Dessen, Sarah 1970–
Dessen, Sarah 1970–
Born June 6, 1970, in Evanston, IL; married. Education: University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, B.A., 1993.
Writer. Lecturer at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, 1997–. Worked as a waitress c. early 1990s.
Best Books for Young Adults selection, American Library Association (ALA), 1997, for That Summer; Best Books for Young Adults selection, and Quick Pick selection, both ALA, Best Book of the Year selection, School Library Journal, and South Carolina Young Adult Book Award, 2000–01, all for Someone like You; Best Books for Young Adults selection, and Quick Pick selection, both ALA, Best Book of the Year selection, School Library Journal, and New York Library Book for the Teen Age selection, all 2000, and Young Adult Choice, International Reading Association (IRA), 2001, all for Keeping the Moon; Best Book for Young Adults selection, ALA, and New York Library Book for the Teen Age selection, both 2001, both for Dreamland; Best Book for Young Adults selection, ALA, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, both 2003, both for This Lullaby; Teen's Top Ten pick, ALA, and New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age selection, both 2005, both for The Truth about Forever.
That Summer (also see below), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Someone like You (also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1998.
Keeping the Moon, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.
Dreamland, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.
This Lullaby, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.
How to Deal (contains That Summer and Someone like You), Speak (New York, NY), 2003.
The Truth about Forever, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
Just Listen, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.
How to Deal, a film adaptation of the novels That Summer and Someone like You, was directed by Clare Kilner and released by New Line, 2003.
Childhood and classmate friendships play an important role in Sarah Dessen's popular young-adult novels; "In high school, I was lucky enough to have a big group of girlfriends that have really inspired a lot of the stories in my books," the author explained on her home page. Dessen is known for her coming-of-age stories featuring realistic protagonists who face predicaments with which teen readers can relate, and she has gained a loyal following since the release of her first novel, That Summer, in 1996. Her books, which also include Someone like You, The Truth about Forever, and Just Listen, recognize that while all teens want to be accepted as part of the "in" crowd, much of adolescence is lonely. Some of her books reveal that not even the girls who seem to have everything actually have it made. In Des-sen's books, the theme of having to adjust to new things very quickly and not fitting in despite appearances looms large.
Dessen can recall vividly what it was like to be an awkward child and teenager. Never feeling as pretty or as popular as her friends, she had low self-esteem, but she enjoyed reading about strong heroines. As a young girl, two of Dessen's favorite books were Coming Attractions by Fannie Flagg and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, both of which feature assertive, lively female protagonists. Her mother challenged her reading abilities by giving Dessen books slightly above her reading level; they were often written by Southern writers and featured strong female characters. Dessen not only liked to read; she liked to write stories, too, and as a child, she turned her dolls into the characters in her tales. When she was a fifth grader her teacher turned her on to history, which led her to write a series of stories about the American Revolution.
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Because of her love for writing, Dessen studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her father was a professor there in the English department, a situation that occasionally made Dessen's education awkward. An excellent student, she graduated with top honors in 1993, but after finishing a degree that took her five-and-a-half years to earn, she was not sure what to do for a career. Rather than searching for a position in corporate America, she decided to continue working as a waitress and work on her writing, a choice her parents supported.
Three years after graduating from college, Dessen's first book, That Summer, was published by Orchard Books. It is the story of Haven, an awkward fifteen year old who feels uncomfortable with being five feet, eleven inches tall. A lot of changes are going on in her life: her older sister, Ashley, is getting married to a man Haven thinks is a nerd and is driving everyone crazy as she prepares for the wedding; Haven's father and mother are divorced, and her father is now married to annoyingly perky television weather girl Lorna Queen; and her mother has joined a group of free-spirited singles and has become friends with a woman Haven cannot stand. When Ashley's former boyfriend, Sumner Lee, arrives in town, he seems to understand what she is going through better than anyone. As a Horn Book reviewer explained, when "Haven's idealized little-girl view of him [Sumner gradually changes, she lets go of the past and begins to take a more active part in the present."
Many critics were impressed with Dessen's debut novel, considering it a tale of teenage angst and growth spiced with humor and wry observations. The novelist "adds a fresh twist to a traditional sister-of-the-bride story with her keenly observant narrative full of witty ironies," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor, and Kliatt reviewer Fran Lantz called Haven's maturation a "believable transformation." While many reviewers praised That Summer, others found some fault. School Library Journal critic Lucinda Lockwood, for example, called the situations clichéd and the characters "forgettable"; and Hazel Rochman noted in Booklist that the book's resolution is too pat. However, Rochman dubbed this a minor flaw, writing that Dessen's debut "is written with such easy grace that you want to quote sentence after sentence." Horn Book contributor Nancy Vasilakis similarly complimented the book's "fresh, unselfconscious style" and concluded: "This is a wise book about growing up that won't give teenage readers the feeling that they are being preached to."
