly honest confessions of the moments that defined and shattered their young lives. Now, finally, Kara is ready to write her own.
Read the Epilogue (which is really the prologue) here! (Please note this is not the final version as it will appear in the book.) Then read the first chapter at Simon & Schuster's Website.
Where to buy:
You should be able to find BALLADS OF SUBURBIA at any of your local bookstores. Don't hesitate to ask them to order it for you! You can also order it from your preferred online bookseller: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders, or through your local indie bookstore.
Other fun stuff:
-Listen to Stephanie read the epilogue of Ballads of Suburbia on The Reading List. Just click on Featured Writers.
-Teaching Tools & Interactive Exercises for schools, libraries or book clubs
-Learn about the real life setting of the book and why I chose it in the "Real Oak Park" section.
-Great Scavenger Hunt Contest for Ballads of Suburbia (This is an activity for librarians to use with YA books, you'll find more info about it here.)
-Ballads of Suburbia feature on Preview The Book
Here's what people are saying about BALLADS OF SUBURBIA:
"....an intensely real and painfully honest novel of high-school anxiety." and "....Kuehnert nails the raw vulnerability of teendom and delivers a hard-hitting and mesmerizing read." - Booklist
"Like an American Beauty for the teen set." - NewCity
"With her first two novels, Kuehnert has created vivid pictures of teenage lives that lie in that borderland that abuts adulthood. It is a fertile, confusing and intense place, and Kuehnert never holds back. But like a good ballad, she keeps the stories taut and precise, with a touch of heart thrown in for good measure." - Chicago Sun-Times
"Ballads of Suburbia bridges the gap between Yates and Selby, Jr. It brings the dark, gritty reality of teenage culture in suburban America to the surface through a cast of characters that are hard not to love. Like Last Exit to Brooklyn, Stephanie Kuehnert puts a face on the drug addled and disaffected youth of the quiet, tree-lined streets of Oak Park, Illinois. Like Yates, she puts a dark and dystopic spin on the outwardly beautiful face of the suburbs. This book is an achievement and solidifies the place of Stephanie Kuehnert as a powerhouse writer, and one that is unafraid to tackle hard and tender issues. I can't wait to read what she writes next." - Julia Callahan of Book Soup
"This book is powerful. It's been haunting me for days. Yes, haunting me." - The Story Siren, 5 star review, Recipient of the Luminous Pearl Award
"BALLADS OF SUBURBIA is a remarkable achievement that hits you right where it counts (your heart) and lingers where it matters (the brain). Iím truly looking forward to seeing what Stephanie Kuehnert will do next." - Steph Su Reads, 5 out of 5 rating
"10/10. The characters, the plot, the prose, EVERYTHING about Ballads is perfect. Thereís not a single thing I would change about it and I think that EVERYONE should read it. It will open your eyes in a way no other book can." - Harmony Book Reviews
"This novel was addicting. It was harsh, raw, cruel, sad, and painful, but the scariest of all is that this is real. In one powerful novel, whole worlds are exposed. I recommend this novel to anyone ready to see the truth." - Reading Is Bliss
"It seems really bold to call someone the voice of a generation, but that's how I see Kuehnert. I may not have shared the experiences of the characters in the book, but I recognize their journey and their voices. Stephanie Kuehnert is amazing and I will gladly read anything she writes from here on out." - Carrie's YA Bookshelf
"Kuehnert creates real characters with flaws and issues and makes you care deeply about them. Furthermore, she helps you relate to them." - The World Was Hers For the Reading
"Kuehnert does a fantastic storytelling job in this novel, from setting the story up, to the realistic characters, to the overarching theme, that people are more than just a snapshot of their lives."- The Book Muncher
"All that really needs to be said about Ballads of Suburbia is that it's spectacular, and that I can't recommend it enough." - Frenetic Reader
"If youíre looking for something warm and fuzzy, donít read this book. If youíre looking for a teen romance that takes a walk on the wild side, donít read this book. If youíre looking for something that ends up all good and well in the end, then donít read this book. If what youíre looking for is a real life read that will break your heart, fill your eyes with tears, and force you to face the hard questions head on, then this is absolutely, most definitely the book for you. If youíre looking for a book with complex and deep characters, then this is the book for you. If youíre looking for a read that will keep you thinking long after you finish the last word, then Ballads of Suburbia is a must-read for you.
