Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School

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9780802141972: Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School

Pennsbury High School would be like any other were it not for one thing: its prom. Its spring dance is considered to be one of this country's best legacies. Wonderland is the inspiring true story of a dance floor and the kids who fill it: a tale of hope, sex, love, and loss. For one year, the students, parents, and teachers of Pennsbury invited Michael Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, into their classrooms, their homes, their parties, and their dreams. He discovered an extraordinary and disparate group of everyday teenagers whose stories were touching, odd, funny, and beautiful.
In Wonderland, lives intersect in unpredictable ways and are never what they appear to be. The star quarterback hides the pain of not knowing where his father is. A student with cerebral palsy is desperate to learn to tie Eagle Scout knots, despite a useless left hand. And then there is Bob Costa, who dreams of bringing glory to the school by convincing John Mayer, whose song "Your Body Is a Wonderland" is an anthem for the students, to perform at the prom. Critically acclaimed in hardcover, Wonderland is published in paperback with a new afterword by the author.

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From the Publisher:

Interview with Michael Bamberger

Q. As a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, you write about steroid abuse, athletes in prison, Tiger Woods at the Masters. What made you want to write a book about a high school and its prom?

Michael Bamberger: I saw a little clip about the Pennsbury prom on TV news and I was just so intrigued. They showed hundreds of parents and siblings lined up on the sidewalks to watch the prom arrivals. It just got me thinking about what a key ritual a prom continues to be in America, even with all the changes our society has gone through, even in the 25 years since I was in high school.

Q. The kids in WONDERLAND speak with great candor about their lives. How did you get them to open up like that?

Michael Bamberger: I think the key to all reporting is hanging out. You spend as much time as you can with your subjects--at a Starbucks, over the phone, online--until they realize they are talking to somebody with a sympathetic ear. I find that people are aching to talk about the things that are most important to them, they just need to know they have a listener who really cares.

Q. You describe the students in WONDERLAND as 'everyday kids.' But they produce an exceptional prom. Isn't that a contradiction?

Michael Bamberger: It might seem like one, but it's not. The thing that excites me most about WONDERLAND is that I know it's not exceptional. Pennsbury is absolutely an ordinary, middle-class suburban high school, with one exceptional built-in annual ritual: the Pennsbury prom. The kids are devoted to it because they've grown up on it, but the kids themselves are the same kids you'd find wandering around the food court in any mall.

Q. What surprised you about spending a year in a high school 25 years after your own senior year?

Michael Bamberger: So many things. I think the most significant thing is that I found that these kids don't want Clinton-in-the-Oval-Office sex. They really don't. They want real relationships. They want courtship and--I wish I knew a better phrase--a sense of community. I think they want what their grandparents may have had in the Fifties. You see the tattoos and the body-piericings and navels on display, and you might think you know these kids. And you don't. That stuff is really just their costume. The kids, at their core, are the same as they've always been. They want to be liked and they want to be loved. If they can get sex too, great, but it's not the only goal.

Q: You have two young children. Did writing WONDERLAND change your approach to parenting in any way?

Michael Bamberger: I think it did. I think I saw up-close that kids will do all manner of stupid things - and some smart things - no matter how closely you're riding herd on them. And you know something? They're probably going to turn out all right. I'm very inquisitive by nature, and very involved in my kids' lives, but I think I'm now more inclined to give them a longer leash and let them discover things for themselves. Of course, my wife has her own ideas.

Q. One of your subjects, Bob Costa, can’t be regarded as ordinary, can he? Here is a junior in high school who met with the singer John Mayer to try to get him to play the Pennsbury prom.

Michael Bamberger: No, Costa is not ordinary. His thing now is to get Clinton to be the graduation day speaker this year. I was amazed by Costa, which is why he's the most important character in the book. Writing about Costa, I felt like I was writing, THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT, 2040. But it was the environment of Pennsbury that allowed him to be exceptional. He needed the massive public high school experience to become a leader of kids in the way that he is.

About the Author:

Michael Bamberger was born in Patchogue, New York, in 1960. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982, he became a newspaper reporter, first on the (Martha's) Vineyard Gazette, later on The Philadelphia Inquirer. Since 1995, he has been a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Christine, and their children, Ian and Alina.

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