Some of you may remember that I dedicated a post to explaining my love for Sarah Dessen two summers ago, but I couldn’t write a series of posts on my contemporary YA idols and not write about my favourite author and biggest inspiration. I will try to not to repeat myself, but when I start on the awesomeness of Sarah Dessen, I don’t stop easily...
I could wax lyrical about her timeless bildungsroman stories, her effortlessly relatable girls and the legendary Dessen boys, but there are other little things that I love, too. Lots and lots of them. Maybe it’s odd, but sometimes a setting can just tips the scale into perfection and Sarah’s do that. Her two imaginary towns in North Carolina; Lakeview and Colby, are places that I would move to in a heartbeat. Obviously that has nothing to do with the possibility of bumping into Wes, Owen or Dexter... But, seriously, there’s just a feeling about the small southern town of Lakeview. Maybe it’s because it’s completely alien to me, but a place where everyone knows each other and helps each other out sounds, well, rather wonderful, to be honest.
Then you have Colby. It’s by the sea. I’m sold on that. There’s boardwalk, a row of sweet little shops, including Clementine’s, the boutique Auden’s step-mum owns in Along for the Ride and the Last Chance Cafe that does the best onion rings and where I could finally try a shrimp burger. After eleven books set in either of these two places, it feels so familiar, it’s like going to that place you went every summer as a child – it brings back so many memories and it gives you that warm, comforting feeling. But what I love most about Sarah’s settings is the fact that characters from older books pop up now and again. There’s nothing better than catching up with old friends and seeing if that love actually worked out. We’ve yet to come across my favourite Dessen boy again though; Wes from The Truth About Forever – I would really like to see him again.
I don’t quite know what it was about The Truth About Forever that captured my heart so completely. It may have been the suffocating grief and guilt that both Macy and Wes are suffering that is handled beautifully and sensitively; the game or Truth they play to get to know each other; the confrontation in the library; or maybe it was all of those things and so many more than I didn’t even consciously notice. But it has remained my favourite of Sarah’s even though I read at least six of her books after that.
There’s also something about This Lullaby that makes me recommend it over and over again. Dexter is incredibly charming and is one of those lovable characters that worms his way into your heart and refuses to leave; Remy learned that very quickly! Remy is a difficult girl, but a brilliant character. She has issues ranging from abandonment and trust to faith in love and having to be an adult too soon. Together, polar opposites Remy and Dexter fit together perfectly. I also love the musical thread that runs through This Lullaby, it’s an element that makes this novel stand out among Sarah Dessen’s other novels.
And finally you have Along for the Ride, Sarah’s 2009 novel. Auden and Eli are lonely and isolated in their own little worlds, and when they meet, their secrets unfold in a way that only Sarah Dessen can achieve. I ached for Auden. She struggling to deal with her new family situation and how drastically her life had changed and her soft, slow and incredibly realistic connection with Eli only helped her figure things out. There was of course some romantic drama, but it was natural and almost inevitable after their night-times escapades to introduce Auden to the world of a teenager.
Sarah Dessen’s novels don’t have the punch-in-the-stomach impact of most of the books that make you go ‘wow!’. Instead, they build so steadily and concretely that you can’t even imagine forgetting them or not having these people in your head. Her exquisitely drawn characters are a pleasure to get to know and I do feel I know them once I turn the last page; it feels like I know them inside out. Sarah knows how to tap into the consciousness of a teenage girl and exactly what will make their lives, thoughts and feelings a little easier to understand and bare.
I can’t imagine the YA world, or my world, for that matter, without Sarah’s books. She is my first port of call for contemporary YA recommendations, but she seems to be a bit hidden in the bookshops under the piles of paranormal, fantasy and dystopians, that while are brilliant, just can’t match the words of this incredible writer. Reactions vary from “Well, I don’t really like love stories” to “But there’s no action” and I hope that this month of posts and reviews will encourage a few people who stay away from contemporaries branch out and experience what made me fall in love with YA.
Similar authors to try: Susane Colasanti, Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, Lauren Barnholdt