READS: The Genius of Sarah Dessen

Can we talk about Sarah Dessen for a minute? For those who don’t know, she’s a Young Adult author who I’ve adored for years. Almost two years ago but not quite, she came to give a talk at the Carnegie Library and I had the amazing fortune to meet her. In person!

Me and Sarah! It's a little blurry and a little awkwardly staged, but it DID happen!
Me and Sarah! It’s a little blurry and a little awkwardly staged, but it DID happen!

I don’t even remember what I said, honestly. You get so star-struck. At the time, I stood in line and started rehearsing things I should say. If my memory serves me, I muttered something to her about being my inspiration as a writer. She signed my books, I awkwardly posed for a picture, and chalked that up to being one of the better nights of my whole life.

A few days ago, I was browsing Twitter aimlessly (as I often do), and noticed Sarah had posted a photo of cover art for a book. I expanded the photo and lo and behold, it was the artwork for her next novel! Named – Saint Anything. I wasn’t aware she was back at writing again. This is a woman who’s churned out 11 books since 1996. That’s impressive.

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The title is pulling me in already, and I know I’ll read it when it hits shelves because that is what I do with Sarah Dessen novels, always. She makes me wish I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina because that’s where she currently resides. She’s always retweeting the charming policemen in her town, and talking about burritos, and going on fabulous vacations to Emerald Isle in the summer. The southern life, perhaps it’s for me.

Minus the bugs. I spent a week in Myrtle Beach a few months back and I now know I can not deal with the palmettos. For a person who was born in Charleston, South Carolina – I think it’s funny that I’d probably flounder and fail if I had to live there full time. Lots of heat, lots of bugs, lots of twang.

But back to Sarah! She’s been publishing novels for 18 years. EIGHTEEN, PEOPLE. And each one, for the most part, ends up being more brilliant than the last. There’s something about her writing that has always rung so true for me. The authenticity of her characters with all their quirks and faults. That’s not something you often find in writing for teenagers.


I discovered her probably by accident. Growing up, going to the library was a “big deal” for me. I’d check out as many books as I could at a time. I spotted Sarah’s “Someone Like You” on a shelf and was immediately taken in by—what else?—the cover art. Since I started reading her books, all of her covers have gone through drastic redesigns (think generic stock photo of a girl with long legs, overlooking a beach scene) but I still remember the original. A painted cover of a girl with red hair, below a deep, starry sky. With the small blurb, “Anyone who’s had a best friend —or a first love —will understand.”

At the time I read this book, it’s possible I was a little too young for it. It centers around an unplanned pregnancy, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and a lot of other heavier themes. But I was always looking for books that challenged me. The ones that peeled back the curtain just a little bit, to let me see what it was like to really experience life as a grown-up.

All of Sarah’s books are like that for me. At least, all the ones up until 2009 or so. That’s when I started to not connect as fiercely to the words she was writing. I think part of it has to deal with me growing up from teenage experiences, and possibly part of it deals with her writing style shifting every so slightly. The last book of hers I really, truly loved was “Along For the Ride.” I wasn’t crazy about “What Happened to Goodbye” from 2011, but she redeemed herself a bit on “The Moon and More” in 2013.

I want to fall in love with her books again, so the release of “Saint Anything” makes me hopeful that it can still happen.

So for now, I leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the Sarah Dessen books I’ve loved, read, and re-read over the years. There are a ton to pick from, but I’m going to try to whittle it down.

That Summer (1996)

“It’s funny how one summer can change everything. It must be something about the heat and the smell of chlorine, fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle, asphalt sizzling after late-day thunderstorms, the steam rising while everything drips around it. Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners and bright plastic flip-flops from the drugstore thwacking down the street. Something about fall being so close, another year, another Christmas, another beginning. So much in one summer, stirring up like the storms that crest at the end of each day, blowing out all the heat and dirt to leave everything gasping and cool. Everyone can reach back to one summer and lay a finger to it, finding the exact point when everything changed. That summer was mine.”

Someone Like You (1998)

“When I pictured myself, it was always like just an outline in a coloring book, with the inside not yet completed. All the standard features were there. but the colors, the zigzags and plaids, the bits and pieces that made up me, Halley, weren’t yet in place. Scarlett’s vibrant reds and golds helped some, but I was still waiting.”

Keeping the Moon (1999)

“You know, I think I knew you for about three weeks before I ever really saw you smile. And then one day, Morgan said something and you laughed, and I remember thinking it was really cool because it meant something. You’re not the kind of person who smiles for nothing, Colie. I have to earn every one.”

Dreamland (2000)

“I had this wild thought that he was the only one in all this chaos who was just like me, and that was comforting and profound all at once.”

This Lullaby (2002)

“Because you can never go from going out to being friends, just like that. It’s a lie. It’s just something that people say they’ll do to take the permanence out of a breakup. And someone always takes it to mean more than it does, and then is hurt even more when, inevitably, said ‘friendly’ relationship is still a major step down from the previous relationship, and it’s like breaking up all over again. But messier.”

The Truth About Forever (2004)

“It’s all in the view. That’s what I mean about forever, too. For any one of us our forever could end in an hour, or a hundred years from now. You never know for sure, so you’d better make every second count.”

Just Listen (2006)

“There was something so heavy about the burden of history, of the past. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to keep looking back.”

Lock and Key (2008)

“He was not my boyfriend. On the other hand, he wasn’t just a friend either. Instead, our relationship was elastic, stretching between those two extremes depending on who else was around, how much either of us had to drink, and other varying factors. This was exactly what I wanted, as commitments had never really been my thing. And it wasn’t like it was hard, either. The only trick was never giving more than you were willing to lose.”

Along For the Ride (2009)

“It was terrible and awful when someone left you. You could move on, do the best you could, but like Eli had said, an ending was an ending. No matter how many pages of sentences and paragraphs of great stories led up to it, it would always have to have the last word.”

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