Ballads of Suburbia

Ballads of Suburbia

4.4 23
by Stephanie Kuehnert

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Ballads are the kind of songs that Kara McNaughton likes best. Not the clichéd ones where a diva hits her dramatic high note or a rock band tones it down a couple of notches for the ladies, but the true ballads: the punk rocker or the country crooner reminding their listeners of the numerous ways to screw things up. In high school, Kara helped maintain the

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Ballads are the kind of songs that Kara McNaughton likes best. Not the clichéd ones where a diva hits her dramatic high note or a rock band tones it down a couple of notches for the ladies, but the true ballads: the punk rocker or the country crooner reminding their listeners of the numerous ways to screw things up. In high school, Kara helped maintain the "Stories of Suburbia" notebook, which contained newspaper articles about bizarre, tragic events from suburbs all over America, and personal vignettes that Kara dubbed "ballads" written by her friends in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. But Kara never wrote her own ballad. Before she could figure out what her song was about, she left town suddenly at the end of her junior year. Now, four years later, Kara returns to her hometown to face the music, needing to revisit the disastrous events that led to her leaving, in order to move on with her life.

Intensely powerful and utterly engaging, Ballads of Suburbia explores the heartbreaking moments when life changes unexpectedly, and reveals the consequences of being forced to grow up too soon.

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Product Details

MTV Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.06(h) x 1.01(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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The summer before I entered second grade and my brother Liam started kindergarten, Dad got the promotion he'd been after for two years and my parents had enough money to move us from the South Side of Chicago to its suburb, Oak Park.

When I say "suburb," you might envision subdivisions that center on a strip mall or a man-made lake and "ticky-tacky box houses," as Maya's grandmother would call them. You know, where the only thing that varies from one house to the next is the color of the paint job. But Oak Park is not one of those suburbs.

Separated from the West Side of Chicago by an imaginary line down the middle of Austin Boulevard, Oak Park still looks like part of the city. The houses were built in the same era and are of the same style. The east-west streets have the same names. You can catch the "L" in Oak Park and be downtown in fifteen minutes.

The big difference is the feel: more of a small-town vibe, less of the hustle and bustle. My parents talked up Oak Park like it was a fairy-tale kingdom. Middle-class but diverse. An excellent number of parks, trees, "good" schools, and libraries per capita. Chic, independently run shops populating the main streets and the pedestrian mall in the center of town. Houses of the Frank Lloyd Wright ilk sprawling like midwestern miniplantations across two or three normal-size lots on the north side. Classic Victorian "painted ladies" speckling the entire town. My parents couldn't dream of owning those houses, but our four-bedroom had an enclosed sun porch at the front, a deck out back, and a living room with a real working fireplace. It was a huge step up from the bottom half of the two-flat we occupied in the city.

My parents claimed suburbia was safer than Chicago, but I certainly didn't find it kinder and gentler. On my first day of school, I was approached by Maggie Young during recess. Maggie had a face like JonBenét Ramsey's, but with big brown eyes and perfect ringlets of chestnut hair framing her features. She was always trailed by an entourage of five or six girls. Two of them were her best friends; the rest acted as servants in hopes of winning her favor.

When they came up to me, I smiled, mistakenly thinking I would be welcomed to join them on the playground. Instead, I was given a bizarre test of my coolness. Maggie asked if my jacket had a YKK zipper. When I checked and responded that it didn't, she scoffed, "Does your family shop at Kmart or something? I bet those aren't even real Keds."

Her minions giggled like chirping birds. I stared down at my dirty white sneakers, both ashamed and confused. I hardly had a clue what she was talking about. We were seven, for Christ's sake, and fashion hadn't been a big deal at my old school. But my faux pas meant my automatic exclusion from the upper echelons of second grade.

Later that afternoon, when it came time to pick partners for a science project, every girl I sought out with my gaze refused to meet it except for Stacey O'Connor. She came running over, gushing, "Wanna be my partner?" Her bright blue eyes danced. "I already have an idea for the project."

Later we would use two empty two-liter bottles, some green food coloring, and a little plastic device Stacey'd seen on some PBS show to demonstrate the workings of a tornado.

Since Stacey already had the project figured out and discussing her plan took five minutes of the thirty the teacher allotted, Stacey launched into getting-to-know-you talk. "Where did you move from?" she asked, smiling so wide her freckled cheeks dimpled.

"The city," I boasted, having already decided Chicago was superior to Oak Park. It had taller buildings, the lakefront, and far friendlier kids.

"I lived on the South Side until I was four," Stacey told me. "My dad still lives there." She seemed equally as proud of her Chicago roots, but then she frowned, becoming defensive. "My mom and dad aren't married and never were. If you're gonna be mean about it..." She glared in the direction of Maggie Young.

