of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Whether humorous or serious, Sarah Dessen's young adult novels shatter the veneer of perfection surrounding America's white middle class dreams. Teens date, party, and have sex while trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. As a girl has sex for the first time, the condom breaks; a few hours later her boyfriend dies, leaving her with a memory and his baby. Parents divorce and remarry, focusing largely on their own often dysfunctional relationships while trying to justify their behavior, which is often as immature and irresponsible as that of the children whom they try to control and protect. Sounds like the usual stuff of young adult problem novels? It would be, except for Sarah Dessen's ability to transform these themes into realistic stories that resonate with and, at times, haunt their readers.
With her first-person narrations, Dessen gives voice to the inner turmoil of her female protagonists as they dissect the intricacies of teen relationships and parental hypocrisy in order to understand themselves, their friends, and their families. In That Summer and Keeping the Moon, protagonists already struggling with physical changes (Haven's capturing her balance after a growth spurt and Colie's redefining herself after substantial weight loss) are further unbalanced by changes occurring at home. In Someone Like You, Halley helps her best friend through an unexpected pregnancy while trying to deal with the conflicting emotions and pressures brought on by her own falling in love. Dessen's darkest novel, Dreamland, traces Caitlin's descent into drugs, sex, and an abusive relationship; without offering quick fixes or easy solutions, the book still leaves both protagonist and readers with a sense of hope. Remy, the protagonist of This Lullaby, emulates her mother's behavior of numerous short-lived relationships, breaking up with every boyfriend before she can form any genuine attachment--until she meets Dexter.
Sometimes Dessen offers a lighter, more humor-touched account of the tough times young women experience; sometimes she's offering a more somber exploration. Sometimes her protagonists are the overlooked friends, the shadows of more popular girls; sometimes they're the social luminaries themselves, providing insight into the uncertainty below the surface. For each of her heroines, however, Dessen provides a credible voice and even more credible viewpoint; as these girls untangle emotions and situations for which schools and parents have failed to prepare them, they remain absolutely authentic in their reactions and behavior. This spring's planned release of How to Deal, a movie that combines the plot of Someone Like You while drawing on some of the characters and events from That Summer, may spark even more teen interest in this author, whose perceptive and sympathetic writing allows young adults to see themselves in her heroines.
--Debra Mitts Smith