Heidi Henneman

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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. 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.

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.

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Scandalous affairs, decadent parties, steamy rendezvous and scheming friends: In her new novel for young adults, The Luxe, Anna Godbersen captures the essence of Gilded Age New York high society at its most lavish and luxurious.

Told in a series of vignettes from the perspectives of several interwoven characters each with his or her own agenda The Luxe follows a young debutante, Elizabeth Holland, as she navigates the world of late 19th-century New York aristocracy, a world filled with backstabbing friends, salacious affairs, strict societal rules and lots of gossip.

In all, the characters seem remarkably similar to teenagers today or at least the ones we see on Gossip Girls or The Hills. And with a first printing of 200,000 for this first entry in a scheduled three-part series, HarperCollins is expecting this clique of characters and their charmed lifestyle to be just as popular. The author of this teen sensation got her start in writing as the assistant to the literary editor at Esquire magazine. I wrote a review almost every week, Godbersen recalls, and it was a real learning experience. Though she reviewed mostly male-oriented books for Esquire, her personal reading on the side included plenty of more girly books. From there she went on to ghostwrite a series of books for teen readers under a pseudonym. It was a fun thing to do, Godbersen says, and I made a small amount of money. Ultimately, she got a lucrative book deal of her own, and this one, The Luxe, became her labor of love, she says.

Once Godbersen got the green light for the book idea, she started researching the Gilded Age in New York. "I had a fondness for the Edith Wharton-type of novel," says Godbersen, a Berkeley, California, native and Barnard graduate. She also expected the glamour and excesses of the time to appeal to her teenage readers. Because she lives in New York City herself, it was easy to choose Manhattan as the setting for the book.

"New York was where that type of society was strongest during that period, she says, and I thought readers would be able to identify and recognize the places here." As for the characters, Godbersen tried to create believable and empathetic personas, each with his or her own issues. " Elizabeth is the heart of the book and I wanted her to embody certain aspects of the period," she says. "As the eldest daughter of a wealthy widow, Elizabeth must maintain a certain type of decorum in order to marry well. I started thinking about the ways that she would have had to conform to the period and that she would want to appear to be a very pristine, elegant and obedient girl of the time," Godbersen recalls.

But Elizabeth has secrets that even her closest friends and family do not know, including a clandestine love affair, a dark secret about her deceased father and a passionate yearning to escape the life she has been born into. "I ended up thinking about all of the hyper-accomplished women in high school these days who have high test scores, play sports and have lots of extra-curricular activities and the frightening pressure that all of that encompasses," the author says. "They are so taxed by having to appear perfect all the time."

But not all of the characters in The Luxe are do-gooders and overachievers. Elizabeth's supposed best friend, Penelope Hayes, is just the opposite. " I really wanted her to be evil," Godbersen says. And through backstabbing, man-stealing, blackmail and quite possibly murder, the author gets the job done. As for the men in the book, the author has tried to create a certain fantasy about men through her male characters. "I think they embody a type of courtliness that is true to the times," she says. " Not because they were more romantic, but because there were so many more layers of ritual and subterfuge associated with their courting." But she doesn't portray the men as infallible either: Henry Schoonmaker, Elizabeth's betrothed, is a known womanizer and drunkard; Teddy Cutting is lovelorn romantic who himself has proposed to the eldest Holland girl on several occasion; and Isaac Philip Buck is a scheming hanger-on who helps to plot Elizabeth's demise.

With the publication of her book this month, Godbersen will learn whether her pampered 19th-century party girls (and boys) and her vision of long-ago decadence will catch the imaginations of today's teen readers.


Heidi Henneman writes from the decadent city of New York.

Scandalous affairs, decadent parties, steamy rendezvous and scheming friends: In her new novel for young adults, The Luxe, Anna Godbersen captures the essence of Gilded Age New York high society at its most lavish and luxurious.

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