Author Profile: Sarah Dessen

Bibliographic Details

Sarah Dessen was born on June 6th, 1970, in Evanston, Illinois (Dessen, (a)). At seven, her family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Glenn, xiii). Her parents are both Professors at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Her mom is a Classicist and her Dad is a Shakespeare Professor (Dessen, (a)). Dessen followed her parents to UNC where she ultimately studied English. Following a five and a half year study plan, while working part time as a waitress, Dessen graduated in 1993 with highest honours in Creative Writing (Dessen, (a)). After graduating, much to the chagrin of her parents, instead of getting a stable job, she continued working as a waitress, while trying to write fulltime (Dessen, (a)). In 1996, her first novel That Summer was published (Glenn, xiii). Shortly after Dessen was offered a position as a creative writing lecturer at UNC (Glenn, xiii). In 2000 Dessen married her high school sweetheart, Jay (Glenn, xiii). She now writes fulltime in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where she lives in the country with her husband, her 5-year-old daughter Sasha Clementine, and their two dogs (Dessen, (a)). She has published ten novels, and a novella. Her eleventh publication The Moon and More will be released in June 2013 (Dessen, (d)).

Critical Reception

Sarah Dessen’s website highlights a few review blurbs, of the many that have been published about her novels. Dessen’s novels are praised for being able to capture the teenage voice, in real life situations, representing feelings and emotions to which readers can relate. Many reviewers also point out, adults, not just teens will appreciate the stories and characters.  Perhaps the most telling reception of Dessen’s works is the distinction of being voted ALA or YALSA top picks, by the teen readers for which the novels are produced.

Dessen’s novels and their affect on readers are frequently cited in the ALAN review. Many situations are described where either librarians or teachers have seen the impact of Dessen’s novels on teens, from the most avid Dessen readers, to the most reluctant. In her article “Just Listening to Sarah Dessen” Robyn Seglem a teacher, tells the story of her interaction with grade 7 student Callie. Seglem writes, “[she] rushed toward me, explaining that she had just seen the list of recommended books … and had noticed the newest Sarah Dessen title. Did I have it?” (Seglem, 61). Callie continued to talk with Seglem about Dessen, especially after finding out she would be interviewing Dessen later in the year. The excitement in Seglem’s class about Dessen’s novel did not stop at Callie. Seglem typically did not know which student had the novel because it was switching hands so frequently.

Specific examples of Dessen’s reception include:

– “Exquisitely insightful characterizations throughout” – Joyce Adams Burner for School Library Journal about The Truth About Forever

– “In a delicate, unassuming prose, naturally flowing dialogue, and a complex credible plot, Dessen portrays Annabel’s socially endorse self-repression with depth and intensity” – Claire Gross for The Horn Book Magazine about Just Listen

– “…complex, deeply sympathetic character are pure pleasure to spend time with” – Claire Gross for The Horn Book Magazine about Lock and Key

– “Even Dessen’s minor characters are multifaceted and interesting” – Vicki Reutter for School Library Journal about Along for the Ride

Writing Motivations, and Practices

Writing for Sarah Dessen is more than just a livelihood, it is part of her everyday life. When Dessen was asked if she always knew she wanted to be writer, she responded, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve been writing…even if I hadn’t sold a book … I’d still be writing. It becomes a part of you” (Penguin). Dessen credits her parents as the influencers on her love for stories, stating, “My parents constantly bought me books and encouraged me to read, and encouraged me to read up” (Sutton). During her time at UNC Dessen wrote her very first novel, which she has described as a horrible, and it was never published. But she credits this unsuccessful attempt, with teaching her a great deal about the writing process and herself as an author (Dessen, (a)).

On her website, Dessen includes a section in the description of each of her novels called ‘In Sarah’s Words’ where she tells readers about things like her writing process, details about her personal life during the writing period, and insights about her inspirations. For instance, in her discussion of Keeping the Moon Dessen states “Keeping the Moon was the last book I wrote while working at The Flying Burrito, and because of that it is thick in all of my best waitress stuff” (Dessen, (c)). Dessen fans will recognize The Flying Burrito as the restaurant where Dessen worked, while beginning to write fulltime. Linked to the ‘In Sarah’s Words’ section, are videos of Dessen discussing her novels such as the one below (Dessen, (e)).