I shook my head so vigorously that auburn strands of hair slapped me across the face. "I'm not gonna be mean to you! You're the first kid who's been nice to me."

With that out of the way, we moved on to our favorite cartoon (ThunderCats), color (blue), and food (peanut butter), marveling that we shared all of these common interests along with our non-Oak Park origin and ethnicity (Irish).

Stacey also said, "Wow, you have cool eyes. Are they orange in the middle?"

"They're hazel. Mostly green and brown, but they change colors sometimes."

"Oooh, like a mood ring!"

I nodded, beaming. Her words melted the feeling of insecurity that had been lodged in my gut since Maggie mocked my clothes.

Maybe if I'd begged my mom for a new wardrobe and a perm, I could've joined Maggie Young's elite crowd of Keds-sneakered, Gap-cardigan-wearing, boy-crazy girls with perfectly coiffed bangs. But once I aligned myself with Stacey, I was branded uncool for life and I didn't care. Stacey was a genuinely nice person; I was relieved to have a real friend, and so was she.

Stacey's low position on the social totem pole at school — just above the girl who smelled like pee and tried to blame it on her cats — stemmed from her undesirable family situation. She lived in a tiny apartment, not the prime locale for elaborate sleepovers, and all the other parents looked down on her mom. Beth had Stacey at sixteen and Stacey's dad had been thirty. Beth had scrimped and saved to move Stacey to the 'burbs for that mythic "better life." After that, Stacey rarely saw her dad.

Two years into our friendship, in fourth grade, I went with Stacey to visit him. We waited anxiously in the backseat while Beth went in to talk to him first. Five minutes later, Beth stormed out, red-cheeked, and started the car again, announcing, "He can't pay child support, he can't see his kid."

On the drive back to Oak Park, I stared out my window, feeling sick to my stomach for Stacey, who chewed on the ends of her dark hair, trying not to cry. Beth played the radio as loud as it could go, Led Zeppelin making the windows rattle, Stacey and I learning to find solace in a blaring rock song.

My friendship with Stacey was never supposed to change. It was supposed to stay frozen in time like the photograph on the mantel in my living room: me and Stacey, ten years old, eyes bright, our forefingers pulling our mouths into goofy, jack-o'-lantern grins. It would be okay if our hair and clothes changed with the times, but we were supposed to be standing side by side with wacky smiles on our faces until the day we died.

A week after eighth grade graduation, Beth broke the news that she and Stacey were moving to the neighboring town — and different school district — of Berwyn.

She tried to butter us up first, ordering pizza for dinner. We ate in front of the TV as usual, but after The Real World ended, Beth turned it off.

"We need to talk about something." Beth took a deep breath before blurting, "We're moving in August when the lease is up. I can't afford Oak Park rent anymore."

Stacey and I both sobbed and begged and pleaded, but it had no effect on Beth. She scowled, one hand on her hip, the other palm outstretched, sliding back and forth between us. "You girls wanna get jobs? Wanna see if I can get you dishwashing positions at the restaurant?" She jerked her hand away. "Didn't think so."

I wrapped my arms around myself and cried harder. Stacey screeched until she was blue in the face, calling Beth things she'd never dared, like "motherfucking bitch."

Finally, Beth roared, "Get to your room before I ground your ass for the entire summer!"

Stacey grabbed my hand and yanked me down the hall. She slammed her door and blasted a Black Sabbath album. Beth shouted at her to play it louder. Stacey changed the music to Nine Inch Nails, but Beth said she could turn that up, too.

After fifty similar arguments, Stacey didn't want to talk about it anymore. But I kept scheming to keep us from being separated. I even tried to convince my parents that we should move to Berwyn, too.

I accosted them in the kitchen one night while Mom prepared dinner and Dad thumbed through the files in his briefcase. I contended that we could find a cheaper house in Berwyn and the taxes would be lower. Feeling desperate, I also asserted, "Berwyn has the car spindle that was in Wayne's World. Oak Park doesn't have cool public art like that."

Dad snorted. "Kara, that thing is beyond tacky. And we're staying in Oak Park for the schools. That's why I work so hard to pay those high taxes."

"Doesn't Stacey deserve to go to school here, too? Maybe she could live with us or at least use our address — "

Dad cut me off with his patented "Absolutely not!" signaling end of discussion.

Mom chased me upstairs to my bedroom, where I threw myself on my bed, shouting, "Dad's so unfair! He didn't even listen to me. He doesn't care about anything but his stupid job and he doesn't understand..." I buried my face in a pillow, sobbing.

