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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Ballads Turned YA Novels

So I’m sitting doing my blogging the other day while my husband was playing some good old-fashioned 60s tunes on the computer when “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry comes up.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with it or not but if you aren’t you can see what may well be the creepiest spot to ever air on a Smothers Brothers show at the bottom of this post.  It involves mannequins.  It doesn’t need to, of course, since that song is creepy enough without throwing in any extras.  It’s one of those song/stories where our heroine listens as her family reveals several damning observations via their friends and neighbors, the most pertinent being:

A. That nice Billie Joe went and threw himself off a bridge and

B. The local preacher noticed our heroine with Billie Joe not that long ago on that same bridge and the two were throwing “something” over the side.


Of course the degree to which this song creeps me out is only rivaled by the enjoyment I get from listening to it.  Then it got me to thinking . . . are there any cases where song/stories have been turned into YA novels?  Imagine for a moment that we live in a world where copyright would allow folks to write novels based on popular songs.  Certainly Nancy Werlin wrote Impossible a couple years ago which was ostensibly based on that Simon & Garfunkle song “Scarborough Fair”.  But S&G cribbed that puppy from a classic folk ballad anyway so it didn’t really count.  There are plenty of cases where picture books are made out of hit songs, but they’re always done by the singers themselves (Puff the Magic Dragon, Blowin’ in the Wind, etc.).

Here then are the songs that would most intrigue me to see adapted into full-blown novels.

1. Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry – You’ve got a lot to work with there.

2. Thriller by Michael Jackson – Two ways you could go about it.  You could either adapt the music video into a full novel (and in this era of zombie and werewolf YA novels hither thither and yon wouldn’t it sell so well?) or you could simply take the song as your guide.  Either way win-win.

3. Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield – I’m sure something along these lines already exists, but it’s not as if the smooth talking PK is a common literary trope.  Not in YA anyway.

4. American Pie by Don McLean – In envision this one as sort of a crazy mash-up, semi-psychedelic.  Maybe done in such a way where the song is a metaphor for the book (yes, I know what it’s actually about, but I think we can move away from that too).

5. In the Year 2525 by Zager and Evans – Well, I had to include something for the current dystopian craze, didn’t I?  Plus this one also creeps me out, which I figure is a good litmus test for a novel.

Those are just off the top of my head.  I’m sure there are more current songs you could include.  And lots from the past (anything by Cher, essentially).  Feel free to chime in with other ideas.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (Temptations). “Mama just hung her head and said . . ” — there’s a whole scene already written.

    By the way, those of us who were teenagers when Ode to Billy Joe first came out remember the brouhaha over what was dropped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. One of the more benign guesses was an engagement ring. This is not the place to list the less benign guesses.

  2. Seasons in the Sun is, perhaps, too obvious a choice (though there’s joy and fun as well as sadness), so what about The Blind Man in the Bleachers? The original country version is here: but I’m partial to the David Geddes version ( ). And if we’re talking David Geddes… what about Run Joey Run? Or Paper Lace’s The Night Chicago Died ( – gritty and told from the kid’s perspective. Oh, I could do this all night…. Fun idea for picture books, too….

  3. Cecilia says:

    Another example of a folk ballad turned into a YA novel is Diana Wynne Jone’s FIRE AND HEMLOCK which is based on the Tam Lin ballad, as is THE PERILOUS GARD by Elizabeth Pope. Can’t think of anyone who has based a book on a contemporary song, although David Levithan includes playlists a lot of the time!

  4. Kristi Hazelrigg says:

    I’m thinking these songs could spawn decent YA novels:

    Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”
    The Eagles’ “Hotel California” (now THERE’S a dystopia!)
    Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”

    And, just for kicks, Julie Brown’s “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun”. (Is the mystery of Johnny’s identity ever discovered???)

  5. Kristi Hazelrigg says:

    Oh–and I totally agree about “In the Year 2525″. “Eerie” is an understatement.

  6. Did they ever do S&G’s “The Boxer”?

  7. Oh, dear. Well, how about “Patches,” by Dickey Lee — teenage suicide (second one hasn’t actually occurred by the end of the novel, so I suppose it could be averted.)

  8. Caroline says:

    I’m sure that I had a copy of Ode to Billy Joe ( picked up from a yard sale or book sale. I remember being disappointed by it, but not much else.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Okay, Caroline you just won the contest I didn’t even know I was holding. The fact that there WAS a Billie Joe novel (YA or otherwise) blows me away. I never figured it was actually adapted. I mean, how often does that even happen?

