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Ballads of Suburbia [Kindle Edition]

Stephanie Kuehnert
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Stephanie Kuehnert
got her start writing bad poetry and good punk rock feminist zines, one of which was featured in the book Zine Scene. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College in Chicago. Her short stories have been published in Hair Trigger, f6 magazine, and on Stephanie’s interviews and essays have appeared in No Touching magazine, on Virginia Quarterly Review’s website, and on This is her second novel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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 la...

Product Details

  • File Size: 491 KB
  • Print Length: 368 pages
  • Publisher: MTV Books; Original edition (July 21, 2009)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002HJV77W
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #536,290 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Book!!! July 25, 2009
By Cam
I loved Kuehnert's first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, so I was very excited for this one and I was in no way disappointed. Ballads of Suburbia is a fantastic book and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

I graduated from a Midwestern high school in the nineties. I'm a couple years older than the kids in this book are, but for the most part, they are of my generation. The music mentioned in this book is the same stuff I was listening to at the time and am still listening to today. Kuehnert's work transports me to another time and I can't get enough of it.

Her writing is incredibly powerful and each separate "ballad" in the book captures that power. Each of these vivid character studies link seamlessly together to tell the story of not just this group of lost souls, but of an entire generation. At the heart of the story is Kara, who without knowing it, really holds the group together. As she starts to lost touch, we see her world crumbling around her and we are powerless to stop it.

Ballads perfectly portrays that slippery slope of adolescence. It's so easy to lose your way when everything and everyone around you is changing so rapidly. Often as teenagers, I think there's this fear that if we don't catch up, we'll be passed by, at least that's how I felt in high school. This was just a really moving book and at its heart it is very hopeful and optimistic.

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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars LOVELOVELOVE July 25, 2009
By Khy
I can count on one hand the number of books that have "wow"ed me this year. I've read some meh, average, better than average, and the occasional awesome book, but only 4 or 5 that have made me go "wow." This book is one of that wowed me.

This book is definitely not an easy read- it's full of hard-hitting issues: drugs, cutting, all sorts of others. With heavy books like this, I usually need to stop every so often and think about what I'm reading, but I could not put this one down. I found myself going "one more chapter, just one more" and then I'd go from page 100 to 250 without even realizing it. Reading about Kara is heartbreaking- I almost cried at one point- but I was compelled to keep reading about the many ups and downs in her life. There's never a dull moment- even in the beginning, when older Kara is speaking, not teenage Kara.

The ballads- stories of the characters' lives and why they act like they do, basically- give each character unexpected depth. Many of the characters make awful, questionable, or even bizarre choices, and although the other characters only spoke for about a chapter, their motives are explained and their personalities make so much more sense. Kara is given more depth as well from the epilogue in the beginning of the book- seeing how Kara ends up makes reading about her journey more interesting, and also makes it easier to see how her decisions effect her.

All that really needs to be said about Ballads of Suburbia is that it's spectacular, and that I can't recommend it enough.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy it! Read it! Love it! July 30, 2009
Kara comes back to her hometown in the suburbs of Chicago. She's come back to finally meet her best friend's kid. She's come back because she's been gone too long. This book isn't about her coming back though, it's about why she had to leave. This is the Ballad of Kara McNaughton and her friends. A song about sex, drugs, punk rock, loss, death, running away, and trying to figure out who the hell you are.

This book hit me in the first few pages. I was zipped right back to my high school years. I'm reading and thinking, ' hey this is my story, my life'. I can totally relate to Kara going back home after being away from all the people and all the things from when she was a different person. A little while later while reading it though I was losing touch and relate-ability. No one I hung around with did hard drugs, I never really went to parties. In a sense though Kara did the same run through of emotions and mistakes we all do, just with a different backdrop. By the end of the book I was back on track feeling as Kara felt, crying hard for her and for myself. I enjoyed this book so much, I loved the whole concept and how everyone wrote their Ballads. I appreciated how heartfelt they could be when they knew that the only other people reading their words are people who spilled their own on the pages. Kuehnert did an epic job writing Kara's and the others. Most authors are older people trying to write a voice of a teen and some of the time that voice isn't real it doesn't sound like a teen really does. Stephanie hits the nail on the head here, her voices are spot on capturing the true teen essence of dialogue and thoughts. I applaud this book, it will be read and reread in years to come as a true coming-of-age tale that teens will really relate to. If you weren't already psyched about this book; let me tell you, you should be.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping July 27, 2009
Kara's favorite songs are ballads, the ones that tell about someone's life and numerous screw ups, the songs people can relate to and learn from. Because Kara's first three years of high school were full of screw ups, and not all of them her own. Insecurity that lead to cutting, casual highs turning into drug addiction, secrets, lies, and suicides all plagued her life in a deluge she thought she was dealing with until her near heroin overdose finally woke her up. Memories documented in her and her friends' "Stories of Suburbia" notebook will never fade, but now, it's Kara's turn to pay her due and write her own ballad.

When I first read a synopsis for Ballads of Suburbia, I was excited to see more from Kuehnert after I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, which I loved, but also wary because I was afraid Kuehnert was being too ambitious. Thankfully, though, I was wrong on the second account; my initial fear that Ballads of Suburbia's large cast would be overwhelming to the story proved false. I really must say that 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. Kuehnert paints a very gritty and depressing picture of a "suburb" of Chicage, a grim place only an invisible line marks as no longer the city filled with dysfunction and all the wrong ways to escape. This setting makes the characters easier to understand, because each comes with a history of at least one hardship or difficulty continuing to affect their lives. I found that for me, Ballads of Suburbia was less about the plot than it was how Kara responds to it. I mean, the turning point of the story is revealed in the first few pages of the novel.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars KDH Reviews: Ballads of Suburbia
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... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Kayla Harrison
2.0 out of 5 stars Although the writing was pretty great, it felt as if it just was ...
Couldn't get through it. Although the writing was pretty great, it felt as if it just was a group of teens spiralling down while going from drug to drug. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Flor Q
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW
Wow. That's just one word that describes Ballads of Suburbia. I was hooked from the beginning of this realistic book. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Anna LaGrois
5.0 out of 5 stars Ballads of Suburbia
Very funny and well written! Wonderful characters who are easy to identify with. Recommend for any age to read. S
Published 10 months ago by Shang
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
I was actually disappointed to find out this was fiction. I wanted these characters to be real. Very fast read.
Published 11 months ago by LIttleness
5.0 out of 5 stars Broken heart
I have read this book at least 20 times and everytime I read it I can't put it down. I know what is going to happen but I still have to read it. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Mariah Collins
1.0 out of 5 stars Didn't finish
I did not finish Ballads of Suburbia, as it was not something for me. It was not how I pictured it
Published 12 months ago by Elise Johnsen
5.0 out of 5 stars Really good, fans will enjoy!
I really enjoyed I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, I've actually read it several times. That led me to this book which did not disappoint. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Rachel Galvan
5.0 out of 5 stars Sex drugs and rock and roll
A really great book that shows all the struggles of being a teenager from the point if view of the teenager
Published 15 months ago by Fizzwizzler
5.0 out of 5 stars The back story of each character was so well-done and intricate
~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... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Under The Covers Book Blog
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More About the Author

STEPHANIE KUEHNERT got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist 'zines. After short stints in Ohio and Wisconsin, Stephanie ultimately returned home and received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. She currently resides in Forest Park, IL. I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE is her first novel. Visit her website at

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