Sarah Dessen, on SAINT ANYTHING and more
Last night I had the honor of meeting author Sarah Dessen at the flagship Half Price Books in Dallas, Texas. She is out on tour promoting her 12th YA novel, SAINT ANYTHING. SAINT ANYTHING is the story of Sydney, a teenage girl whose family is kind of floundering as her brother is convicted for a drunk driving accident that has left another boy, David Ibarra, paralyzed. After changing schools, in part because she wants a chance to start over where no one knows her and her brother’s shadow doesn’t loom large over her, Sydney becomes friends with a girl named Layla and begins to fall for her brother Mac. This story of family, friendship, and the quest to find yourself in the shadow of those around you is moving, poignant and a spot on portrayal of teenage life. Which of course is no surprise to fans of Sarah Dessen; she writes touching portrayals of teenage life that capture an authentic look into the struggles of adolescence and self acceptance. And the relationships in SAINT ANYTHING – mother daughter, girl friends, romantic – they are deep, rich, and moving.
Before the event I had the opportunity to meet briefly with Dessen to discuss SAINT ANYTHING. There are some moments in SAINT ANYTHING that really fall into the Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature Project (The #SVYALit Project) that I was anxious to talk about. While in prison Syndey’s brother Peyton befriends a young man named Ames. Ames weedles his way into the family as an advocate and confidante to their mother, but I think most women quickly recognize that Ames has some inappropriate feelings towards the younger and more vulnerable Sydney. Dessen wrote about her own personal life experience with an older man similar to Ames in Seventeen Magazine, an experience that helped inform the Ames storyline in SAINT ANYTHING:
But the idea of T. feeling the same way about me made me shudder. He was a big brother, someone to pal around with. Hearing that he wanted more felt like wading into the deep end. Just like that, you lose your footing, and you’re in over your head.
And later in the article . . .
As I got older, however, the more I realized that my experience was not an uncommon one. It seemed just about every woman I knew had a similar story, a time when wanting attention meant getting the wrong kind entirely. As a teen wishing to be an adult, it is easy to get in over your head. Especially for girls, who are often taught that being polite and sweet should override all other instincts. It was with this in mind that I began my narrator Sydney’s story in Saint Anything.
In our one on one conversation and then later during the event Sarah Dessen spoke about this event and the Ames storyline, about how important it is that women – that teenage girls – know that it is okay to trust their instincts about the guys who seem “creepy” and that they have a right to draw boundaries around themselves to protect themselves. She shared how the article in Seventeen magazine had taken on a life of its own and so she felt she needed to let her mom know that it was out there. After reading it her mom said that she was glad Sarah listened to her when she said a guy that age had no business being around a girl her age. That, too, is an important message. We’re so often busy telling girls to be nice that we forget to tell them that it’s okay to say no, and you don’t need to explain yourself.
This led to a discussion about mother-daughter relationships, something that take prime real estate in SAINT ANYTHING. There are two families in this story, both of whom have married, involved and loving parents. Not perfect parents mind you, because no parents are perfect, but they are doing their best. Syndney’s mother is super involved and organized, operating out an office that Sydney and her brother call “the war room”. In comparison, Layla’s mother is more laid back, but she also has a slowly debilitating case of MS which is a specter that hangs over her family. There are late night scares that result in ER visits, and the sadness that sometimes overtakes her new friends as they wrestle with seeing their mother struggle with moments of pain. Dessen talked about how her mother was a dynamic, multifaceted character in her own life and how she wanted to portray that in her novel, allowing the parents to be an essential force in SAINT ANYTHING as parents often are in the life of teens off the page.
We then went on to talk about Peyton. Sydney initially views her older brother a this big, fearless, unrepentant character. She feels like she alone must shoulder the guilt of what happened to David Ibarra, with everyone else so focused on Peyton and what life in prison must be like for him. But when Sydney finally starts to talk to her brother on the phone, she begins to realize that no two people see events the same way, that her brother views himself and her memories – the moments that make them – quite differently than she does. In our conversation, Dessen talked about how she grew up knowing a lot of boys like Peyton, boys who seemed to have every advantage afforded to them but they just seemed to seek out trouble.
— jill bailey (@jillybeanmoxie) May 8, 2015
There was great attendance at the event, and the YA librarian in me was glad to see so many teens there.
During the event, when Dessen opened it up to Q&As, a teen asked her about reading DREAMLAND, which is one of my favorite Sarah Dessen books. Typically considered the darkest of her books, it is the first YA novel I remember reading about domestic violence. I was glad to hear this teen asking about it, to know that teens are still finding and reading this title. Now in its 9th edition, it still resonates, reminding girls everywhere some relationships can be unhealthy, what that can look like, and that no one deserves to be in that kind of relationship. Caitlin’s story has always haunted me.
At the event there was also a beautiful model of a carousel made out of book pages. The carousel depicts the cover of the book, appearing in the story as one of the magical life moments that you know you will remember forever. Sarah Dessen shared a picture of the carousel on her Instagram:
I was also very honored because I had the opportunity to take The Tween with me, and she also sat in on the interview. Then later, Sarah went on to speak about her books and how she herself growing up was shy, often overshadowed, and sometimes difficult. She talked about how when her publisher asked her to write This Lullably, about Remy the girl who was the vibrant one of the group of friends, she didn’t think she could do it because she has never been that girl. Driving home after the event The Tween started crying. When I asked her why she said, “I felt like she was talking about me, right to me. I always feel so shy and like everyone around me shines and I’m hiding in the background. But look at her, she’s written all these amazing books and she sat there and talked to us so confidently. Maybe I’ll be okay.” As a mom, as HER mom, I began to cry as well as I was so incredibly thankful that I got to share this moment with my daughter. I not only got to take her with me to meet one of the most influential authors of my YA librarian career, but I got to introduce her to this woman who told her that it’s okay to be the shy, quiet one who sometimes seems to be overshadowed, that you too can shine. Which is kind of the theme of SAINT ANYTHING, this idea that we all want to be noticed and the various things that can happen when we finally are, both good and bad. Sydney is a reminder to teens everywhere that the journey is sometimes bumpy, but eventually you find a way.
Sarah Dessen has shared a lot lately about her struggles as a writer. Although she has 12 books published, she has shared often that she has 13 books that aren’t, books that she called failures at the event. She recently discussed with Entertainment Weekly that she might take a little break from writing, a topic she talked more about last night. SAINT ANYTHING, she says, is the book of her heart. If she never writes another YA novel, she’s okay with this being the last one because she says it speaks to her. And although I also think this would be a good novel to end on if for some reason that proves to be the case, I can’t imagine being a YA librarian without another Sarah Dessen novel to look forward to. For most of my YA librarian career she has always been there, the cornerstone of YA literature. I would hate to think that suddenly we might not keep sharing this journey together. But I did love SAINT ANYTHING and the first thing I thought when I finished it was I can’t wait to share this with my teens and, for the first time ever now that she is getting old enough, my daughter. If this is the last, she would definitely be finishing out on top. But I think one day there will be more, because she’s just too good of a writer for there not to be.
Thank you Sarah, for last night, for this journey, for your books, and for SAINT ANYTHING. Thank you for writing honest, rich, complex and flawed female characters in a world that often wants to make our girls into something else.
Peyton, Sydney’s charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion’s share of their parents’ attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton’s increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?
Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.
The uber-popular Sarah Dessen explores her signature themes of family, self-discovery, and change in her twelfth novel, sure to delight her legions of fans.
Filed under: Sarah Dessen
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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