I, Hannah, make a lot of jokes on the podcast about the books I read growing up. There is Amish fiction, Lurlene McDaniel, Jodie Picoult, NORA ROBERTS (although I famously skipped the dirty scenes after my mom warned me to). But one author set me off on my deep, deep affection for romance, and that was Sarah Dessen. I loved reading her books so much, and they brought me so much joy. I remember carrying the covers around in high school and dreaming of the perfect person for me.
This summer, I listened to an episode of Shit She Read Podcast (I believe it was The Truth about Forever, but she also covered This Lullaby and Just Listen). It was coming out along with discussions of the Along for the Ride movie dropping on Netflix. Both books were fixtures in my teenage years, and I just had a sudden need to experience these books again. So I decided to download The Truth about Forever on the Libby app and listened to the entire thing over the course of 24 hours. I loved it, and it made me decide to go through her entire backlog, both her most recent books that I hadn’t touched and her earlier works, that I also wasn’t as knowledgeable about. After all this, I feel like there should be something showing off what this summer gave me, which was a lot of joy, some cringe moments, and a nice little reminder of the young girl I once was.
An overall thing I want to say is: Sarah Dessen is at her best when she is at her frothiest. If she goes too dark, it often feels a bit tone deaf and you feel the cringe. But she also can’t go too light, or else I ask “what’s going on??” A few of the parents don’t make sense, and they often made me cringe the hardest. Plus, revisiting these, I think a few should never be picked up by young girls in 2022. I think they should stay in the early aughts, much like low rise jeans and editing women down to the size of toothpicks. Further, most of these books are either very white or you can feel the checklist of “do I have this in a book, okay” of diversity. She isn’t great at it. She is also aging and it can be hard to stay in touch with what resonates in your character. There is a lot of “not like the other girls” descriptions, and a lot of quiet bookish girls where a popular, good looking boy pays attention to her because “there’s just something about her.” And that can be a bit cringe (and I now see where I got of my most unrealistic romantic expectations from).
But Sarah Dessen (I call her Sarah below because I read 14 of her books. First name basis feels reasonable) at her best gives us examples of healthy high school relationships, understanding that teenagers don’t need to be perfect, and key discussions on family relationships, understanding who you are, and even things like coming to terms with sexual assault. So without further ado, my current ranking of Sarah Dessen novels:
Dreamland is dead last, and for good reason. It’s one of her earliest works and it details a Caitlin, whose sister runs away and she proceeds to get into an abusive relationship. Overall, the depictions are very weird. The best part of the novel is the sister, who was a straight A, “perfect” daughter running away to New York to be with her boyfriend and work as a producer on a show that is akin to Jerry Springer. The parents can’t take that she may not have been happy, and although it is interesting to see parents try and deal with this trauma, a lot of it fell flat. Overall, bonus points for a daughter who is technically an adult setting boundaries and making it work.
The abusive relationship was not exactly helpful or beneficial. In the end she goes to rehab for marijuana, which is just strange and she hints that it is more to get her away from the boyfriend than to get actual help. Which is bizarre. I wasn’t a fan, and you could feel how old this book was.
13. Once and for All
This is one of Sarah Dessen’s newer books, and the one that made me realize I may like her middle more than her beginning and her end. We follow Louna, a daughter of a self made wedding planner, Natalie Barrett who (along with her gay business partner) don’t really believe in love! Isn’t that…a unique idea. Louna no longer believes in love, and has only had one relationship in her life. When she makes a bet with Ambrose, her new coworker, that she has to casually date and he has to keep a consistent girlfriend, we slowly realize there is a lot more to Louna’s former relationship. And maybe (?) a lot more to Ambrose.
The good about this book is, for me, teaching young girls about casual dating. In this book Louna is pushed to try out a few men, and through them we get to see a few of what can happen during a date and roll our eyes along with her. I like that it tells girls to experience something like this and not just look for “the one” in high school. The ending…does not justify that. But whatever. This book felt like Sarah Dessen looked up “what affects kids today” and wrote a book on it. Because of the “shock” at the end, she had to jump through so many logical leaps on how Louna’s first relationship unfolded that it left me flabbergasted, then wondering why we spent so much time with this girl who really had less to do with the trauma that really happened to someone else’s family and friends. It didn’t make sense and felt a lot like white girl novels where a main character sees a lot of issues, but never is actually really and truly affected or harmed. I can tell a young girl to casually date instead.