The theme of friendship takes a central role in Someone like You, which focuses on high-school pals Halley and Scarlett. As the novel begins, Scarlett learns that her boyfriend has been killed in a motorcycle accident. Up until that point, Scarlett had always been the stronger personality in their relationship; now, with this tragedy and the news that Scarlett is pregnant, the dynamic in the friendship between the two girls changes. Halley now has to be strong and supportive of Scarlett, who wants to have the baby even though her mother advises her to abort it. Meanwhile, Halley is also falling in love with a boy named Macon Faulkner, who puts pressure on her to have sex. As these events progress, Halley keeps them a secret from her psychologist mother, and soon that formerly strong relationship starts to fracture. Dessen's themes center on teens struggling toward womanhood as they deal with the issues of sex and the inevitable emotional separation from their mothers. The sisterly friendship between Halley and Scarlett pulls both teens through this difficult time.
Elizabeth Devereaux, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that Dessen tries to juggle too many plotlines in Someone like You: "She doesn't need to bustle so much; the best thing she has going is her own steady voice." Many other reviewers agreed that it is the author's writing that really makes the book. "Dessen has a unique talent for distilling character in a few biting words," asserted Nancy Vasilakis in Horn Book, "and she uses her sharp sense of humor to make her points without mawkishness." Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, further observed that Dessen's portrayal of the teens' friendship is perfect: "The exciting center of the story is Halley's relationship with Scarlett: here Dessen gets it exactly right." "Dessen deals accurately, sensitively, and smoothly with growing up in suburbia," maintained Gail Richmond in School Library Journal, adding that the author successfully gets her message across "without preaching."
With Keeping the Moon Dessen approaches the theme of friendship from a different angle. Her main character, fifteen-year-old Nicole "Colie" Sparks, is a loner and social reject who ultimately finds strength in new friends. Overweight until her mother, a fitness expert, helped her lose forty-five pounds, Colie is still rejected by her peers because of her appearance: she dyes her hair black and wears a lip ring. When her mother goes off to Europe on a tour to promote her fitness business, Colie is sent to spend time with her nutty Aunt Mira, who lives in the seaside town of Colby, North Carolina. Mira, who illustrates greeting cards for a living, is a social reject like Colie, with one big difference: she does not care what other people think of her. While working as a waitress at the Last Chance Café, Colie meets twentysomethings Isabel and Morgan, who also work there, as well as an odd young artist named Norman, who rents a room from Mira and who uses found objects, such as ash trays and bicycle parts, to create imaginative sculptures. Isabel and Morgan give Colie a makeover and help bolster her self-confidence, while Colie's growing affection for Norman also has a powerful effect.
Keeping the Moon is "honest in its assessment of the downside of transformation," according to a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic, who noted that, as her self-confidence grows, "Colie almost leaves Norman behind in the dust" at story's end because she thinks she is too good for him. What is appealing about Keeping the Moon, according to some reviewers, are Dessen's characters, especially Isabel and Morgan. School Library Journal contributor Cindy Darling called the two friends "great characters and the workings of their friendship is smooth, insightful, and just fun to read." Lynn Evarts concluded in Voice of Youth Advocates that this story "will strike a chord with young adults who need a boost developing their own selfesteem."
Although the characters in Dessen's first three books face personal crises, none of the roadblocks they break through are as dangerous as what Caitlin O'Koren must survive in Dreamland. With its focus on the serious subject of physical abuse, the novel starts out like a typical Dessen story. Caitlin is jealous of her older, more popular sister, Cass, but when Cass abruptly decides to follow her boyfriend to New York City, Caitlin is left to deal with her parents' negative reactions. She is accepted into the cheerleading squad, but when this achievement is ignored by her parents, she gains self-worth through a destructive friendship with Rogerson, a charismatic young man from a wealthy family who smokes marijuana and has questionable friends. When Rogerson starts to become abusive, the confused and
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desperate Caitlin does not know how to break off the relationship; finally, when she is beaten in public, she is finally able to get help.
As Dessen wrote on her home page regarding Dreamland, "For me, the book was always about Caitlin, about suddenly having to find your way when someone has always led the way for you before. It's not always easy, but as she finds, it can be done." Diane Masla, reviewing Dreamland in Voice of Youth Advocates, stated that "in examining the question of how much must be sacrificed to maintain a romantic relationship, Dessen has created a compassionate novel that examines how wrong love can go."
The success of Dessen's first two novels led to their adaptation as the film How to Deal, and That Summer and Someone like You, have also been published together under the film's title. Although she was involved, the making of the film did not interrupt her writing schedule, and in 2002 This Lullaby was published. The novel introduces readers to Remy, a teen who is cynical about relationships due to her romance-writer mother's failed marriages. In contrast to Remy's reputation as an "ice queen", she finds herself attracted to Dexter, a rock band musician. Despite Remy's protestations against romance, This Lullaby is very much a love story. As with her other titles, Dessen received praise from critics due to her ability to observe and report teen life; according to Horn Book reviewer Christine M. Heppermann, the novelist shows herself to be "a keen observer of strip mall and mini-mart suburban culture, and her setting details always ring true."
