August 18th, 2019


Author Spotlight: Sarah Dessen

Once upon a time, a customer tapped a book that was facing out on the shelf. It was called This Lullaby. Her finger still on the cover, she turned to me. "Have you read this?"

"No, actually," I replied.

She was surprised. "But you've read everything!"

I smiled. "Not everything. Not that one - not yet." I told her that I hadn't read anything by the author, Sarah Dessen, but I intended to do so.

And I did. At the urging of one of my regular customers, a very passionate reader who was in high school at the time, I read Dreamland first. I quickly blazed through Sarah's backlist, reading them in the order they had been released. By the time I got to This Lullaby, Sarah had firmly secured a place on the list of contemporary authors I enjoyed. She has a strong following, and I feel she has earned it. Her writing is consistent, engrossing, and straightforward. I've enjoyed all of her novels and look forward to more.

Here is an overview of her books, in order of publication:

That Summer

All of Sarah Dessen's books have fitting titles and realistic leading ladies, and her debut is no exception.

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Someone Like You

Some best friend pairs are comprised of one outgoing person and one introverted person. Such is the case with dynamic Scarlett and quiet Halley.

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Keeping the Moon

Nicole "Colie" Sparks isn't the only girl who feels embarrassed by her mother. She is, however, the only daughter of Kiki, a woman who has become known for informercials. Both Kiki and Colie have lost a great deal of weight, but while Kiki seeks out the spotlight, Colie would rather hide out in the shadows.

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To simply say that Dreamland is the story of a girl who has an abusive boyfriend would be selling the book - and the girl - short. Though the physical abuse is a large portion of Sarah Dessen's darkest story, that is not all. Dreamland is also about the dissolution of a family.

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This Lullaby

My second favorite Dessen novel revolves around a girl who has no interest in romance and is haunted by a song.

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The Truth About Forever

When Macy was little, her father used to drag her and her older sister Caroline out to local marathons with him and sign them up for the kids' track. By the time she was eight, Macy knew she was a good runner - fast, focused, flying. Caroline was no longer interested in running, so it became something that Macy shared just with her father. He'd help her prepare for meets, and they ran together in the mornings.

One morning, that all changed.

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Just Listen

Annabel Greene lives in a glass house.

No, really.

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Check out the roundtable discussion of Just Listen with the postergirlz.

Spoiler alert: One of Annabel's sisters has an eating disorder, so I included Just Listen in my post about Weighty Matters at SparkLife for SparkNotes (...and I'm realizing I should have included Keeping the Moon there as well!) and my post here about Eating Disorder Awareness.

Lock and Key

Ask twenty people to define "family," and you'll get twenty different definitions. Ruby's definition of family is about to change, and she's not quite sure what that means.

For years, Ruby and her mother moved from apartment to apartment. They lived in random places and cramped spaces above other people's garages. When Ruby's mom takes off and doesn't come back, Ruby does just fine on her own - until child services steps in and sends her to live with her older sister, Cora, who hasn't seen Ruby in ten years.

( Read my full-length book review... )

Along for the Ride

Read but not yet reviewed. My apologies!

What Happened to Goodbye

Mclean used to be a fairly well-adjusted girl, living in a house with both of her parents, content to be who she was. Then her mother cheated on her father and everything changed. Her parents divorced, her mother remarried, and Mclean decided to hit the road with her father, a restaurant consultant whose job caused them to move a few times a year. Mclean impulsively decided to reinvent herself in her new town, and kept doing so in every new town. Each time they moved, she used a derivative of her middle name, Elizabeth, and tried out a completely different personality: Eliza, the rah-rah girl; then Lizbet, who hung out with the drama kids and dancers, wore black clothes, and "made everything in a production"; then Beth, the student council secretary who also worked for the yearbook, the newspaper, and a tutoring service.

Now Mclean and her father have moved again, this time to Lakeview, to save (or close) a restaurant called Luna Blu - and instead of renaming herself yet again, Mclean unintentionally shared her real first name with someone and is now unsure how to act. How can she "just be herself" if she's not sure who that girl is anymore?