12. The Rest of the Story
Ah, another of Sarah Dessen’s most recent works. This follows Emma Saylor on a summer to visit her long lost relatives. She hasn’t seen them since her mother died due to an opioid addiction, but through them she learns about her mother’s past and her own future that may not be with her rich family.
This book was very generic. Honestly, it is also another of her recent ones and I didn’t really get the point of the novel. Again, it felt like Sarah Dessen heard about the opioid crisis and felt it was just tragic enough to write about it happening to an adult white woman. I did appreciate the approach she took to addiction, which showed the layered complexities and love and affection you can have for someone while being angry with them. But the father’s response to Emma getting close to her mother’s family made no sense in context with his prior relationship with them or with their treatment of him. The love interest was as bland as bran, and I didn’t really care that much for Emma/Saylor. It was the biggest meh of a book.
11. Keeping the Moon
This book honestly did nothing to me, but also gave me nothing. It was incredibly boring, and incredibly fat phobic. Well, it tried not to be fat phobic, but in the way only 2004 can bring you. Colie and her mother used to be fat, and when they were fat her mother couldn’t keep a job. But then they lost weight, her mother became a fitness instructor, and now her mom is happy despite Colie feeling weightless without the security of who she used to be. But then she visits her aunt for the summer and makes friends with Morgan, Isabel, and most importantly Norman. She also learns from her Aunt Mira that not everything broken is useless, and maybe choosing to be fat is okay I guess?
I don’t know. This book was a bit muddled to me. It has some good 2004 themes (hey, just because you’re fat, that’s okay! Hey, just because your friend is super hot, you deserve a man who is also hot but likes you over her, but he may cheat on you because looks aren’t all they appear to be!). It’s about the insides being more important than the outsides without any respect for the outsides, honestly. It was still so mellow it did get a bump up higher on the list, which is a bit sad if you think about it.
10. Someone Like You
Someone Like You isn’t the worst. Parts of it I actually like. I just think that there are likely better books about the topics it touches on that weren’t made in the early 2000s. We follow Halle as she finds out her best friend is pregnant. The best friend’s boyfriend happened to just die in a tragic motorcycle accident. And no one knew they were dating.
Overall, I felt this book had something but was missing so much more. I honestly wanted a book all about Scarlet. She seemed to understand that she was in love with an illusion of someone she met in the summer. That she may have been disappointed further down the line. But she wanted her baby and she wanted to be a loving and supportive mother, unlike her own. She makes friends with those she can trust and loses those she can’t. Halle, unfortunately, is incredibly boring. She loves Macon and Scarlet and that is it. It doesn’t delve into the complexities of her relationship with her mother, who is a psychologist and writes books on their relationship. The mother barely comes to terms with that overreach, and makes the weirdest, most early 2000s move of saying “You can’t date that boy.” Does this actually happen to people???
It was part of the movie with Mandy Moore called How to Deal (along with submission No. 9), although from what I can remember that is a bad movie.
9. That Summer
We are officially getting into books I somewhat likes, and they are all middlingly good! That Summer is about Haven, a 15 year old dealing with her father’s new marriage to a very young woman after a public affair, her mother finding her youth, and her sister getting married to a man Haven finds boring. Throughout it all, Haven meets up with a sister’s ex and remembers an easier summer.
I honestly think this book is great for what it is. It’s an angry teenager who doesn’t know what to do, and doesn’t have all the information. She thinks back on a time she was close with her family fondly, and doesn’t know why she can’t get back there. I thought there was great discussion with her mother trying to be sympathetic, as well as showing sisters who may not be close. It is very “Southern Charm” so be warned, but overall it isn’t a romance and it honestly works.
Also this leads me to a huge “I LOVE THIS ABOUT SARAH DESSEN”. High school kids often have jobs. Way to go Sarah, showing us what the realities of being a teen in the 2000s meant! It meant working at malls or helping your middle class parents out somewhere!
8. What Happened to Goodbye
McLean and her father left behind a life after her mother cheated on her dad with his favorite college basketball team’s head coach. Now she is married with twins and McLean and her dad have his job, which keeps them constantly moving. McLean uses each new opportunity to reinvent herself, until she comes to this town, where she learns she may miss who she was.
