Sarah Dessen, Or How I Grew Up With a YA Author

Sarah Dessen and I have never met. Someday, hopefully, that will change. In the world of young adult fiction, she’s nothing short of a rock star, she’s also a frequent fixture on The New York Times bestseller list. People have literally run after her at book signings and events. Can you imagine?

I try to. I’m a YA writer myself, though so far my career’s low on New York Times bestsellers and high on aspiration. I’m also an avid reader, and I’ve been hooked on Dessen since many of her current audience were but a twinkle in their parents’ eyes. (Yes, I’m old enough that I use embarrassing cliches with embarrassingly increasing frequency. Get off my lawn.)

I may be much older than Dessen’s characters now, but I wasn’t always. It was only after reading her latest complex, richly heartbreaking gem, The Moon and More (which I was lucky enough to score free from Penguin, with no obligation to review) and subsequently rereading everything of hers I could get my hands on at the library, that I remembered where I was when I read her previous work. Like a well-worn security blanket, or that box of extra silverware that follows you around from move to move, Dessen’s books have come with me through 16 years of stumbles, bumps and strides. And she’ll probably never know.

Someone Like You, a novel by Sarah Dessen

Someone Like You (age 16)

Sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car on a cold December Saturday, I got that feeling. The recognition that I could be her, a Holy Grail for books then and now. Like narrator Halley, I felt profoundly average: I was the one who watched things happen to other people. I had a difficult relationship with my mom, was embarking on my first real romance with an alternaboy, and relied on my best friend for everything from emotional support to music. In other words, I was a high school junior and life was weird. I was a few months from getting my drivers’ license. The next year (just like Halley’s best friend, Scarlett), a girl in my social circle would be pregnant. I excitedly flipped the pages, so glad I’d found someone (an adult, to boot!) who understood.

Keeping the Moon, a novel by Sarah Dessen
That Summer, a novel by Sarah Dessen

Keeping the Moon and That Summer (age 20)

Huddled in a corner at the downtown Borders (my mothership) and scrunched up on my dorm room bunk bed, I pondered how three months could change your life. It happened to Keeping the Moon‘s Colie (wannabe bad girl with a fitness guru mom) and That Summer‘s Haven (gawky sister of the bride enraptured with her sibling’s old flame), and it had just happened to me, over the course of one outdoor theater production. But they were younger than me – was I doing something wrong or was I experiencing a case of arrested development? This was long before Twilight: no one my age read YA. It didn’t matter how beautiful Dessen’s writing was, how sweet her characters’ quirks were, or how satisfying her endings felt. I was reading it as a college junior, and there had to be something wrong with me. I shoved those books under my pillow, just like I quietly took calls from my new best friend (a high school sophomore I’d met in the show), like I suppressed feelings for and emails from a boy who wasn’t my boyfriend (the former was also from the show, and thankfully at another school), like I concealed my goofy, geeky personality from my (so much cooler, I thought) theater major classmates. I had a tough girl image to maintain. I hid a lot of things.

Just Listen, a novel by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen (age 25)

Like Someone Like You, I read this in the backseat of a car. Only this time it was my own, and it was parked in the dorm lot of the university that housed my law school. I devoured the story of reluctant model Annabel, the survivor of something terrible who was taking tentative steps toward healing, with the help of her classmate Owen, anger management alum and amateur DJ. I knew I was luckier than Annabel: “it” had never happened to me. And yet, I wondered where my healing was. I was about to graduate from law school and the world was supposedly my oyster, but all I wanted to do was work at a theater and have an apartment in the city, close to my friends. And a cat. My goals were simple, yet I had no idea how to get there. I had a feeling my path would be much less sure and outlined than the textbooks and careful notes piled up in my dorm room/cell. Like Annabel, I sought refuge in music: in my case, a Guster CD, several years old. Lying in the backseat, I propped the book on my stomach and hummed along with “What You Wish For”: “you act surprised, love/are you?”

The Moon and More, a novel by Sarah Dessen

The Moon and More (age 32)

I’m on my couch, a brown IKEA special lovingly scratched up by the cat. My shoulders are burned from the Vegas sun, a souvenir from a trip with my family, with whom I’m now very close. My sister and I are neighbors, in fact. Through the window, I can hear the traffic and happy yapping of a busy city block. If I concentrate really hard, I like to think I can hear the waves of Lake Michigan, just a couple of blocks away. Just as I love the water and feel centered by it, so does Emaline, The Moon and More‘s small-town “beach girl”.

Emaline’s torn between the familiar (steady boyfriend, steadfast stepfamily and sand) and the new (intellectual bio-dad who pops in and out of her life, extroverted alternaboy filmmaker from New York). Even as she struggles, though, she has an unshakeable self-confidence as she distributes water to guests of her family’s beach realty company, reassures her plodding best friend, navigates through the constant balance of who she is and who she’ll become after she leaves for college.

I envy that self-confidence, even as a woman in her thirties. I strive for it. And I know what that balance is like. I used to shuck off the past, well, as much as one can when she’s had the same best friend for 13 years. (The high school sophomore, who’s now 28, lives just down the street.) But in the past year, I’ve learned that the past informs the present. People leave your life, but sometimes they come back in ways that are sometimes haunting and sometimes surprisingly wonderful. And everything, everything, informs your reading, and your writing – above all else, Dessen’s taught me that.

It took some time, but I got what I wanted: an urban rental in my favorite neighborhood ever, artistic fulfillment, a core group of friends.I don’t have copious wealth, or any wealth at all. But as I reach for Emaline’s confidence, I look at how much I really have. And I am grateful.

By The Unprofessional Critic

Lauren Whalen is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She reviews plays for Chicago Theater Beat ( and talks about movies on The Film Yap ( Lauren's young adult novel is represented by Chalberg & Sussman Literary Agency. Say hi to her at maybeimamazed02(at)gmail(dot)com. (Photo by Greg Inda)

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