During interviews, Dessen has further commented on how some of her story inspirations come from her personal life. The wedding theme in That Summer for instance came about after her cousin’s wedding (Penguin), and her the death of Scarlett’s boyfriend in Someone Like You was loosely based on a similar tragedy when Dessen was in grade nine, and the most popular boy from school died in a motorcycle accident (Penguin).

The creation of other storylines and characters come out of Dessen’s own contemplation about ideas and imagining ‘what if’ situations. For instance, the characterization of Remy in The Truth About Forever, came out of Dessen’s personal reflections about what it really means to be  ““perfect,” and how hard it is to live up to that standard, whether it be your own or someone else’s” (Penguin). Generally, Dessen has said that inspiration come from “something that almost-happened, or I wish had happened, and then [I followed] that possibility” (Zulkey).

Dessen’s writing practices were forced to change after the birth of her daughter Sasha Clementine. She has to budget her time around when she has babysitters to watch her daughter. Dessen has said “It’s actually easier now that I know I only have four hours a day, five days a week. It forces me to get serious” (Zulkey). Dessen has also commented that she always writes at home, in her office on the upper level of her house (Penguin).

Fans of Dessen’s novel know that little nods and Easter eggs about Dessen’s previous characters are added to new materials at some point in the writing process. All of Dessen’s novels take place in the fictional town of Lakeview, giving readers the opportunity to look out for allusions of their favorite characters, as well as the inclusion of familiar locations like the Quick-Zip convenience store, Lakeview Mall and Jump Java, the coffee shop managed by Someone Like You’s Scarlett.

Related Media

The 2003 movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore is a combination of the events and characters from Dessen’s Someone Like You and That Summer (IMDb). In Wendy J. Glenn’s book Sarah Dessen: From Burritos to Box Office, Dessen’s describes her initial reaction to the films script as somewhat disappointing, particularly because, “the film’s treatment of Scarlett, whose role was diminished” (Glenn, 135). But overall, Dessen has stated that, “I could be really negative about it, and that wouldn’t be good for anybody, or I could kind of go along for the ride” (Glenn, 135).

Check out the films trailer:

Other Interesting Information

– Dessen has stated that some of her favorite authors include Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Anne Tyler (especially The Accidental Tourist), Suzanne Finnamore (Penguin), John Irving, and Anne Lamott (Rummel).

– When asked which of her books is her favorite, while she stated that “It’s really hard to pick” but that “Keeping the Moon holds a special place…if only because a lot of the lessons in it about self-confidence are ones I’m still trying to learn myself” (Penguin)

– Dessen has “SO many book that [she] didn’t sell” (Zulkey), including novels for an adult audience (Zulkey).

– Dessen is a strong advocate against book banning. Check out her video for Banned Book Week

– On ‘pub day’ (publication day) Dessen usually reads a local Chapel Hill independent bookstore The Regulator, and tries not to obsess, while eating lots of chips (Zulkey).

– Check our Dessen’s speech from The Library Of Congress, National Book Festival, where she discusses her life, her inspirations, and her novels.

Social Media Involvement

Dessen is an active presence in social media. She publishes at least one “Friday Five” (Dessen, (b)) blog post a week, and frequently ‘tweets’, informing her followers not only about upcoming information about her novels, but her personal life. Her publisher, Penguin, has also set up an online community in Sarah’s name, where members frequently discuss Dessen’s books as well as their own writing aspirations, among other topics. Links to all of Dessen’s social media sites are available below.

Website [sarahdessen.com]
Blog [sarahdessen.com/blog/]
Twitter [twitter.com/sarahdessen]
Facebook [facebook.com/sarahdessen]
Tumblr [authorsarahdessen.tumblr.com]
Pinterest [pinterest.com/dessensarah/]
Online Community [sarah-land.ning.com]

Published Titles and Award Information:
(Derived from sarahdessen.com, and Glenn’s chronology in Sarah Dessen: From Burritos to Box Office)

That Summer (1996)
– An ALA Best Book for Young Adults selection

Someone Like You (1998)
– An ALA Best Book for Young Adults selection
– An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
– School Library Journal Best Book of the Year selection
– Barnesandnobel.com Best Teen novel of the year
– Winner of the South Carolina Young Adult Award 2000-2001
– Maryland Library Association Black-Eyed Susan Award
– Missouri Gateway Readers’ Choice Award for Teens

