Sarah Dessen Gets Teenage Girls & She Always Has

Update: Sarah Dessen's most recent novel, The Rest of the Story, goes on sale on June 4.
Teenage girls are impossible for adults to understand. At least, that’s what pop culture would have you believe. The entire movie Eighth Grade hinged on the premise that Elsie Fisher’s Kayla was all but inscrutable to her dad. But Sarah Dessen has always had a grasp on teenage girls.
All of Dessen’s books — there are 13, with a 14th arriving in May — are tender, loving portraits of girls in crisis. Dessen’s books usually follow a teenager just as she is forced to confront her full adolescence.
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One of her most beloved books, This Lullaby, follows a girl named Remy as she prepares to go to college; in her latest, The Rest of the Story, Saylor is sent to reconnect with her dead mother’s family in North Carolina for the first time since childhood. Dessen’s books also have everything you need to understand the basic structure of teen girlhood: strained romantic relationships, tedious after school jobs, anxious parents, even more anxious teens, and the occasional aloft cup of Diet Coke.
Readers have responded to Dessen’s work with gusto. Her first two novels, That Summer (1996) and Someone Like You, were adapted into the teen movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore. Four of her follow-ups appear on NPR’s list of the 100 best-ever teen novels. There is a Twitter account solely dedicated to quotes from Dessen’s books. Reddit is riddled with requests from readers seeking books similar to Dessen’s — turns out, understanding teen girlhood is a marketable skill.
When Dessen started publishing books in 1996, the world looked slightly different. “Young Adult” wasn’t yet considered a real genre, despite authors like Judy Blume, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Ann M. Martin’s vast teenage-themed canon. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book credited for the YA and children’s publishing boom, wouldn’t be out for another year. Twilight had yet to sink its teeth into a generation of young women. Now, as Dessen prepares to debut her 14th book, she has a vast community of both YA readers and writers.
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In advance of The Rest of the Story, Refinery29 spoke to Dessen about young women, falling in love on the page, and what exactly is happening in the widening world of YA.
Refinery29: Your books are not directly rooted in time or place and are relatively free of cultural touchstones. What do you mean when you call them “forever books?”
Sarah Dessen: “[T]hey could also be Anywhere, USA. In a lot of ways. Or anywhere in the world. When I first started writing them, I'm thinking, Well, no one in another country is going to be reading my books. Now I get emails from girls who are in the Philippines, and they're like, 'This is just like my school. This is just like my friends.' There's something very universal about the high school experience, when you take away all the cultural stuff and the slang. When you take away the setting and focus on what you're going through at that time, I think we all have more in common than we don't.
“It took me a long time to come around to texting. I always wanted a book to be forever. So I didn't put a lot of pop culture references or slang. I didn't want them to be dated at all. But there are certain things you can't ignore. I don't think you can write about teenagers without texting [anymore]. It would be like you're writing about people on the moon! You're just making stuff up! I think it's making peace with that and figuring out the best way to do it.”
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The Rest of the Story does deal with addiction, which is something you've dealt with before, like in your book Lock and Key. Did you handle it differently this time around?
“You know, I was just reading that John Grisham gets his inspiration from the obituaries. And I was like, 'Oh! Stealing my thing!' I read the obituaries every day. I was really intrigued by the number of younger people that started showing up in the obituaries about five, six years ago. I feel like the world is okay, or at least, things are as they should be, if you read the obituaries and it's all elderly people who lived wonderful lives. But when you see a really young person on the obituary page, it's so jarring. When I was writing Lock and Key, I wasn't dealing with the death. I was just dealing with the abandonment. So The Rest of the Story was just the next step of that story and [its] also where our society has gone. We're in this epidemic right now. And a lot of kids are dealing with it. I think we're going to see more books covering this now, not less.”
In your books, a lot of the romances always revolve around words and wordplay. Even in The Rest of the Story, Roo [the love interest] has his five sentence descriptions.
“For me, it was never the captain of the football team, or the soccer team, or whatever. It was like that quirky guy who never had gas money and was funny. Who you see in class and makes you laugh. As a writer, when you're writing two people who are crushing on each other, it's just fun! I'm coming up on my 19th year wedding anniversary. So it's fun! It's like I get to fall in love on the page with someone I invented. And it's okay with my husband.”
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Do you feel like the love interests have changed as you've grown as a writer? Is Roo different from Dexter from This Lullaby?
“Dexter was sort of my gold standard. I like a boy [who is] unique — the 'you’re nuts, but I think you're awesome!' kind of thing. I wrote him [because it was] what I wanted a boy to say to me! But I’m growing up, so I am impressed even more so these days with a boy who is self-sufficient, working hard, and looking to the future. When I was in high school, I didn't care about that. But as an adult, that's appealing to me now.”
When you sit down to write, do you feel like you're writing for young writers? Or do you feel like you're just writing?
“Well, I'm selfish — I’m writing for myself. I'm just trying to keep myself entertained. But in the editing process, you definitely bring the reader front and center when you're writing for teens. Like, I don't have a lot of sex in my book. But if I do, it's there for a purpose. That's the line that I walk in terms of writing for teens. If I'm writing a draft, I'm just writing the story I want to write, because I know I have a good editor who will help me hone in so that it's market appropriate.”
Yes, as a young reader, I always wanted more kissing.
“I get it from both sides! People say, 'You should have more sex. Your books don't have enough sex.' And I'm like, 'You know what? Go write your own book, if you want lots of sex.' But then, there are people that yell at me for having too much sex. You really can't win. Before I wrote The Moon and More, I went on Twitter, and people were saying, 'Sarah Dessen's books are so formulaic, they're all the same, she needs to do something different.' So I did, and then everyone was like, 'It's not the same!' That's the last time [I listened]. You're never going to please everybody else, so you might as well try to please yourself on the page.
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There's plenty of sex in YA out there for people. I understand the argument. People are like, 'Teenagers are having more sex.' But you know, not every teenager is the same. So let's just all add to the canon. Let's all add to what's out there. The more stories, the better, because everybody needs a story they can relate to, and the more stories we have, the more chances we have to achieve that. I'm all for it! Let's just lift each other up! Let's just all write what we want to write.”
How do you feel like YA has changed since you started writing?
“[I]t’s so different. There was no Harry Potter. There was no Hunger Games. Or Twilight! I've been along for the ride during all of that. When I sold my first book in ‘96, and I said, 'Oh, it's young adult,’ people would say, ‘Does it have pictures? Did you draw?' People just didn't know! When I would look for my book in the bookstore, it was like Goodnight Moon, my book, and Strawberry Shortcake.
“Now, YA is just this force to be reckoned with. There didn't used to be a YA section when I was growing up, and now there's a 'Paranormal YA romance' section. It's gone from nothing to being uber specific. I’m really grateful that teens have kind of found their own space in the library, their own space in the book store, because I think that's what it should have had all along.”
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Where do you hope YA goes in the next five to 10 years?
“I would hope to see it just become a stronger and stronger genre. I think it's already happening — Jenny Han’s movie [To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before] was huge for YA. It's the new Sixteen Candles, new Breakfast Club. And adults! So many adults went crazy for that movie. I think the greatest thing happening in YA right now is diversity. There are kids out there right now that haven't found the book that's made them feel less alone in the world, and someone is writing that book. We just need to get that book out where that kid can get their hands on it.”
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Refinery29 is proud to partner with Penguin Teen on YA Month.
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