Karaís tale is a raw, hard-hitting lesson on just how much guts it takes to fight your way from the dark side into the light. Stephanie Kuehnertís effortless prose and outstanding imagery will leave you standing front and center, right in the middle of all Karaís chaos." - YA Reads
For a complete list of reviews and articles about the book, check out the reviews page.
Now without further adieu, here is the first chapter. We begin at the end. If you would rather listen to me read this to you, go to The Reading List. Just click on Featured Writers and you'll find my recording.
"And the embers never fade in your city by the lake
The place where you were born."
Sirens and lights welcomed me back to the suburbs of Chicago. It seemed fitting. Symbolic, considering they'd also heralded my exit. And it couldn't have happened anywhere else: only a Berwyn cop would pull Stacey over for rolling a stop sign, cash in on her total lack of insurance, but not notice the underlying stench of pot smoke on us. It clung to Stacey's auburn ponytail, my freshly-dyed black hair, and the clothing beneath both of our winter coats. I'll never know how he missed it. A rare stroke of good luck? The karma I was owed for agreeing to come home in the first place?
I'd been gone for over four years. Around the holidays Stacey always tried to guilt me into visiting. She'd remind me that my mom missed me or point out that there was no chance for a white Christmas in Los Angeles. She knew I never intended to set foot in the Chicago area again after everything that had happened at the end of junior year of high school, but the girl wouldn't give it up. Finally, she resorted to playing dirty, namedropping her daughter.
"Lina wants you to be there for her fourth birthday. She wants to know why she's never met Mama's best friend."
It was an underhanded tactic, but it worked.
"I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier," Stacey congratulated herself again right before we got pulled over.
"Because using your kid to get what you want is low even for you," I joked.
"No, it's not!" Stacey said with a nicotine-tinged laugh. She gestured to the car seat in the back, bragging, "Do you know how many times I've used that thing to get out of a ticket?"
On cue the whoop of a siren rang out behind us.
"Shit!" Stacey slapped the steering wheel hard with the heel of her hand. "Don't the goddamn Berwyn cops have anything else to do?"
I turned my head to gaze at the flashing red and blue behind us. I couldn't take my eyes off of the colors, watching the way they lit up the beige seats of the Cavalier and remembering how they looked reflected in my friend Ava's wide, brown eyes and splashing across my mother's ashen face the night I came to surrounded by paramedics in Scoville Park. I'd said, "Adrian," and when Ava heard me over the commotion, her jaw clenched. "He left you. He left you here to die and saved his own ass," she growled.
"Good," I cackled. "Good for him."
The tears streaking down Ava's full cheeks turned to rainbows in the red and blue light. I closed my eyes, silently begging the heroin to drag me all the way under. That was one of my last memories of home.
Stacey eased the car to the side of the road and turned down the radio. Old reflexes kicking in, I lit up a cigarette in what I felt certain would be a failed attempt to cover the pot stink. Back in high school, it was the method everyone used when getting pulled over, but cops rarely fell for it.
Stacey's litany of excuses began the moment she rolled down her window and smiled flirtatiously at the frowning officer. "I was at Midway picking her up--my best friend who I haven't seen in over four years--and my husband paged me. Our daughter's sick." She indicated the empty car seat. "So, you see..."
Great, I thought, tuning out her diatribe, I'm in town for an hour and I'm already in trouble. I did not want to spend my first night back home at the Berwyn police station. Why had I agreed to Stacey's suggestion of taking "the long route" from the airport? I'd known it was code for stopping by her mother's basement apartment and getting stoned. Stacey's mom, Beth, had been smoking us up since freshman year of high school.
And sure enough, Beth had answered the door with a bong in her hand, screeching, "Kara-leeeena! Kara-leeeena! You're finally home!" Both she and Stacey called me that even though I wasn't a Carolyn or a Caroline, just Kara. In naming her daughter Lina, Stacey had effectively named her after me.