Mom gently stroked my hair. "I understand," she murmured. I turned my head to look at her. She brushed away the ginger strands that clung to my damp cheeks before explaining, "My best friend's parents sent her to an all-girls Catholic high school. I begged my parents to send me, too, even though we couldn't afford it."

"You do understand. Will you talk to Dad?" I asked with a hiccup.

Mom smiled in that patronizing parental way. "Sweetie, Jane and I stayed friends even though we went to different schools. We hung out after school almost every day. That's what you and Stacey'll do. She'll only be a couple miles away. And you'll meet new friends like I did. It'll be okay."

"No, it won't!" I spat, feeling betrayed. Mom tried to hug me, but I flopped over on my stomach, growling, "Get out of my room!"

Mom spent the summer trying to reassure me that everything would be fine, but I couldn't shake the feeling that our annual trip to my aunt's cabin in Door County would be the last of the good times for me and Stacey.

My family always spent the second-to-last week of August at the cabin and Stacey had been joining us since fourth grade. Stacey's move was scheduled for the weekend after we returned, but we tried to enjoy our vacation.

On our last night, we snuck out after everyone went to bed. We crept through the backyard, down the dirt path to the lake. We did this every year, settling on the edge of the small pier just past where the motorboat was moored to talk and look at the stars. But this time we had a mission: to smoke pot for the first time. We thought getting stoned would help us forget the move and laugh and have fun like we used to.

We sat on the pier in silence at first, listening to make sure none of the adults had woken. Then Stacey fumbled in the pocket of her flannel shirt for the joint she'd carefully wrapped in a plastic bag. She hadn't shown it to me yet and I'd wondered if she'd actually been able to swipe some pot from Beth like she'd been promising.

Stacey extracted the joint and placed it in my palm. I studied the rolling job. It looked like a regular cigarette, but with the paper neatly twisted at both ends. "Whoa," I breathed upon examining the craftsmanship. "Did Beth give this to you?"

"No, she's not that cool. I took the pot and the papers from her dresser drawer while she was at work."

"You rolled this?"

Stacey nodded, obviously proud of her accomplishment. "Learned from watching the best." She smirked and handed me her lighter.

We'd started stealing Beth's cigarettes that summer, but they hadn't prepared my lungs for the burn of the first inhale. I coughed, tucking my chin toward my chest to mute the sound. Stacey took the joint and her first drag yielded the same result.

"Pretty cool, huh?" I managed to say in a scratchy voice.

"Yeah." Stacey squeezed her watering eyes shut.

After a few more drags, I stared up at the sky slightly light-headed, wondering if soon I'd feel happy or at least hungry with the munchies like Beth talked about.

Stacey looked up at the stars, too, and started laughing.

"What?" I asked excitedly, knowing her laughter meant the pot was kicking in.

She wiggled her fingers and imitated her mother's new-agey best friend, Lydia. "Our fuuuuu-ture is in those stars, Kara." Stacey sounded very stoned.

The only thing I saw in my future was torturous days at high school without her. "The future is going to suck."

Stacey kept the impression going, attempting to cheer me up. "The distance between our homes does not matter. The physical world does not bind us. We are linked sooooo-uls." She giggled hysterically, but my frown remained.

I raked my hand through my hair and turned to Stacey. "You have to promise me that no matter what happens, you and I will always be best friends, exactly like we are now."

Stacey inhaled from the joint, cupped her open fist to her mouth, and pulled my face toward hers, my lips connecting with the other side of her hand. She blew smoke through her circled fingers into my mouth. "Smoke sisters," she pronounced with a grin, handing me the joint.

I smiled, but decided to one-up her. Pulling a Swiss Army knife from the pocket of my frayed cutoffs and flicking open the tiny blade, I suggested, "Blood sisters?"

Stacey blinked hesitantly. She hated pain. "Okay," she finally agreed, extending her forearm.

I traced a thin line in the smooth space between her wrist and her elbow. It was a tiny scratch, barely splitting her skin, and producing only a few droplets of red that dried almost immediately.

The one I gave myself in the identical spot went deeper, making Stacey shudder, but the twinge of pain ignited the rush I'd been expecting from the pot. A strange warmth crackled through me, leaving me with a sense of tranquillity I hadn't felt since Beth announced the move. The blood oozed out and formed one fat drop that lazily rolled down my skinny arm. I marveled at it momentarily before pressing my forearm to Stacey's.

"Blood sisters," I pronounced, admiring the sticky smear that stained my skin when I pulled away.

