Every summer, I reread Sarah Dessen. This began the summer after my freshman year of high school, when a friend of mine pressed her copy of The Truth About Forever into my hands and told me, “Read this. Seriously.” So I did.
And I haven’t stopped since.
I went through a phase near the end of high school where I adopted that #2Cool4U attitude most teenagers have about things that they used to like. What had I been thinking, reading YA romance novels? I had to get a grip on myself. So I did my sneering and eye-rolling, and then it was after graduation and the summer before college, and there was Sarah, on my bookshelf, waiting for me. I begged forgiveness for my stupidity, and I haven’t once looked back. I think the only thing I’ve read more than I’ve read The Truth About Forever is Harry Potter. I’m twenty-four now, but I’m a firm believer that YA novels are not just for teens. That might be their targeted demographic, but they can resonate with anyone if you’re reading them the right way. And even though I’ve been reading Sarah–listen to me, calling her Sarah like we get sushi together on Mondays–for ten years, I have never once felt like one of her books didn’t resonate with me. I actually had to set down Along for the Ride the other day because some quick line, a tiny piece of wisdom, hit me so hard that I had to regroup and catch my breath.
I’ve seen and heard people describe her books as formulaic, but when you think about it, most books of a certain genre have pretty similar narrative structures. And for me, it’s never been about the plot. For me, books, and especially Sarah’s, are all about the characters. It’s not that I don’t find plot interesting, but the plot falls flat if you don’t have great characters to carry it along. And that is what I love about Sarah Dessen’s books so much–at the heart of it, they are about people and all of the trials and tribulations that come with just being a person in the world. They touch me so deeply because while situations might be different, emotions are something with which we can always connect. Especially–and most importantly–love.
When you walk into the YA section of your local Barnes and Noble, you’ll probably find that Sarah’s books are shelved under Teen Romance. I get it. Maggie Stiefvater’s books are shelved there, too, even though I would never classify The Raven Cycle as Teen Romance. But boiling Sarah’s books down to just romance makes them sound so muchless than what they are. There is romance, to be sure, but that’s because these books are about love. There are so many kinds of love–romantic, sure, but also familial, friendship (friendial? You get the idea), understanding, love of self. They all come into play in some way, shape, or form.
I reread Sarah Dessen every summer because there is something about her books that speak to me of summer. When I was still in school, it was because that was the in-flux time of my life–I was moving from one school year to the next, a gap between chapters–and it is within this in-flux period that Sarah’s characters find their stories. Now that I’m no longer in school, I’ve just fallen into the habit. But as any twenty-something will tell you, now I feel as if my life is constantly in that in-between period. Out of the teen years but not old enough to be considered a “real” adult by other adults, unsure of where I’m going or what I want to do but having a drive to do something. Being in your twenties is a ten-year stretch of that in-flux feeling, and Dessen books have never resonated with me more than they have these past few years. I read her books to remind myself of important truths (about forever and otherwise) that I need to hear, to find myself when I’m feeling lost, to find a new way it relates to my life and feel blown away by the quiet wisdom of her words, and to fantasize about Wes running with his shirt off. (Everyone has a Dessen guy. Mine is–will always be–Wes.) And because, of all of the truths out there, this is one the truest I’ll ever tell you:
It’s just not summer with Sarah.