Beth's place was the same as it had been the last time I'd been there, the mild June night the summer after junior year when Stacey told me that she was pregnant and planned to keep the baby. So Stacey moved out of her mom's place and into prematurely married life. I OD'd in Scoville Park, and my parents and I collectively decided that it would be best for me to go live with my dad in Wisconsin until I finished high school. I hadn't come back for Christmas or birthdays or Stacey's wedding or Lina's birth. I stayed in Madison and held my breath that my really poor grades from junior year wouldn't keep me out of USC's film program. When my acceptance letter came, I went straight to L.A. and hadn't touched down on Midwestern soil since.
After a long, bone-crushing hug, we followed Beth and her hennaed curls through the kitchen--the sink filled with dirty dishes as usual--down the short hallway--the floor strewn with clothes and junk mail--to the living room which she clearly still used as her bedroom even though she could have moved into Stace's old room and had a real bed instead of a futon.
We sat on the futon mattress--pulled off of its frame and laying on the floor in center of the room like always--and passed around the bong. Beth asked incessant questions about "LA-LA land." How many famous people did I see on a weekly basis? What was the hot guy quotient at USC? Had I really given up writing screenplays to work on movie soundtracks? Was there money in that? Didn't I know I was supposed to be writing a big blockbuster so I could move her, Stacey, and Lina out to my mansion in the hills? Beth only breathed when she inhaled pot smoke and hardly gave me time to respond to her question before throwing another one at me.
And this had gone on until Stacey declared, "We gotta get home before Jason gets pissed." She grabbed her coat and I followed, waving to Beth. "Now we can finally talk," Stacey said, swinging her long legs into the car and slamming the door.
Since freshman year, conversations with Stacey had always come in spurts. At first, days went by, and then, by the middle of high school, I didn't see her for months at a time. In grade school, it had only been the two of us, we could chatter all afternoon until her mother came home, but after Stacey had discovered boys and weed, she was always headed somewhere or had someone coming to her, so I had to catch her in the moments in between.
I listened to her talk about her latest argument with Jason as she wove through Berwyn, past the greasy spoons that lit up Ogden with their neon signs, and then down the quieter East Avenue, peppered with brick bungalows and tall apartment buildings. Stacey's fights with Jason were generally minor--considering the odds against their teenage marriage of convenience and Stacey's feisty nature, they were doing quite well--but Stacey liked to dramatize things as much as possible. Since both of us were absorbed in her tale, neither of us paid attention to her poor driving. Then, of course, that stupid cop pulled us over.
I smoked two cigarettes while Stacey turned on the charm. But the worried mother routine failed to impress.
"Do you have proof of insurance?" The cop asked, steely gray eyes unwavering.
"No..." Stacey replied meekly.
And he went off to his car to do his cop thing. Stacey was so irritated, she didn't even talk. We just sat there chain-smoking in silence for ten minutes until he came back. She fished for compassion one more time. "I don't know how we're going to afford this and my daughter's prescriptions. We don't have health insurance either, you know."
The cop shrugged unsympathetically.
Stacey managed to contain her rage until he slammed his car door. "Jason is going to be so pissed!" she moaned, staring at the five hundred dollar ticket for driving uninsured.
"At least he didn't smell the pot on us." I rolled down my window to toss out my cigarette butt. A cold wind grazed my cheeks. I shivered, but enjoyed the novelty of it since I hadn't experienced real winter for years.
"True." Stacey wrinkled her nose and asked, "Do you have some gum?" as if that would make her smell any less like a stoner.
I fumbled through the pockets of my hoodie and offered her my last piece. After she took it, she just stared at me, her aqua eyes burning into mine.
"What?" I said, self-consciously tonguing my lip ring to make sure it wasn't turned some weird way. My eyes darted from her finely plucked eyebrows to the freckled bridge of her nose and down to the familiar scar indented on her chin--from a bike accident when she was six, a year before we met.
She shook her head soberly. "I fucking missed you."
I smiled. "I missed you, too."
Then, she changed the topic. "Soundtracks? What exactly is it that you do again?" she asked.
