I began harassing Sarah (not Dessen) for book recommendations via twitter about a year or so ago. Among her earliest recommendations were 3 contemporary young adult novels. Since then, I have read 31 contemporary young adult novels. As I continued to add contemporary YAs to my Goodreads shelves, I noticed a certain name pop up with increasing frequency: Sarah Dessen.
Eventually, Goodreads recommended…all of her books. Goodreads also recommended all books which include any and all variations of the proclamation “Fans of Sarah Dessen will love this one!” in the jacket description.
Of course, I couldn’t just blindly follow my Goodreads recommendations.
I absolutely had to get the advice of Sarah, who, in addition to being Queen of Everything, is my Super Special Book Doppelganger (SSBD). So upon meeting in person for the first time —for a contemporary YA book handover, of course—we browsed around an adorable specialty children’s bookstore. When we came upon a rack dedicated solely to Sarah Dessen books, I pointed and said,
Goodreads keeps telling me to read Sarah Dessen. Do YOU like Sarah Dessen?
At this point, my SSBD’s eyes crinkled and her voice went up an octave as she shrieked reverently declared,
I LOVE Sarah Dessen.
So I added Sarah Dessen’s books to my to-read list and placed myself in the very long queues for her e-books available through the Multnomah County library system. Eventually, I acquired an e-book edition of Just Listen and promptly added it to my Kindle’s “Determined to Read Soon” collection (which currently numbers 93 books), where it languished as I found myself having a still-ongoing, steamy (ok, not really) affair with novels-in-verse.
I was finally prodded into reading Sarah Dessen while reading a galley of yet another “For fans of Sarah Dessen” book. My SSBD declared,
Basically, I am going to need you to read a Sarah Dessen so when books are advertised, “For Sarah Dessen fans!” I will be able to ask you if you think it’s actually good for SD fans.
So for proper comparative analysis, I queued up Just Listen on my Kindle and got my Sarah Dessen on.
From the start of Just Listen, I could see many parallels with other contemporary YAs that I had recently read: A blonde, All-American upper middle-class high-school girl on a journey towards self-discovery, prompted by a boy and/or a tragic circumstance.
But, my first thought after finishing Just Listen was,
Hmmm. All those other authors that get compared to Sarah Dessen? They WISH they were Sarah Dessen.
To be fair, I doubled my sample size and read The Truth About Forever. And promptly thought,
Yeeeeaaaaah, all of those other authors still wish they were Sarah Dessen.
Because while I like, or even really like some of those other authors, they simply lack her emotional depth and range.
The first thing that struck me about Sarah Dessen’s writing was her (truly remarkable) ability to make me feel nostalgic. For HIGH SCHOOL.
Granted, high school wasn’t quite the social and academic hellhole middle school was for me, but I’ve never had a desire to go back. Yet, Sarah Dessen, even with her characters dealing with painful circumstances, creates such a timeless atmosphere that I felt a longing for that period of my life.
When I attended high school, AOL Instant Messenger wasn’t even around yet. We didn’t have cell phones, or Facebook, and my high school didn’t even have boys. But when I read Just Listen, even with all the newfangled technology the kids carry around, I felt transported back in time. I could feel the tingly anticipation when Just Listen’s main character Annabel stepped out of her car to face the new school year, and her dread at having to face the people she hadn’t seen for months.
And like Macy in The Truth About Forever, I worked in food service, so reading about Macy’s catering made me viscerally recall the controlled chaos of a busy night shift, as well as the distinctive kitchen smell of the Greek restaurant where I worked during the summers. Most of all, I recalled the feeling that high school seemed like would never end, that the next step in my life always seemed so far away, right up until I moved into my college dorm.
I also connected so strongly with Sarah Dessen’s characters and their attempts to escape from their figurative boxes, both self- and externally-imposed.
While I’m not blonde nor the proto-typical girl next door, I was raised in a similar environment as Sarah Dessen’s characters. I grew up in an upper-middle class household where certain things were expected of me: Honor Roll. Entrance to a college with a “Most Difficult” ranking in US News and World Report. Plans to major in one of the following: Pre-Med, Pre-Law, or Engineering. And above all, meek, pleasant acceptance of what was expected of me. My inability/refusal to act accordingly actually led my father to believe that I had a faulty personality caused by a hyperactive thyroid, for which he made me get an ultrasound to see if it was enlarged. I am not kidding.
So, when Annabel and Macy struggled to find their voices, I vividly relived those moments of frustration, of helplessness, of my own past struggle to garner the courage to speak up in order get the adults in my life to take seriously my point of view.
Moreover, I found Sarah Dessen so refreshing because her writing has a comfortable pace that allows for realistic character and relationship development.
There are a lot of books out there that are fast paced and dependent on action! action! action! all the time. They can be great fun, but also a great source of frustration for me as a reader since it sometimes it seems like a lot is contrived and/or sacrificed as far as character development in order to drive the plot. But while reading both Just Listen and The Truth About Forever, nothing felt forced.
Rather, I felt like I was nightswimming in a warm lake, languidly and pleasantly immersed while I watched the stars roll by. At the outset of Just Listen, Annabel is afraid to voice…just about anything. She meekly tolerates her former best friend Sophie calling her a bitch and a whore in the school hallways. She fears her mother will have a breakdown if she expresses her desire to quit modeling. She pushes away the horrible memory of what happened the night that she and Sophie stopped being friends.
But with the help of her classmate Owen, whom she (gasp!) meaningfully gets to know over the course of numerous lunchtime conversations, she finally realizes,
…you get only so many do-overs in this life, so many chances to, if not change your past, alter your future.
In place of repeated adrenaline rushes, Sarah Dessen rewards her readers with the occasional beauty of a shooting star in the form of a poignant revelation or development that comes from being steadily invested in characters as they learn and grow.
And reading Sarah Dessen is a reward indeed.
As a first-time reader, I found her books captivating, full of the authenticity of not just teenage life, but just plain life. The moments we all feel, whether we are young adults or adult adults, are wrapped up in her pages, along with the sa-woon worthy boys of our dreams. And it doesn’t hurt that in The Truth About Forever, she somehow (very amusingly) managed to remind me of both Anne of Green Gables and Silent Bob on the very same page.
Now that I’ve finally discovered Sarah Dessen, I hope to be further rewarded… as soon as I figure out which one of her books I should read next!