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Little Willow

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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.

Haven feels left out. Her older sister is getting married and thereby getting all of the attention. She wonders why Ashley didn't stay with her first boyfriend, Sumner; Haven really looked up to him. Haven's father has also gotten married, this time to a younger woman. Being so much taller than her peers, fifteen-year-old Haven feels awkward in her body. Between preparations for Ashley's wedding and working her first job at a shoe store, Haven is less than thrilled with her summer.

That Summer, Haven teeters and tumbles, anxious to no longer be thought of a little girl, yet hesitant to grow up. She is one of Dessen's youngest protagonists. I hesitate to use the word immature because that has such a negative connotation. I only want to relay Haven's youth and inexperience, which is conveyed well in Dessen's straightforward writing. Haven is a sweet girl, and That Summer, a sweet story.

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.

Scarlett would never push Halley out of the way, but Halley is more than happy to be the girl in the background or off to the side. Her life is relatively okay at home and at school, and she doesn't really drift far from either place.

Most friendships have some kind of balance, some give-and-take, but this usually goes unnoticed until something upsets that balance. Tragedies suddenly make things shift and scatter. In Someone Like You, Scarlett's boyfriend is killed in an accident. Shortly thereafter, Scarlett confides in Halley that she is pregnant. Now it's Halley's turn to be there for Scarlett, to be the strong one. Within all of the chaos emerges another boy, but this one has his sights set on Halley. Things keep changing, and Halley's not sure she can keep up with everything.

This book will be treasured by anyone who has had (or wished they had) a best friend with whom they shared their ups, their downs, their secrets, and their day-to-day routine. We should all be so lucky to have a friend be there for us as Halley is for Scarlett.

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.

During her fifteenth summer, Colie is sent to stay with her aunt Mira, who she has never met, while her now-famous, now-thin mother takes off for promotional events in Europe. Mira's very appearance (her weight! her clothes! her mannerisms!) mortify Colie further. Though she doesn't know it at first, it's an embarrassment of riches, because her time in North Carolina will help her become more self-assured. This is due not only to Mira's influence, but also to that of two young women and one artistic young man.

After accidentally getting a job at a cafe called Last Chance, Colie becomes intrigued by the other waitresses, the meticulous Morgan and the blunt Isabel. The two girls are thick as thieves but extremely different individuals. Being older than Colie, enough to have it matter, she looks up to them. Colie is also taken with Mira's boarder Norman, who works at the cafe as one of the cooks.

During her two months in North Carolina, Colie's co-workers and aunt genuinely become her friends and help her emerge from her self-imposed shell. Once Colie sheds her tough exterior, she becomes more comfortable in her own skin and starts having fun.


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.

When the older daughter leaves, things start to change for little sis. She survives a forgotten birthday (picture Sixteen Candles if it were remade into a dramatic Lifetime television movie) and retreats into herself. She starts dating a boy and soon learns that he is involved with drugs. Lonely, she keeps dating him - and he begins to hit her. Ashamed, she hides the bruises from her family and friends, covering her arms and legs with extra layers of clothes.

This is a heavy story. Due to the subject matter and the descriptions of alcohol, drugs, and abuse, it is not appropriate for the grade school crowd. Those who want to introduce a younger teen to Dessen's novels would be wise to start with a lighter story, like That Summer or Keeping the Moon, and wait for Dreamland until high school.

Meanwhile, readers who have been through experiences similar to Caitlin's might find solace in these pages. Dreamland is, overall, a good book which lends itself well to book discussion groups and has helped many a reader begin her (or his) own healing process.

This Lullaby

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

The main character, Remy, does not believe in love after watching her mother go through marriage after marriage. Remy never knew her father, a rock star who wrote a song for her called "This Lullaby" which was a smash hit but included the line, "I will let you down."

Remy is hesitant to get too close to people. Having seen so many men come in and out of her mother's life, she thinks that most people will hurt you and that most relationships are only temporary, so why get attached? She prefers to push them away instead - until Dexter stumbles into her life, pursues her and refuses to let her run away.

Though Remy is not a romantic girl, she's had her share of boyfriends. Though she may be cynical, she is not cold nor a "loner," enjoying the company of her three very different friends, Jess, Chloe and Lissa; her mother, a writer; and her older brother, who is slowly changing due to the influence of his prim and proper girlfriend. Remy has a life, a job, a love for Zip Diet Coke. After working her tail off in high school and proving everyone wrong about her, she has a future at Stanford.