( Read my full-length book review... )

The Moon and More

This is the summer between high school and college. This is the time that Emaline has the chance to reconnect with her father. This is the time that she has to face what's going to happen with her boyfriend. This is the time that she connects with her half-brother and an unexpected out-of-towner, and pulls her close friends even closer, to make their last summer at home a memorable one. Filled with the swells of the ocean, the heart of this particularly effective coming-of-age story pulses steadily as Emaline's first-person narrative expresses her thoughts.

( Read my full-length book review... )

Saint Anything

Readers who have felt overshadowed by an older sibling or overlooked by their parents will relate easily to Sydney, the protagonist of Sarah Dessen's latest novel, Saint Anything. Sydney's charismatic older brother, Peyton, was the apple of their mother's eye - until he started acting out. Now he's in jail, sentenced to seventeen months for driving drunk and hitting and paralyzing a young boy. Shortly after the sentencing, Sydney begins her junior year. A change of school and a change of pace at home starts a change in her.

( Read my full-length book review... )

Once and For All

Louna, age 18, is about to graduate from high school. Before she heads off to college, she plans to spend the summer working with her mother, Natalie, an accomplished wedding planner. When Natalie takes on a new employee, the carefree younger brother of a client, Louna is caught off-guard - for more than one reason. Ambrose's effervescence and charm pulls most people in, but he rubs Louna the wrong way, and she is worried that he will be a liability for the company rather than an asset. At first blush, this may sound like your typical "opposites attract" romantic storyline, but there's more to this book than meets the eye...

( Read my full-length book review... )

The Rest of the Story

She has two first names, Emma Saylor, but everyone - her dad, her friends, her new stepmom - simply calls her Emma. Only her mother called her Saylor, and her mom's been gone for five years now, having died from an overdose when Emma was twelve. Now Emma's seventeen, and looking forward to the summer between junior and senior year of high school. When her family's plans get unexpectedly upended and she needs a place to stay, she ends up at her maternal grandmother's house alongside cousins and other relatives she hasn't seen in a dozen years. At first, it's strange to be surrounded by relative strangers and see pictures of herself as a kid that capture moments she doesn't remember. As the summer progresses, Emma starts connecting with her next of kin and giving new friends and new experiences a shot. She even starts going by the name her mother gave her, Saylor. But what happens when the summer ends and she has to go back home? Does being Emma have to be separate from being Saylor, or can she find a way to contend with both sides of her heritage, and herself? Read the book to find out!

"I wish I remembered," I said. "I lost a lot. Like, everything from this place."

"Wasn't lost," he said. "You just left it here."

- Emma Saylor and Roo, The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen, page 226


All of Dessen's books are set in the same fictional town(s), Lakeview and Colby. No book is a sequel/prequel to another book, but the books do have connections. I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll put it this way: Keep your eyes open and you will see some familiar faces make cameos.

Though The Truth About Forever is my favorite Dessen novel, I can relate a little more to Ruby from Lock and Key than to Macy - though not to Ruby's family situation, thank goodness, or the "bad stuff." I share elements of Ruby's personality: her stubborn streak, her determination to do things on her own and her reluctance to let others assist her. This is similar, in a way, to how I "get" Jade from Deb Caletti's novel The Nature of Jade - though I think I'm more like Jade than Ruby.

That Summer and Someone Like You were combined to make the film How to Deal. It was odd to see two very different books mixed together into one film. Some characters weren't there, while others were combined. Some of my favorite moments from the books weren't in the movie. I saw the film with a good friend who also loves Sarah's books. Thumbs-up to Mandy Moore, Allison Janney, and Alexandra Holden.

Sarah has contributed short stories to anthologies such as Sixteen: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday, One Hot Second, and Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Artwork.

Related Posts at Bildungsroman

In 2006, when Just Listen was released, I had the opportunity to interview her.

In March 2008, Sarah was the featured author at readergirlz, with Just Listen as the book group pick of the month. Learn more. Read the March 2008 issue of readergirlz.

I've also hosted two roundtables dedicated to Sarah's books: the first with the postergirlz talking about Just Listen, and the second with me and Suze chatting about all of Sarah Dessen's novels.


Many thanks to Sarah for noting this post at her own journal. I'm honored!

Watch Melissa Walker interview Sarah Dessen on rgz TV (the readergirlz YouTube channel).

Visit Sarah Dessen's official website and LiveJournal.