Posted in opinions

Dear Sarah Dessen,

The first book I read of yours, Someone Like You, I found in a $2.00 bin at Walmart. I was maybe 13 years old. My teacher got annoyed with my mother for letting me read it because it discussed teen pregnancy, and my mom laughed at her because it was not the first or the last time she would have a conversation with a teacher about my reading material. I devoured that book. I reread it every time one of my friends seemed to be going through something bigger or more than me, and again when my friends started getting pregnant.

It was the only book I read of yours until my senior year of high school. Some of my friends were teasing me for not really knowing how to ride a bike. I’d had one when I was very small, but my parents divorced and we moved to a downtown apartment with no storage before I had my training wheels taken off. I couldn’t swim very well either. I had never been to the ocean. The only tree I could climb was the Japanese maple tree outside of my brother’s old room. They asked me what kind of childhood I had, and I shrugged, annoyed and embarrassed by their standards.

My best friend at the time gave me one of your books, Along for the Ride. I think it was meant to be an encouragement, but I took it as a comfort and a reassurance. There are so many “rules” we place on our own actions, rules about when we can do things and when our time has passed, but so often the only person telling us we can’t do something is ourselves.

I found that old, battered Walmart copy of Someone Like You when I went to put Along for the Ride on my shelf. An obsession was born. For the next six years, I hunted down your books with enthusiasm and drank them like lemonade in the summer. I loved them for their humor that often mirrored my own, for their literary references slipped into character names, for their food (because in a Dessen novel food is almost always a way to bond with friends and family) (and I’ve learned to judge a place by the quality of its guac from your novels), for their characters with their loneliness and insecurities and flawed logic. I felt the thrill of recognizing those characters’ names dropped into someone else’s story, like I was in on a secret.

I remember when Saint Anything was announced. I was excited for you. As a writer myself, I know the panic and existential fear that crawls under your skin like termites when you are struggling to produce. I know the anger and frustration that bubbles and boils when you try and try and it’s just not working. I was excited for you when it climbed the best seller lists, and the spark returned to your blog, and your self-talk sounded calmer and more comfortable with yourself.

I was excited even though the book itself was the first one I did not fall in love with, one where I found myself annoyed more often than entertained by or concerned for the characters. It was beautifully written, and tight, and addressed a lot of interesting concerns faced by teens as most Dessen novels do, but I just… didn’t feel anything. I didn’t care. I’m still a little heartbroken, for all the wrong reasons. It was the first time I felt far enough from the teenage years to struggle to sympathize with their decisions.

Sometimes, we just don’t like things, even things we were looking forward to, even things from our favorite people and makers. That was a strangely difficult concept for me to swallow at the time. I think I was in a period in my life where I needed a Dessen novel, but unlike all the other times I couldn’t find the one I needed. I don’t think it’s been written yet. I’m sure it will be, though. I don’t think you’re out of stories yet.

I gave your books away recently. I sent them to live with my friend in Louisiana. I still love those old stories, and I miss them sometimes, but she sent me a letter thanking me for giving them to her and how much she loved them too and I knew I made the right decision.

I will continue to read your books and I will continue to think about Halley and Auden and all of the characters who faced my fears with me. I will continue to look forward to your blog quotes and tweets. I will continue to be startled that your daughter is no longer the three year old toddler in your posts, but old enough to bake (with supervision). I will miss your chicken posts. I’m glad your husband found the lizard before you had to. I’m so glad you found your stories again. You gave me the strength to keep looking for mine when my voice fell silent. I’m so glad you chose to share them with us, and that I found that $2.00 Wal-mart copy all those years ago that led me to you.

Thank you for everything.

Ris

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Author:

I want to help children find autonomy, teenagers find themselves, and adults find compassion through the written word. I hold a B.A. in Creative writing and a dream of seeing my name on a book cover one day.

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