Jordan Sonnenblick always knew he wanted to be a writer; well, a writer AND a teacher just like his grandfather. A high school biology teacher and an author of high school biology texts, Sonnenblick’s grandfather would show him books he had written. Sonnenblick was so impressed with seeing his grandfather’s name on the spine of the book that he wanted to do the same thing. “I wanted to be a teacher in the day time, but I also wanted my name to be on the sides of books so no one could ever take it off.”
Today, Sonnenblick has spent years as a full-time teacher and has eight books under his belt with a ninth to be released in September. Sonnenblick’s first book, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie (Scholastic, 2005), was inspired by a student in his classroom whose brother had cancer. His latest book to be released in September, Are You Experienced? (Feiwel & Friends, 2013), features significant nods to his past, including deep roots in music and the knowledge that a friend would die of an overdose years before it came true.
“I became haunted by the idea that we knew as teenagers that this guy would overdose someday. The idea that his future was written, predestined, and nobody could stop it even though we knew was disturbing. So I thought, what if you could go back in time and shake someone’s shoulders and say ‘don’t do it.’ Would it make a difference?”
The idea for Experienced came to him in the space of about 10 minutes. While driving to a speaking engagement for the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, he began thinking about his friend who had passed away due to the overdose. While he was driving and thinking, he was listening to a 1960s music station, and suddenly the whole story came together. Immediately, he called his agent who liked the idea. Then he called his editor who also liked the idea. Sonnenblick told them to talk to each other, and the editor told him to work on selling her on the mechanics of the time-travel element of the story. And just like that, Are You Experienced? was launched.
“I wanted to write a book that would show the students how to take responsibility when you do something wrong.”
Out of his other novels, the only one that came to him quickly like Experienced was Notes From the Midnight Driver. As a teacher, Sonnenblick had a class one year filled with really smart but mischievous kids. He knew he would be at a conference soon and a substitute would take his place. He pleaded with his students to behave; however, upon returning, he found that they had not. Rather, they chose to crawl around on the floor and to throw paper balls.
Frustrated, disappointed, and angry, Sonnenblick ordered his students to write apology notes to their own mothers explaining what they had done. Instead of the heartfelt notes he expected, Sonnenblick found the students had resorted to excuses and blaming others. A few days later, he was taking a walk and thinking about who had taught him how to take responsibility and when. He realized it was when he was 16 years old and his parents were divorcing. His grandfather was the one to help him learn to deal with bad situations in a mature way.
“I wanted to write a book that would show the students how to take responsibility when you do something wrong. I thought it was an important life lesson to learn how to say ‘I did it,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘what can I do to make amends?’” And suddenly a story began coming together about a 16-year-old boy whose parents are divorcing. He chooses to drive drunk to confront his dad but ends up crashing instead. He is sentenced to community service with the meanest old man in a nursing home. He must also write a letter to the judge to demonstrate that he has changed.
Currently, Sonnenblick is waiting to discover and develop his next story idea. “The weird thing is that I don’t know what I’m going to write next because I don’t know until it hits me. The only saving grace is that I write fast.” According to Sonnenblick, he creates a first draft in only two to four months with the finished product being ready just about a year later. While he awaits his next idea, his schedule remains filled with speaking engagements, school visits, and being a dad. He also has the publicity tour coming up for Are You Experienced?
Since he spent years in the classroom before focusing on writing full time, part of Sonnenblick’s heart is still in the classroom. He understands the challenges educators face when trying to inspire a love of literacy in children. He knows it can be tough when faced with standards, guidelines, and parameters defining what can and cannot be taught. Overall, he believes what kids need more than anything is truth and beauty. “How can you be a critically engaged human being in any subject if you don’t see education as the pursuit of truth and beauty?”