Sunday, November 15, 2009

Notes from a Midnight Reader—Kathryn Craft

Scholastic; $6.99

It is a privilege to witness the birth of the career of a really good writer. So when the Blood-Red Pencil editors started tossing around the idea of sharing gift ideas, Jordan Sonnenblick sprang to mind. I met Jordan in 2003 when he was a middle school teacher and writing his first book, DRUMS, GIRLS & DANGEROUS PIE, on the side. 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. Jordan’s second novel, NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER, was published in 2006, and was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. The Italian translation of NOTES won the prestigious Premio Cento prize and his 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.

Pretty cool, huh? He’s that good. I’ve read several of his books and loved them all.

My recommendation today, though, is NOTES FROM A MIDNIGHT DRIVER. I love the situation: 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.

I 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!


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Nurturing the birth of great literature is both her work and her joy. May you take time to read many good books in the upcoming holiday season!

Bookmark and Share


  1. Kathryn,

    Thanks for introducing me to Jordan Sonnenblick and his work. I struggle to find good books for my neices and nephews. You just gave me a whole list!

  2. What a terrific interview. Cracked up when I read about the character puking on the cop's shoes. My son did that when he got drunk on wine with his buddy. The police brought him home in the middle of the night -- he and his buddy were wandering down the street -- and I almost told the cop it wasn't my kid.

    The books sound wonderful.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Kathryn! It's nice to sit back and realize how much good stuff has happened to me in just a few years ... and to see it through the eyes of a friend who witnessed the beginning of the whole thing.

  4. I'm past my young adult years, but this book sounds wonderful. I'm going to look for it.

    Straight From Hel

  5. I've been reading more and more YA and middle grade books in the last couple years because I buy them as gifts (and can't resist reading them before I give them away). I'm adding Jordan's books to my gift list right now.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.