Copyright © 2009 by Stephanie Kuehnert

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Ballads of Suburbia 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read both of Stephanie Kuehnert's books and I love them. 1) it's an easy read 2) Although I grew up a metalhead the punk characters are super relatable 3) You really feel for these characters and you move through the book. Granted the characters are usually high school aged but even as an almost 30 year old I can still remember the feelings these kids go through. Waiting for book # 3.
Stevie Gottschlich More than 1 year ago
This book should be a movie. Its easy to fallow, fast to fall in love with, and so damn true! Reading this I was taken back by the truth of the story. It was like reliving my own life. There were a few small typos but nothing that you cant look past. I freaking love this book.
KDH_Reviews More than 1 year ago
I have mixed feelings about Ballads of Suburbia. Though the story is fairly interesting and the book is well written, I just didn’t find myself connecting to the characters and immersing myself in the story like I wanted. Since this book is of moderate length (~340 pages), I expected more than what I got. At times, the story seemed to drag and felt long-winded. While the “ballads” the characters wrote did break up the monotony, it didn’t do much to keep me focused. Concerning the characters, they all felt boring. They were too similar and their voices all blended together. Though it may make sense if this was done purposely, having the characters be nearly carbon copies makes for a more boring story. Though it may seem somewhat backwards, despite not loving Ballads of Suburbia, I believe this is a good book and I would recommend it. Just because it’s not for me, doesn’t mean that it’s not for a lot of people. You can read all of my reviews on my blog, KDH Reviews.
Under_The_Covers_BookBlog More than 1 year ago
~Reviewed by ANN & posted at Under the Covers Book Blog The back story of each character was so well-done and intricate that reading their ballads seem to display them in their most raw state and seeing their internal struggles with themselves was sometimes hard to read, but very successful in creating that emotional bond between the reader and the characters. ~ Under the Covers Back when I was reading only YA books, I came upon this book while I was browsing the shelves at Indigo in Downtown Toronto between some of my classes. There was something about this book that caught my attention. Maybe it was the cover, maybe it was the title or the back blurb, but I knew I just had to read this book. I read and loved it then. And now, in the wake of the new boom of New Adult books, I remembered this special gem that caught my eye a long time ago. So I went back to revisit it for a reread and it’s just as good as I remembered. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA is a teen novel that deals with a lot of bad things. You’ve got suicide, depression, drug abuse, overdose, unsafe sex, teen pregnancy, abuse, grief and the works. That being said, it pushes the maturity level so that it feels more like a New Adult book than a simple YA novel. Of course, when it came out, NA wasn’t a thing yet but I thought I’d bring this back on the radar and hopefully get readers interested in this book because it is a great one. This book follows Kara who in her junior year of high school had a heroin overdose that nearly killed her. She left the school and moved to bigger and better things, but four years later, she returns to Scoville Park where her very dark past catches up with her. When she returns, she meets up with her old friends – and I use this term loosely – and revisits her old life. Drama unlike anything you’ve ever seen occurs and it’s both gripping and heartbreaking to watch. Not only do you find out what happened to her friends after the years she left, but you also get glimpses of what they are going thoroughly presently and it’s not always good. What’s unique about this book is the way it’s written. Kuehnert is heavily influenced by music and you can see that throughout the pages. But perhaps the best – and the most heartbreaking – thing about this book are the Ballads that each character writes. They’re almost like short tell-alls that reveal the innermost thoughts and secrets of each character. God, they were so consuming and reading some of them simply crushed my heart. The back story of each character was so well-done and intricate that reading their ballads seem to display them in their most raw state and seeing their internal struggles with themselves was sometimes hard to read, but very successful in creating that emotional bond between the reader and the characters. I loved this book so much and I’m hoping that this will convince readers to pick up this older book and give it to try. It’s emotional and angsty with a few twists along the way. And there’s a hero named Adrian whom I both loved and hated. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find myself putting this book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
it would be awesome if they made this into a movie
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Absolutely loved this book. Read in one sitting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
couldn't put it down.
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murphyslibrary More than 1 year ago
