By Kathryn Craft
It is a special thing to witness the birth of the career of a really good writer. Those of us who attended the first year of GLVWG’s Writer’s Cafe were able to do so. It was there that Jordan Sonnenblick, a middle school English teacher, read from his first book, DRUMS, GIRLS & DANGEROUS PIE. Jordan says he was as surprised as anybody when the book took off: it received several starred reviews and was named to the American Library Association’s Teens’ Top Ten List. Since then, the book has sold over 300,000 copies and been translated into eleven foreign languages. The Italian translation won the prestigious Premio Cento prize.
Soon Jordan held the Writer’s Café spellbound while reading from the opening of his second novel, NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER, which went on to become an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Some of you may recall the premise: a teen begs attention from his dysfunctional parents by taking his mother’s car, crashing it while driving drunk to the house of his father’s girlfriend (his third-grade teacher, no less), then slumping from the car only to puke on a cop’s shoes. For these unfortunate choices Alex, a jazz guitarist who is typically a good kid, must fulfill a most unusual community service: he must play companion to the Egbert P. Johnson Memorial Home for the Aged's most cantankerous resident, Solomon Lewis.
Alex's voice is a hoot, yet the tone never downplays the serious situations—and the bond that grows between these two during the end stages of Sol’s life will touch readers both young and adult. Jordan’s third book, ZEN AND THE ART OF FAKING IT, was a BookSense Pick and a Family Circle Book of the Month. He has since written three middle grade books. His new YA title, AFTER EVER AFTER—the sequel to DRUMS—will be published in February by Scholastic.
It has taken three years of invitations to jive schedules, but Jordan will be joining us as our featured young adult and middle grade presenter for the 2010 conference. Pretty cool, huh?
Conference Chair Kathryn Craft recently spoke with Jordan about his work.
Kathryn: NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER, among other things, is about the consequences of drunk driving. Your first book was about a character whose life is reeling from his little brother's cancer diagnosis. So you haven't shied away from the tougher situations teens might face today. Did you encounter any obstacles with your publishers about this subject matter? What kind of feedback have you gotten from your readers?
Jordan: I have to say, my publishers have been hugely supportive of my work and everything in it. In all honesty, when I started my first book (DRUMS, GIRLS AND DANGEROUS PIE), a lot of my friends thought I was nuts when I told them I was writing a funny book about childhood cancer. Once the book came out and sold really well, though, that all went away. Now my readers expect to laugh and cry when they pick up one of my books, and I would expect to hear criticism if I didn't deliver that high-intensity experience.
K: I love the reluctant relationship between Alec and crotchety Mr. Lewis, the patient he is "sentenced" to be a companion to. Did you have a relationship with an older person that was important to your own growth?
J: Oh, yes. Solomon Lewis's personality is completely modeled on the persona of my maternal grandfather. I adored Grampa Sol, but he had a biting wit and a flashing temper. I tried to capture both my grandfather's great warmth and his difficult side in the book, which was hard. You want to paint this flattering picture of a person you love so much, but part of his lovability was his crotchety nature.
K: Have the books you've written since then continued to explore difficult issues?
J: Well, all of my teen books have. I have also written the DODGER AND ME trilogy for elementary-school readers. Those books are considerably lighter.
K: I love the voices of your characters. Are they hard to come by?
J: No, I have absolutely no trouble regressing back to my teen self. In fact, when I got my first book advance, my wife congratulated me on finally putting my immaturity to good use. And I know she meant that in the warmest possible way!
K: You used to be around kids all the time as a middle school English teacher, but now you write full-time. Is it any harder to come up with characters and plot ideas now that you are shut away in an office?
J: So far, I've been okay in that regard. I would say the source of my inspiration has shifted, and that now maybe 60% of my stuff comes from my own children. The main trouble with being shut away in an office all day is that one has to be careful not to get hugely fat. Other than that, it's been all good!
K: Alex plays guitar, and your author photo shows you with a guitar. Can you really play it? Does your interest in music feed your creativity as a writer?
J: Yes, I can really play the guitar, bass and drums. I don't know if that feeds my writing, but I think all inspiration comes from the same place—whatever that is!