Sarah Dessen: Writing the Real Girl

If you’ve spent any time among the Young Adult fiction shelves at your local library or bookstore, you’ve most likely heard of Sarah Dessen. It’s hard to miss the work of this prolific writer. Two of her books – Someone Like You and That Summer – were turned into the movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore. By most anyone’s measure, she’s developed a very successful writing career for herself.

I’ve only read a few of her books so far, but I can already see why she’s got such a good thing going. For one thing (and in my mind, this is the Most Important Thing), Dessen writes well-developed characters who hum with life. In The Truth About Forever, the hairs on my arm stood up when Dessen describes the character of Macy’s fierce, loving, controlling mother. The anger! I had to put the book down for a minute because I was having flashbacks. (Note to Sarah: When did you meet my mother?)

Dessen also has a knack for locating her stories in the exact, most heart-rending crux of a character’s struggle. The moment just before something big, something life-altering, happens. Whether they are grieving, confused, withdrawn, or anxious, her main characters are also smart, funny, and kind. And they have at least one other thing in common: they’re trying to be real. This struggle to go from perfect girl to real girl was especially apparent in The Truth About Forever. Macy continually subverts her own desires, avoids confrontation, hides her true feelings, and even tries to grieve for her father in a way that pleases those around her. Turns out, those aren’t easy habits to break. There’s something appealing about doing what someone tells you to do; when things go awry, the risk is not your own. Ultimately, though, if Macy wants to own her life – surprises, joys, complications, failures, and all – she has to learn how to look inside and figure out what she needs. Then, she has to ask for it.

Three cheers for an author who writes about smart girls who deal with realistic problems. One more cheer for an author who can make a darn entertaining book out of it. Okay, and one more for stories in which the smart, real girl gets her romance on! (Hmm… number one best thing about being a writer = the ability to make the world work exactly as you think it should.) Sarah Dessen’s books are like awesome beach reads for the thinking girl. As they say in Dessen’s native North Carolina, that dog’ll hunt.

Shannon lives in Brooklyn where she obsessively reads YA fiction.  She writes about her bookish life at I’m thinking…

  1. Brittany

    Honestly, I disagree with the previous comments. I do agree that a female protagonist doesn’t need a boyfriend to be happy and that is what Sarah Dessen is about. I have read every single novel she has published except for The Moon and More. Her novels are real and they have a main character solve her personal struggles on her own. Sure most cases are with an added romantic bonus but what is the harm in that? Come on! I enjoy reading it but that’s just me. That Summer didn’t have the main protagonist with a boyfriend and Haven got through her problem of accepting her family’s imperfections and her own. Sarah Dessen is realistic in her writing and I, personally, believe that there is nothing better than that. Her writing exceeds the expected “beach read”. Her writing is much, much more.

  2. Shannon Rigney Keane

     Hey Bella,

    Thanks so much for the comment. I loved hearing what you have to say, and I think you’re totally right. I think that Dessen writes about the romance as part of the main character’s growth/transformation as a way of saying that love is healing, and that loving and being loved are both enormously important sources of strength. The fact that these relationships the main characters develop are *always* romantic has more to do with what sells books than with what necessarily has to, or would in real life, be the case. In fact, if Dessen did, as you suggest, portray a girl struggling through life’s problems with the help of a close friend (male or female), or a mentor or relative, I think it would be AWESOME. In my mind, it might even graduate Dessen from the "beach read" category to something more elevated. Come to think of it, I’m having a really hard time thinking of popular YA lit in which a girl main character does not find romance as part of her journey. Anyone? Anyone? P.S. Just thought of one – the absolutely amazing A Step from Heaven by An Na. I highly recommend it. The character goes on an amazing journey and, yes, love is a part of that but not from a boyfriend. Don’t confuse it for a beach read, though. It’s awesome, poetic, and moving.

  3. Bella

    I enjoyed reading this piece because I do agree that Sarah Dessen has a knack for portraying somewhat realistic girls coping with life-changing situations. Furthermore, Dessens books aren’t like the normal “trashy teen romance novels;” they are fun reads about young women living through and making the most out of unfavorable situations. Nevertheless, I wish that the “misunderstood teen who becomes stronger and then finds an honest man to love” recurrent theme did not always prevail in her books. Yes, I admit that I enjoy vicariously living through the ideal romantic relationships that Dessen creates, and I like that the protagonists are able to find love while simultaneously overcoming hardship. However, I wish that for once, a female protagonist did not have to find a boyfriend in order to become happier, in order to overcome and move past the death in her family or her distant, abusive mother. True, I root for the classic Dessen character who becomes best friends with her cute male neighbor who just happens to be the same age–she deserves to find love and happiness for once! But why can’t the main character remain best friends with the neighbor? Why must the ideal friend become the boyfriend? Why can’t the girl establish a strong friendship with another girl, or a role model, or a sister? Maybe I am just an angsty teen who hasn’t had a serious relationship with a “boyfriend,” so maybe I don’t understand, but I disagree with the concept that a girl needs a boyfriend to become happier, that a natural succession exists from good guy friend to boyfriend. Where is the protagonist who does not stumble upon a serious relationship, who can remain best friends with her attractive, caring, male friend? Yes, I root for those protagonists, but nonetheless, there is still something to be said about those “realistic” main characters who fail at being realistic; they fail to resemble me.


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