from Murphy's Library Kara is an ordinary teenager girl who has some problems as any other teenager. Her best friend, Stacey, moves to another city-although they still live close to each other, they don't hang out together as before-and now Kara is alone again. She ends up getting close again to Liam, her little brother, who used to have Kara as a role model, until Stacey showed up. As close as they become again, as far their parents become to each other, and Kara starts to cut herself in an attempt to make her feel physical pain to forget how screwed up her feelings are. And then Kara meets Maya, a new girl in town. Maya has her own problems too-and who doesn't?-, her mother died and her father is trying to make her feel closer to family. Maya and Kara start to go to Scoville Park, where they meet another kids like them. But it's one of the boys who gets Kara's attention: Adrian. He's this gorgeous guy who, for Kara's surprise, seems to be interested on her. Adrian shows Kara the "Stories of Suburbia", a notebook him and his friends have been writing on. There's only one rule: to read the stories on that notebook first you must write your own. Is Kara who suggests the stories are their ballads, and from then and on they start calling it "Ballads of Suburbia". We read the ballads along the chapters-and be aware: life isn't easy, or fair, or even bearable sometimes. Kara falls for Adrian, and that's just the beginning of the end-or not, according to Kara-, so I'm not going to spoil the story, not more than the synopsys already did! What can I tell about Ballads of Suburbia? This book broke my heart, in a way that took me a while to recover. I can't find words to describe how I feel about it, because Kara could be me. I faced some of the problems she faces on this book-but I made different choices than hers. So, somehow, Ballads of Suburbia was a reality shock for me, one that I wasn't really expecting. I got this book on my mail because a Brazilian blogger won a signed copy of it and she asked me to forward her the book-and that was the first time I heard about it. It's a heavy reading, for sure, so it isn't for everyone. I told Guta about the story right after I've finished reading it and she told me it isn't exactly her cup of tea, she wouldn't even give it a try. There's a lot of drugs on it, and Kara's feelings are so, so real, that you feel it all with her-and that includes her depression. I'm probably going to look for more Kuehnert's books in the future, not exactly right now. I think I need a break from reality before trying this again LOL
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
2WriteLove More than 1 year ago
Stephanie Kuehnert has done it again! i couldn't put this eye-opening, scary, dark, everything novle. i cried, laughed, and wanted to go back to my past(I self-injured for a while like Kara) cause of the main character Kara. I never related to a character this much EVER(i read A LOT too). This book shows the nonsense of the late 90's and shows how drugs and self-injury's effect on people. BALLADS OF SURBURBIA is a wild ride that takes you by the hand and doesnt let go untill the last page of the story is read. If you really like the truth read this book or forever wish you did
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the first book I read by Stephanie Kuehnert. When I read what the book was about I had to buy it. This was by far the best book I have ever read (& I have read a lot) I absolutely loved it. The characters seemed so real, and I felt that I could relate in many ways with Kara. Stephanie Kuehnert crafted this story amazingly. While reading this book, I laughed and I cried, and I never wanted to put it down. Wonderful book, I'd recommened to anyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Carspar289 More than 1 year ago
a very dark and scary story that delves into drug and sex abuse of our forgotten and out of touch youth and the overall state of our children. a total eye opener for all parents of teenagers. a tale to let us know how important it is to maintain family values.
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TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
Ms. Kuehnert has written another powerful and hard-hitting novel to follow up her stunning debut, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE. Kara is friendless when her BFF Stacey has to move to another less expensive suburb of Chicago. So when new girl Maya enters Chemistry class and sits down beside her, she's excited to see a kindred soul. Soon the two take to hanging out after school in Scoville Park. Maya is everything Kara isn't, first and foremost outgoing. Maya jumps right in and creates a spot for them with the gang at Scoville. It isn't until Kara becomes associated with fire that she truly feels she's part of the crowd. Kara uses Scoville to help escape life at home. Her parents are constantly at odds and her younger brother, Liam, is as desperate for attention as Kara is. She begins to bring Liam with her to Scoville and he soon becomes another member of the group. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA explores Kara's connections with the others that hang out at Scoville. These kids know how to party, and slowly Kara gets sucked into the world of drugs by those around here. She's attracted to bad boy Adrian and is told that he must really like her because he treats her differently than all the other girls. But she knows she should be with Christian, the good guy. It isn't until Christian turns dark that Kara's world truly blows up. Friendships are tested and emotions flare. Interspersed throughout the novel, Ms. Kuehnert inserts the "ballads" of various characters. Adrian has in his possession a journal that anyone can read, with the condition that you must first write your own story. Kara can never bring herself to write her story, even when tragedy hits...more than once. It isn't until Kara ventures home after escaping the negativity of Oak Park that life comes full circle for Kara. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA is a dark, desperate look at teenage life in the suburbs in the early 1990s. Ms. Kuehnert gets right to the heart of the teenage angst and struggles to fit in to any crowd. Though a bleak look, the ending leaves the reader filled with hope at the future Kara is trying to create for herself.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was a pale, lifeless imitation of Perks of Being a Wallflower. The characters were one-dimensional and their development was jerky and ham-handed. I wanted to like the book because the premise really drew me in, but frankly by the end I was just looking forward to being finished. I felt like it focused on the worst type of high-school drama and related it in visceral detail. Just doesn't make for exciting reading, in my opinion. Others obviously disagree.