The Truth about Forever deals with loss. In the novel, Macy decides not to go out for a morning run with her father, then changes her mind and sprints to catch up, only to watch him crumble to the ground and die of a heart attack. Feeling guilty and depressed, the teen cuts herself off from her normal life. A job at Wish Catering, where chaos rules over order, and a friendship with a boy named Wes finally help her recognize that she does not have control over everything in life. "Dessen gracefully
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balances comedy with tragedy and introduces a complex heroine worth getting to know," wrote a critic for Publishers Weekly. A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that "the Wish team is lovable, the romance clicks, and readers will be entertained." Though Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper found Dessen's novel overly long, she also noted that, "at its purest, the writing roaches directly into the hearts of teenage girls."
The inspiration for Just Listen came while Dessen was visiting a private school on a speaking engagement. She flipped through a yearbook and saw a picture of three senior girls, all beautiful, and assumed "those girls have it made," as she explained to Sue Corbett of Publishers Weekly. She later realized that while it was easy to make such an assumption, life is not that simple. "I wanted to explore the drive for perfection that's so typical in teenage girls today," she added. "Why do girls feel they have to look perfect, make perfect grades, make everything appear effortless? I wanted to explore the roots of that stress."
In the novel, sisters Annabel, Kirsten, and Whitney work part time as models. Narrator Annabel, the youngest, goes through life pretending everything is just fine, despite Kirsten's move to New York, Whitney's eating disorder, and her own ostracism at school. Her ex-best friend, Sophie, has labeled her a slut because Annabel was caught with Sophie's boyfriend at a party, but the truth is that Sophie's boyfriend was attempting to rape Annabel. Annabel ignores all of this until, with the help of disc jockey and fellow outcast Owen, she realizes that Sophie's boyfriend might victimize other girls and decides to stand up for herself. "Dessen packs a lot" into Just Listen, "but Annabel and Owen's finely limned connection alone gives this novel staying power," noted a critic for Publishers Weekly, while Cindy Dobrez wrote in Booklist that Dessen's "characterization and dialogue" are "expertly done."
On her home page, Dessen discussed her writing process. "I find with my writing that the beginnings are usually from real life, but you have to veer off into fiction pretty quickly or the story doesn't work. I also think that part of being a writer is just being tuned in to the world. My friend, the author Lee Smith, once said that she considered sitting at the mall watching people go by as research, and I agree. There are so many stories out there waiting to be told. You just have to keep your eyes open."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 15, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of That Summer, p. 422; May 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Someone like You, p. 1622; September 1, 1999, Michael Cart, review of Keeping the Moon, p. 123; July, 2003, Brian Wilson, "Two by Dessen," p. 1911; April 15, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of The Truth about Forever, p. 1437; March 15, 2006, Cindy Dobrez, review of Just Listen, p. 45.
Bookseller, February 18, 2005, review of Someone like You, p. 38.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1999, review of Keeping the Moon, pp. 49-50.
Horn Book, November-December, 1996, Nancy Vasilakis, review of That Summer, p. 742; July-August, 1998, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Someone like You, p. 486; July-August, 2002, Christine M. Heppermann, review of This Lullaby, p. 459.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1999, review of Keeping the Moon, pp. 1309-1310; April 1, 2004, review of The Truth about Forever, p. 328; March 1, 2006, review of Just Listen, p. 228.
Kliatt, November, 1998, Fran Lantz, review of That Summer, pp. 10, 12; July, 2002, Paula Rorhlick, review of Dreamland, p. 16; May, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of The Truth about Forever, p. 8; September, 2005, Francine Levitov, review of The Truth about Forever, p. 56; March, 2006, Claire Rosser, review of Just Listen, p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1998, Elizabeth Devereaux, review of Someone like You, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, September 2, 1996, review of That Summer, p. 132; May 18, 1998, review of Someone like You, p. 80; September 20, 1999, review of Keeping the Moon, p. 89; September 4, 2000, review of Dreamland, p. 109; May 3, 2004, review of The Truth about Forever, p. 194; March 13, 2006, review of Just Listen, p. 67, and Sue Corbett, "High School Forever," p. 68.
School Librarian, winter, 1998, Ann G. Hay, review of That Summer, p. 215; summer, 2003, review of Dreamland, p. 98.
School Library Journal, October, 1996, Lucinda Lock-wood, review of That Summer, p. 144; June, 1998, Gail Richmond, review of Someone like You, p. 143; September, 1999, Cindy Darling, review of Keeping the Moon, p. 221; September, 2000, Gail Richmond, review of Dreamland; June, 2004, Johanna Lewis, review of The Truth about Forever, p. 138.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1998, Marcia Mann, review of Someone like You, p. 200; December, 1999, Lynn Evarts, review of Keeping the Moon, p. 331; October, 2000, Diane Masla, review of Dreamland, p. 262.
Book Page, http://www.bookpage.com/ (May 1, 2006), Julie Hale, "Picture Perfect."
Sarah Dessen's Home Page, http://www.sarahdessen.com (June 22, 2006).