Keeping the Moon (1999)
– An ALA Best Book for Young Adults selection
– An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
– School Library Journal Best Book of the Year selection
– New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
– International Reading Association Young Adult Choic

Dreamland (2000)
– An ALA Best Book for Young Adults selection
– New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
– Amazon.com Editor’s Choice
– Missouri Gateway Readers’ Choice Award for Teens

This Lullaby (2002)
–  An ALA Best Book for Young Adults selection
–  An Original Voices Finalist from The Borders Group (2002)
–  A LA Times Book Prize Finalist (2003)
– Michigan Thumbs Up! Award Honor Book
– New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

The Truth About Forever (2004)
– An ALA Teen’s Top Ten Pick (2005)
– New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

Just Listen (2006)
– An ALA Best Books for Young Adults selection
– A New York Times Bestseller
– A YALSA Teen’s Top Ten selection

Lock and Key (2008)
– A New York Times Bestseller

Along for the Ride (2009)
– A New York Times Bestseller

What Happened to Goodbye (2011)

Infinity (a novella published in 2010)

The Moon and More (available June 2013)

____________________________________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Banned Books Week. Sarah Dessen for the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out!. 2011. Video. YouTube. Web. 17 Mar 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9WyRDM_yUg&gt;.

Dessen, Sarah (a). “Bio/Press Kit.” Sarah Dessen. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar 2013. <http://sarahdessen.com/press-kit/&gt;.

Dessen, Sarah (b). “Blog.” Sarah Dessen. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar 2013. <http://sarahdessen.com/blog/&gt;.

Dessen, Sarah (c). “Keeping the Moon.” Sarah Dessen. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar 2013. <http://sarahdessen.com/book/keeping-the-moon/&gt;.

Dessen, Sarah (d). “Sarah Dessen’s Books.” Sarah Dessen. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar 2013. <http://sarahdessen.com/books/&gt;.

Dessen, Sarah (e). “What Happened to Goodbye.” Sarah Dessen. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar 2013. <http://sarahdessen.com/book/what-happened-to-goodbye/&gt;.

Glenn, Wendy J. Sarah Dessen: From Burritos to Box Office. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2005. Print.

Gross, Claire E (a). “Just Listen.” The Horn Book Magazine 82.3 (2006): 312-. ProQuest. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.

Gross, Claire E (b). “Lock and Key.” The Horn Book Magazine 84.2 (2008): 216-. ProQuest. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.

IMDb. “How to Deal”. Internet Movie Database. Web. 17 Mar 2013. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0319524/&gt;.

Joyce, Adams Burner. “The Truth about Forever.” School Library Journal 51.2 (2005): 58-. ProQuest. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

Kilner, Clare. How To Deal. 2003. Video. YouTube. Web. 21 Mar 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3WXNjo6d8M&gt;.

Library of Congress. Sarah Dessen: 2011 National Book Fesitval. 2011. Video. YouTube. Web. 21 Mar 2013.

Penguin Group. “Interview with Sarah Dessen.” Penguin Group (Canada). Penguin Group (Canada), a division of Pearson Canada Inc. Web. 17 Mar 2013. <http://www.puffinbooks.ca/nf/shared/SharedDisplay/0,,213777_0,00.html>.

Reutter, Vicki. “Along For The Ride.” School Library Journal 55.6 (2009): 120-122. Professional Development Collection. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Rummel, Jennifer. “Teens’ Top Ten: An Interview with Sarah Dessen.” YALSA: The Hub (Your Connection to Teen Reads). YALSA, 20 Oct 2012. Web. 17 Mar 2013.

Seglem, Robyn. “Just Listening to Sarah Dessen.” ALAN Review. Winter. (2007): 61-67. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v34n2/seglem.pdf&gt;.

Sutton, Roger. “An Interview with Sarah Dessen.” The Horn Book Magazine 85.3 (2009): 243-50. ProQuest. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Zulkey, Claire. “The Sarah Dessen Interview.” Claire Zulkey: An American Writer (According to Wikipedia). Chicago Public Media, 13 Jan 2012. Web. 17 Mar 2013. <http://www.wbez.org/blog/claire-zulkey/2012-01-13/sarah-dessen-interview-95527&gt;.

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