This book was super enjoyable. It is the first reread of the list so far. I was actually impressed with Sarah giving us a bit more of an immature, younger romance. The flirting is all poking and prodding, silliness that made me remember being young. I really enjoyed it. I felt like the mother/daughter relationship was appropriately complex. How do you come back from disliking your mom while liking her? It felt like her dad didn’t get enough of an assessment of who he was, but that also makes sense. You’re willing to forgive a person you know is hurting. But overall, some of this was very cutesy and straight forward. Plus, some of the drama was so funny to me. “You switch out your personality a lot? LE GASP!!!!” Like yeah….her family was on the news for a while. She maybe wanted to have a different name that wasn’t about the basketball team, which would make it easier for people to find such information!
7. The Moon and More
This book was super interesting. I was slightly confused with how Sarah gave us information, but the jist is: Emaline’s mother had her as a teenager after a summer fling. She got married soon after Emaline was born, to her dad, a widower with two kids of his own. They are a family and have been for forever. But over the years Emaline has kept in contact with her Father, and he promised her funding for an Ivy League that he had to back out on. Now he’s visiting. Mix that in with a breakup from her longtime boyfriend and a complicated relationship with a documentary assistant, and we have a weird summer for Emaline.
I really liked this book. It takes a look at complex families, atypical backgrounds, and shows you how they can be loving and secure. It shows you how sometimes the growth you have is inwards, and lets you stay rooted to where you need to be. This book had such a healthy respect for Emaline’s relationship with her dad and her mom. They seemed open and honest. They let her grow, they let her understand their concern, and they had unreasonable reactions that they seemed to learn from. This is one of the more human books. I also loved how Sarah worked in a lot of the inner world she created in her books. We get to see a deeper layer of Colby and the return of some great characters! This all just was so fun, and also one of her newer ones. If the others didn’t have a lot more nostalgia, it may have gone higher!!
6. Lock and Key
This book destroyed me as a child!! I remember reading it and it just fed into my soul. I wanted a key necklace (they became super popular like a year later and I was like “SEE SARAH KNEW!!!!!”). Ruby’s mother is gone, and she would have been fine on her own. But suddenly, she’s being uprooted to her sister’s house. She only lived 30 minutes away but never checked in. Now she has to deal with an estranged sibling and a new lifestyle. She just wants out. But the boy next door may be willing to help her through this. Or he may have secrets of his own.
This book maybe should have some of the criticism I put in The Rest of the Story. It is a bit boring, the love story is meh, and overall I don’t know why I love it so much. But I have rose colored glasses because of nostalgia, so sue me. This shows complicated families, it shows neglect in children and how they react. It shows how some parents are so toxic but they want to love you, they just aren’t capable. I really respect the humanity given to Ruby’s mother. I respect the relationship she has to build with her sister. I think we should have pointed out she really needed that therapy her sister forced her into. There is so much here, we honestly didn’t need the Nate story line of the guy next door. I would have been fine with just Ruby and Cora. Plus, there is finally a Black character, but she is relegated to the best friend role which sucks.
5. Saint Anything
Another of Sarah’s most recent books that I actually enjoyed. Saint Anything is about Sydney. We open on her as her brother is being sentenced after hitting a teenage boy and causing him to be confined to a wheelchair. Throughout this story, we see Sydney come to terms with her mother and father’s flaws, her own guilt over her brother, and her anger towards him. She gets to move through this as she makes new friends and falls in love with a boy, Mac.
Overall, this book was super fun. First off, the bad is it is horribly fat phobic. Like the love interest likely has an eating disorder and I was shocked we didn’t delve into that more. I felt like Sarah could have had a good moment to discuss how men view their relationship with food. Further, the only Black character is also relegated to a sidekick, and he should have been Layla’s boyfriend at the end. I will die on that hill. But outside it, I thought this was an interesting look at what Sarah does best – white suburbia and their issues. Sydney’s parents are bad because they have a lot of privilege they don’t seem to see. Sydney and her brother do, and want to take on responsibility. Overall, I thought it was a great look at relationships, privilege, and everything in between. The mother is dramatic because she gets to be.
In addition, this had a lot of grooming. So many scenes where you can feel it. And you understand what is going on and there is real life consequences. Teenagers have mixed emotions as they should. It’s very impressive.