This book accurately shows how the summer between high school and college can change a person - and how, though others can influence you, you have to want to change in order for it to be true and beneficial. Realistic and unpredictable, heartbreaking and heartwarming, This Lullaby is a must-read.

Check out my playlist for This Lullaby, created by request!

I also reviewed This Lullaby in a SparkNotes article for Thanksgiving 2008.

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.

Her ready-to-run father woke her up, but Macy told him to go ahead without her. She only stayed in bed for a few minutes before getting up and heading out on their normal route to meet him. Somewhere along the way, her father had collapsed. Just like that, he was gone.

A year after her father's death, Macy is determined to have a decent summer. She'll work at the library. She'll miss her boyfriend, who is going to an academic summer camp. More quietly, she'll miss her enthusiastic father. The house is quieter without him, especially late at night, when he used to order crazy contraptions from ridiculous television programs.

Despite her careful planning and without her consent, Macy's summer shimmers and reshapes itself after Macy's mother throws a party at their house and has it professionally catered. Wish Catering is run by the very pregnant Delia, whose little girl Lucy hangs out with her in the kitchen. Delia is assisted (to varying degrees) by Bert, Wes, Kristy, and Monica. Petite and constantly in motion, Kristy's personality is larger than she is, and the scars on her face are the only things that she doesn't immediately discuss with Macy. Bert is as anxious as his older brother Wes is steady, and Monica is bored and slothlike. Macy ends up helping the ragtag crew that night, not knowing that these people will become a part of her life - Wes, especially.

As Macy and Wes become friends, they ask each other questions, back and forth. This game, Macy says, is called Truth, and "there are no rules other than you have to tell the truth." As their conversations become more serious, Macy recalls the day that she lost her father and struggles to keep her secrets to herself, no matter how much it hurts her to do so.

The Truth About Forever is about grief, acceptance, and everything in-between. It's about running - running for fun, running out of fear, running from yourself, running from the truth. It's also about to-do lists, kitchen messes, and really good waffles. It's about long conversations and comfortable silences. It's about forever, which is yesterday, today, and tomorrow - and forever is never long enough.

This is my favorite Dessen novel to date. Read it, read it, read it.

Just Listen

Annabel Greene lives in a glass house.

No, really.

The house was designed by her father, and the entire front was made out of glass. Lovely architecture for a lovely family.

All three daughters - Kirsten, Whitney, and Annabel - had some success modeling as kids and teenagers. After high school, Kirsten moved to New York. Whitney, the girl who always had the most modeling potential, moved in with Kirsten two years later and pursued modeling and college more seriously than her laid-back older sister did.

But the story doesn't belong to them. It belongs to Annabel, the daughter still living at home, the high school student. She filmed a commercial in April, before something happened to her that has weighed her down ever since. Now spring and summer have passed, and the person that the commercial director called "the girl who has everything" is not the same.

The first time the commercial for Kopf's Department Store airs on TV, Annabel is uncomfortable looking at herself onscreen. With a smile, TV-Annabel declares, "It's all happening this year!" And it is, just not in the ways she expected, and involving as many (or as few) people as Annabel will allow.

There's Sophie, Annabel's ex-best friend who won't talk to her anymore. There's her father, the occasionally absentminded architect, and her mother, who managed her daughters' careers and perhaps enjoyed it all more than they did. There's Whitney, who, like her baby sister, has a problem she doesn't want to deal with, and Kirsten, who brings that problem to light. There's her quiet classmate Owen, who is never without his iPod and who has a local radio show. There's Mallory, Owen's trendy and talkative younger sister who is starstruck by Annabel. Not everyone around Annabel really sees her, and she's not quite sure how she sees herself. Through it all, there's music. Owen sees to that.

The point of the story isn't just what happened to Annabel - which readers may or may not figure out prior to the character's full disclosure - but how she reacted to it, and whether or not she'll move on once she's confronted it.

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.

Tags: author spotlight, banned books, books, cybils, readergirlz, reviews

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  • Red Hands by Christopher Golden

    A new Christopher Golden book is here, and I can't wait to get my hands on it! Here's the jacket flap summary for Red Hands: In bestselling author…

  • Annual Book Fair for Ballou High School

    It's that time again! Colleen Mondor has once again organized a book fair for the students of Ballou Senior High School. This time, the books are…

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