Self-serving students inspire a teacher's teen novel
Excuses. Excuses. Excuses. For many of us, they are the cause of frustration, but to 14-year teaching veteran and acclaimed author Jordan Sonnenblick, they are also the inspiration for his new young adult novel, Notes from the Midnight Driver.
Sonnenblick, a fifth-grade teacher in rural Pennsylvania, faced a flood of excuses after his class acted up for a substitute teacher. He was absent from the classroom for only one day, but that was enough for the substitute filling in for him and she left him a note saying so. "It was like her last note before she became overrun with the insurgency," recalls Sonnenblick, who was livid about the incident. " I felt so taken advantage of, and when I confronted the students about it, they just rolled their eyes."
So to make up for their misbehavior, he made each of them write a note of apology to their parents. Sonnenblick thought that exercise would be the end of it, but when he read the students' letters, he was appalled. "They were flippant, self-serving, non-responsible, blaming notes so much so that I couldn't even send them to the parents." A few days later, after his frustration had passed, Sonnenblick decided that this would be a great concept for a book. It was my way of dealing with the stress of the kids having really made me mad and once they heard the story, they completely realized it was their stuff. Notes from the Midnight Driver follows a teenager, Alex, in the midst of his parent's breakup, who gets drunk on his dad's vodka, steals his mom's car, mortally wounds a lawn gnome, and then blames everyone but himself for his behavior. Although the plot deals with divorce, drunk driving, estranged families and ultimately, death, it is more a story of the narrator's growth from excuse-making boy to responsible young man.
"I don't think it pounds you over the head as a message book," Sonnenblick says, "but I needed it to be serious enough for the kids to get it." While the concept of excuse-making is deliberately drawn from the episode on that fateful day in the classroom, the characters themselves are drawn from Sonnenblick's own life. The main character, Alex, is fashioned after the author himself. Alex's best friend, Laurie, is a compilation of some of his students. And Sol, the crotchety old man Alex befriends, is based on Sonnenblick's wonderfully outspoken grandfather. In a strange twist of fate, the author had received a call only hours after he decided to write the book, telling him that his grandfather was sick in a Florida hospital. Sonnenblick flew down to be by his side and when he arrived, his grandfather was sitting up in bed, belting out songs in Yiddish and making the nurses laugh. "I felt like it was a sign that he had to be in the book and I had to write it," the author says.
This isn't the first time Sonnenblick knew he had to write something. His first book for young readers, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, was similarly inspired. " I had a student whose little brother had cancer," Sonnenblick says, and during a parent-teacher conference, "I carelessly mentioned to the mother that her daughter seemed to be handling things very well. The mom replied, No. She's not. She's hiding it," remembers the author, who was mortified at his misunderstanding.
To make up for his mistake, Sonnenblick offered to find a book for the student that would help her cope with the ordeal. After quite a bit of research, he came up empty-handed. "I couldn't find a book to help her, so I decided to write one." Ten short weeks later, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie was born. Getting that first book published however, proved to be a much more lengthy and difficult process. Initially, Sonnenblick signed with DayBue Publishing, which went out of business just four days after Drums was released. In the midst of that difficulty, Sonnenblick was hit with worse news: The brother of the child who inspired the book relapsed and died three weeks before the book came out. "It was bittersweet," Sonnenblick says. "I was excited for the book to be published, but it was too late to help the kid for whom I had written the book."
It wasn't too late for others, however. Since the publisher was going out of business anyway, Sonnenblick convinced the company to donate 4,000 copies to SuperSibs, a charity organization that supports siblings of cancer patients. "The swan song was to get it to those kids who really needed it," says Sonnenblick. After a bit more publishing turmoil, some lucky connections and a weird series of coincidences, Drums was picked up by Scholastic Press and reprinted. It received numerous honors, among them a nomination for ALA's Best Book for Young Adults 2005, a BookSense Pick for Teens and loads of great reviews.
Sonnenblick, who has continued to write a book a year since Drums in 2002, is taking a hiatus from the classroom this fall, but he says he has a good excuse to return to teaching middle school one day. " I love the ironic reaction I get from people: They are glad that I am doing it, but they think I'm a little nuts." And that's an excuse he can live with.