Sarah Dessen: Writing the Real Girl

The Truth About Forever by Sarah DessenIf 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 Whether they are grieving, confused, withdrawn, or anxious, her main characters are also smart, funny, and kind.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 her native North Carolina, that dog’ll hunt.

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