"I'm interning with a music supervisor that works for Warner Brothers. It's nothing glamorous. I don't get to hang out with rock stars. I just do the grunt work, but that's most internships after all."
She studied me quizzically. "And you like this?"
"And now you want to be a music supervisor even though you've been going to school for screenwriting?"
"I don't understand how you even got this internship."
I shrugged again. "Hollywood is just weird that way."
"I guess." Stacey was far less impressed by Hollywood than her mother. Her indifferent expression was quickly replaced with a look of concern, though. "Why aren't you writing?" she implored. "You loved writing. You wrote scripts in high school all the time."
I grimaced because it wasn't true. I worked on scripts junior year. With Adrian. And I talked about it once with Stacey at a party; her memory was a steel trap. Sure, I'd fallen in love with screenwriting that year and that spawned the idea to go to USC, but it wasn't like I'd been aspiring to it for years. "I've always loved music, though. Besides, I realized I don't have any stories to tell."
Stacey's facial expression changed paths like a hurricane. "You?" She choked back laughter, holding her gut. "You don't have any stories? Growing up here? Hanging out with the people you hung out with? You don't have any stories?"
"I don't have any stories." I gritted my jaw hard and watched the cop finally pull out from behind us. He turned right onto Fourteenth Street without signaling.
Stacey got back on the road. "Okay, fine. Here's a song for your soundtrack then." She flashed me a grin and reached for the volume knob, turning up "Back in Black" by AC/DC. She rolled another stop sign and we both laughed.
We cruised across Roosevelt Road into our hometown, Oak Park. Stacey meandered this way and that toward her apartment, narrating the changes that had occurred in the past few years. There weren't many. Remodeled Walgreens. Condo conversion. Condo conversion. Condo conversion. The tour quickly became nostalgic. We passed houses we'd gone to parties in--both the innocent kind with birthday cake and parentally-supervised games, and the kind where parents were nowhere in sight and I left blasted with my underwear on inside out. We reminisced about getting high on that playground or making out with What's His Name in front of that 7-11.
These were all memories that felt good. Stacey swerved away from the ones that wouldn't like my ex-boyfriend Christian's house and Scoville Park. If I even looked in the direction of those places, she would distract me with, "Remember that time when we were eight..." to the point that I felt shocked to see her driving when I glanced over. Her legs were supposed to be too short to reach the pedals. I expected her hair to be in that awful bowl cut instead of hanging halfway down her back. She was supposed to flash me a gap-toothed smile, her plump cheeks rising, but of course, she had all her teeth and her face had thinned. But she still laughed the same, so hard it sounded like she was about to start coughing.
Before the last chorus of "Back in Black" ended, Stacey punched buttons on the radio in search of another good song to keep the buzz going. She practically blew out the speakers when she found Social Distortion. Our gazes collided as we shouted, "Well, high school seemed like such a blur..."
Yeah, "Story of My Life," Stacey knew it was my type of song. It's the ballads I like best and I'm not talking about the cliched ones where a diva hits her highest note or a rock band tones it down a couple of notches for the ladies. I mean a true ballad. Dictionary definition: a song that tells a story in short stanzas and simple words, with repetition, refrain, etc. My definition: the punk rocker or the country crooner telling the story of their life in three minutes, reminding us of the numerous ways to mess up.
And as we zigzagged around Oak Park to Social D, memories of the wild times seduced me. I wanted to spend the whole week stoned. I wanted to call old boyfriends. I wanted to head out to a punk show at Fireside Bowl to meet new boys who would have me pressed against a wall with their hands up my skirt while I drunkenly giggled. I wanted to ride in Adrian's car, him taking the curves of Lake Shore Drive way too fast. I wanted to drink coffee with the old gang at the Punk Rock Denny's until just before dawn. I wanted to snort a line in Scoville Park as the sun rose.
It would be so easy to be the person I used to be. My life was like a song. L.A., working my ass off to do well in college and be a "healthy person," just a verse, and the chorus was coming up again, the part where I fucked up the same way I always did.
When Stacy screeched to a stop behind her apartment building, the radio cutting out abruptly as she killed the engine, the spell was broken. "I can't stay," I reminded myself curtly.