      Oh, and I was avoiding the dead teen genre, but of course Teen Angel is utterly perfect considering the current run of popular angel novels out there right now. If I had to choose my own favorite dead teen song though it’s Johnny, Remember Me. Matt and I are pretty sure he killed her.

  9. “They said they found my high school ring clutched in your fingers tiiiiiight! Teen angel, can you hear me?”

  10. JMyersbook says:

    Well, jeez, if we’re going that far, how about “Leader of the Pack”? (And curs you, rams, for reminding me that “Patches” exists. I had avoided having that loathsome, wailing thing get stuck in my head for at least a decade, but no, that was too easy, you had to bring it up…)

  11. Ooooo, yes please for Teen Angel.

  12. Casle Portner says:

    I definitely read the Ode to Billy Joe book. Spoiler Alert. Billy Joe threw himself off the bridge because he’d been raped… by the preacher or the sheriff. I can’t remember.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Re: Casie – Whaaa? Then what the heck were they throwing off the bridge?

  13. When I listen to to The Decemberist I think I would love if I could read these songs as books too. When Oh Valenica was getting air play a few years ago I had a elaborated story in my mind.
    On another note, whenever I read a YA novel with a whiny, self centered charater (this happens too offen) I think of the song It’s My Party And I’ll Cry If I Want To.

  14. Maybe they were throwing either the preacher or the sheriff off the bridge. I agree with Betsy — I absolutely need the answer to this question.

  15. I think it was the girl’s doll? It symbolized a loss of innocence and a passing of childhood…or something. And it was implied that Billy Joe threw himself off the bridge because he was gay and he couldn’t deal with it. (The internet has helped me fill in some blanks.) The novel was an adaptation of the movie script: So it was really a book based on a movie based on a song.

    Extra fun fact: the movie was directed by Max Baer Jr. (Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies).

  16. I think I can help!
    I didn’t read the book, but they also made a movie based on the book, which I did see.

    Billy Joe actually has consensual sex with a man while drunk (but I guess it is rape since he is only 16 or 17 and therefore under age) and is so overwhelmed with guilt and confusion about his sexuality that he throws himself off the bridge.

    In the movie, the “thing” they threw off the bridge before he jumps is Bobbi’s baby doll. She has it with her when he confesses to her what he did. She refuses to believe him because she believes he is solely in love with her. He tells her to stop being childish and throws her doll off the bridge.

    THUS, the whole town thinks that Billy Joe and Bobbi had sex and got pregnant, threw their baby off the bridge to cover it up, leading Billy Joe to kill himself over the guilt. Bobbi never corrects them because she’d rather live in shame than save her reputation and tell them what actually happened to Billy Joe.

    Very controversial for even the 70s! I mean, it’s controversial now.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Fascinating. So it’s one in the long line of gay suicide films. And here I thought the baby was as bad as it got. Let’s just examine the world in which consensual gay sex is seen as worse than throwing your baby off a bridge. A different era. Nice that it’s almost over. Thanks for solving the mystery!

  17. That Tracy Chapman song about the kids with the effed-up families that just want to drive away and leave it all behind. Fast Car? Stolen Car? (Wait, that’s Springsteen and another good choice).

    Oh, and I’d love to see a 500-page verse novel treatment of Bobbie Gentry’s FANCY!

  18. Hmm….I thought about “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, but there’s not much actual *story* behind it, although you get the picture of what the song is about.

    And–several Springsteen songs come to mind. How about Nebraska? Born in the USA (historical fic). Bobbie Jean.

  19. Here’s a stretch–what about the old Jan and Dean song “Dead Man’s Curve?”

  20. “Oh, and I’d love to see a 500-page verse novel treatment of Bobbie Gentry’s FANCY!”

    This song has been in my head all day ever since I read Roger’s post. However, I hear Reba McEntire singing it (she did a cover some time in the 90s). I think we have a winner. Ye gods.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Meanwhile I’m imagining the book for that Chapman song he mentioned. “You’ve gotta make a decision / Leave tonight or maybe die this way.” The sad ending might kill me, though.

  21. A YA novel based on the Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” or the Magnetic Fields, “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan” would make me a very, very, VERY happy reader. Very.

    And it’s not strictly ballad-y, but the Talking Head’s, “Life During Wartime” could make for a darn fun pre-apocalyptic tale.