I wanted to read Notes from the Midnight Driver even before it was nominated for the Cybils award, because I loved Jordan Sonnenblick's previous book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. Notes from the Midnight Driver is aimed at slightly older kids, though truth to tell, the voice feels similar in age. It's necessary for this book to be classified for young adults, because the opening scene involves the main character, 16-year-old Alex, being arrested for drunk driving (and the attendant decapitation of a helpless lawn gnome). Please don't let that put you off. That is not what the book is about. The drunk driving incident (a one-time mis-step from an otherwise not-very-rebellious kid) is a catalyst for a story of personal growth and cross-generational friendship.
As a first time offender, Alex is sentenced to 100 hours of community service at a nursing home, assigned to visit a cranky old man named Sol Lewis. Because he's accustomed to being a "good kid", Alex has trouble taking responsibility for his actions. He starts out feeling sorry for himself, and whining about how difficult Sol is to deal with. The "notes" of the title refer, in part, to Alex's regular letters of complaint to the judge assigned to his case. But as the book evolves, the "notes" take on another connotation, too, as Sol and Alex form a bond through their shared love of music.
There is so much to like about this book. The number one thing, for me, is Alex's voice: wryly humorous and self-deprecating, and completely believable. I could cite dozens of examples. But here are two:
She still looks like a pixie -- but she looks like a terrifying Goth pixie... She's like the daughter my Mom never had, but would have liked very much if God hadn't given her a dorky, uncoordinated nerdball of a son instead. (page 27)
I stopped and waited for that to sink in. While Brad was still struggling with my daunting use of a three-syllable word, Laurie asked "The hospital? Why? What's going on?" (page 195)
Sol's voice is wonderfully entertaining, also, despite his gruffness. His words, especially the frequent Yiddish expressions, practically leap off the page. Here's an example:
First of all, I told you to call me Sol. Second of all, don't apologize for showing some backbone. Especially for a slow kid like you -- no offense -- you're going to need some of that chutzpah to get you through life. Everybody needs a meal ticket, and if you aren't blessed with looks or brains, a big mouth isn't such a bad substitute. (page 58)
Notes from the Midnight Driver also features the re-appearance of Steven and Annette from Sonnenblick's first book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. They're side characters in this story, but we get to see how they're doing, three years after the time of the first book. I found this a pleasant surprise, mid-way through the book, and I was happy to see them again. (You should read Drums, Girls first, because the second book does give away the ending of the first).
Notes from the Midnight Driver also delves into Alex's relationship with his longtime best friend, Laurie. I've written before about the overuse of the "boy-girl best friends who develop romantic feelings for one another" plotline. But I have to say that this one held my interest. Maybe because this story is told from the boy's perspective. Maybe because Laurie is such a strong character in her own right. Maybe because of Sol's bossy old man intervention. But I liked it.
Still, the main event here is Alex's relationship with Sol, and the ways that they are both changed by it. On the surface, it doesn't seem like a book about a friendship between a high school boy and an ailing old Jewish guy would be compelling. But in Sonnenblick's capable hands, it is. Especially the change in Alex, as he learns to take responsibility for himself and others.
This book ought to feel message-y, but doesn't. I think it's the humor. Sonnenblick strikes a remarkable balance between keeping things light-hearted, and writing about serious issues. I laughed along the way, and cried a bit at the end. I left the book wanting to strengthen my own connections with people, and wondering if maybe I should be volunteering in a nursing home somewhere. But mostly, I left the book hoping that Jordan Sonnenblick will write another book soon.
Book: Notes from the Midnight Driver
Author: Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Original Publication Date: October 2006. This book was nominated for the Cybils award for Young Adult Fiction.
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: propernoun.net, Kids Lit, InfoDad.com, Hypothetically Speaking, Reading YA: Readers' Rants, OMS Book Blog
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.