"What?" Stacey's brow knit in confusion. Apparently I said that aloud.
"I mean, after New Year's. I'm going back to school, back to L.A."
"I know that." She shook her head, shooting me a "you're insane" look. Then she popped the trunk and got out to grab my bags.
"I can't stay," I repeated again before opening my door.
Feeling slightly dazed, I stopped in the kitchen for a glass of water while Stacey dragged my suitcase into the living room. I heard her greet Jason, but before "Hi" made it all the way out of her mouth, she asked sharply, "What the hell is he still doing here? I told you he needed to leave before we got back."
Jason drawled "Staaaaace" like a stoned hippie surfer. "He just got out of jail yesterday. He's got nowhere to go. Six months in County for some coke that wasn't even his, give the guy a break."
I knew who he was before his voice rumbled. "I just wanted to say hi to Kara."
Adrian. The last time I'd seen him, we did heroin beneath the metal stage they used for summer concerts in Scoville Park. Then, we lay entwined on the hilltop watching the sunrise, but when it didn't come up in color, I freaked. The sky looked a sickly gray. Our skin looked gray. The grass looked gray. I crawled to the front of the stage, puked, and ran my fingers through the dying gray grass, wondering if that was what Adrian's hair would be like when he was old. I started laughing and crying at the same time because I knew that neither of us would grow old. Especially me, I was going to die right then and there. The thought satisfied me at first, but then I panicked, started screaming for Adrian's help and got no response.
I guess he'd nodded out and when he came to, he found me. He'd slapped my face, trying to bring me around, and when I didn't wake, he ran to the payphone to call Ava. Apparently her suggestion of calling 911 conjured images of the cops he'd been avoiding for a month, so he dropped the phone and ran. Ava and Stacey hated him for it, but honestly, I hadn't expected anything more from him, even though that night, strung out and groping on the grass, he'd told me he loved me for the first time.
"Kara doesn't want to see you, so get out of my house!" Stacey snapped.
I didn't want to see him. I did, but I didn't. I shouldn't. I did want to see Lina though, and as I crept warily down the hallway toward the living room, I caught my first glimpse of her: sprawled out across Jason, her head in the crook of his arm, little stocking feet dangling over his knees, right hand loosely gripping an empty sippy-cup. Both Stacey and her mother had had children with men who had ginger hair and green eyes. Both Stacey and her daughter looked nothing like their fathers. With near-black hair, faces that freckled in the sunlight, and heavily fringed, blue eyes, they appeared cloned from Stacey's mother.
I wandered into the living room, drawn by the beauty of my childhood best friend's daughter. I knelt down by Jason's legs and carefully took the cup out of Lina's hand, stroking her silky skin. I couldn't believe I'd been so selfish and stayed away from her so long just because I was afraid to confront my past.
"Kara," Adrian whispered.
I stared at the sleeping baby for a moment longer to steel myself before I faced Adrian.
He was a relic of the early nineties, of our crazy youth: the same leather jacket, the same strong shoulders, the same thick waves of tawny hair that stretched to the middle of his back, the same sharp jawline peppered with the same stubble, the same searching brown eyes.
When his gaze locked on mine, I mentally chanted my mantra of I can't stay, and then I let him embrace me. His scent had always reminded me of a muskier version of the air off Lake Michigan, and as soon as it reached my nostrils, it shattered the icy indifference that I'd tried to force myself to feel about him. As I melted into his familiar arms, I could no longer deny it: I'd missed him and I'd missed home and I'd gone on too long without facing all of my bad memories and old ghosts.
Suddenly, I envisioned my high school best friend Maya standing behind Adrian. Her red hair glistened (even though it wasn't red the last time I saw her, that's the way it remains in my memory) and her gray eyes had an ethereal glow to them. Right hip cocked, hand firmly clamped to it, she made that mischievous I-told-you-so face that she always flashed when citing one of her grandmother's cliches, and she told me, "Kara, it's like my grandmother always said, you're gonna have to face the music."
All Written Content including novel excerpts copyright Stephanie Kuehnert, 2009.
Ballads of Suburbia cover image copyright Pocket/MTV Books.