4. Just Listen
Annabel has a secret. Okay, she has a lot of secrets. She is no longer the “girl with everything” like she says she is on her modeling commercial. She has no friends, her sisters are dealing with the ramifications of family drama and a revelation about an eating disorder, and her mother is clinging to Annabel and her modeling career. Plus Annabel hasn’t told anyone about what happened…
This book is another one that destroyed me in high school. It was so interesting how Sarah took on hard topics like toxic friends, sexual assault, and eating disorders. I will forever think about the scene where Annabel sits in silence and comes to term with how much she’s been running away from what’s inside her. It’s fascinating to see. We have just so many interesting moves here. Again, I’m not sure that a 2006 book is the greatest for teens to learn about these topics, but there is something to this book that always kept me interested. The love interest seemed to be the least important part, and maybe that’s why I liked it so much. Although there are still a lot of critiques to be said about how it handles anorexia.
3. Along for the Ride
Along for the ride has Auden, a girl who never got a childhood between her two academic parents. As her brother traipses across Europe, she decides to stay with her father that summer with his wife and new baby, and through it discovers a new life, including ones between midnight and dawn with a mysterious boy named Eli.
I really love this book. Again my nostalgia brain just gets giddy thinking about it. I love Eli so much and Auden is every girl who thought she was so serious but can just be…a lot (which was not me in high school). Auden makes mistakes. She puts her foot in her mouth. She’s weird. But through this book she learns that it doesn’t make you special to be “not like the other girls.” That being smart is fine, but others can do that and still have a well rounded experience. I loved that. I loved the care Sarah took to make sure we saw girls as multifaceted. I liked that Auden got to fool around with someone and walk away from it only mildly judged, and only then because of the interpersonal dynamics. Plus, this was a great book about the complexities of parenthood and what it means to support your children. I was really just in love with the whole story. The Netflix movie is definitely good, but also ridiculous at the end. Just end it around the prom dancing. Plus, the book is better, with some Dessen universe thrown in!
2. This Lullaby
If you told me that one day, This Lullaby would be number 2 on this list, I would have thought you were lying. I thought this book was so boring when I was younger! Here is a review from when I started writing reviews on Goodreads 10 years ago:
This was my first Sarah Dessen book, but it was not truly my favorite. Although I read others by her, I was not always happy with the way the story progressed. However, I am a huge fan of underlying themes, and I found quite a few here.
I sounded pretentious because I was. But honestly, this book has Remy, a girl who never believed in love. She believes in having fun with her friends and getting out of town when she goes to college. She wants away from her mother’s fourth marriage (or is it fifth). It’s not like she had the best model for love. She never met her dad. He just wrote a famous song for her. So she has a no musician rule. Until she meets Dexter.
This is honestly Sarah Dessen’s most straightforward love story. It’s about two people finding one another and seeing if they can work. They have hang-ups, and that might mean it’s a no. But what if it’s yes? Overall, Dexter had red flags. He didn’t take no for an answer and was a bit rude. But it was made in 2004? I loved Remy this time around. She’s a smart teenager who has sex and parties. Sarah is on record that this was a book about the high school best friend trope. The one who is always doing something fun off screen. And we finally get to see it! And we get to see her find happiness! I also loved that this was a book where the main character has a steady group of friends who support one another! The biggest conflict is insecurity in shifting friendship relationships! I really think this is a book for the non-bookish girls to feel seen, and it is now one of my favorites!!!!
1. The Truth About Forever
I lost my mom almost two years ago, so this book hit me in all the feels! Macy lost her dad. He was there and now he’s not. She just wants security and sameness so she can keep things moving. It’s why she has a straightforward boyfriend, she has a straightforward job, and she has a straightforward life. But when she meets the Wish Catering, their upheaval pushes her off center and into the orbit of Wes. But her mother is concerned and her sister is pushing her to finally grieve what they lost. Is she really ready?
I adored this book. Honestly, for teens, it’s so fun. It seemed to mix in a lot of cliches, but in the best way for a romance. We have 1) a girl coming to terms with grief. 2) a mom who is concerned and doing her best. 3) an interesting boy who has worked on himself after being a bad boy and is now somehow super artsy and interesting. 4) healthy relationships built on detailed discussions. Wes and Macy playing the game (which isn’t a game) Truth, where one person must answer a question honestly is so great for teen girls to read. Honestly, it lets them see how to build up a young, healthy relationship. It talks about trying to make sure your life looks a certain way and trying to control it, and how that just isn’t possible. It also talks about looking past what is “good” in a person, to see what is real. I really loved my reread of this, and I can’t help but put it first.
And there you have it. Do you agree with my list???