Discovering Dessen: A Brief Essay

There was this old used book store about five minutes from where I grew up that my Mom and Mawmaw used to take me to.  Now, when I say “take me to,” it wasn’t necessarily for my own enjoyment. Although I did fall in love with a good murder mystery there, and it’s where I found my first copy of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

The store was built out of what looked like singed wood from a moldy forest, and it smelled like moth balls inside.  The majority of the store was filled with old Harlequin romance novels, the same thing that my Mawmaw always read.  You know the type; the covers were always a beefcake with no shirt and a scantily clad woman in what looked like ripped lingerie.  Either way, she’d wander her way through the stacks, and I’d just play hide and seek with an invisible friend while I was in my early years, and then would just strut around bored in my early teens.  

Until one day when I discovered a new shelf.  It was small, maybe twelve books that were for middle grade or young adults.  Granted, I can honestly say that the shelf wasn’t necessarily labeled, not that I remember, at least, but that the covers weren’t so risqué.  The covers were either illustrated or were of inanimate objects to indicate some sort of theme in the novel.  However, the book that caught my eye was a lonely pier jutting out into a beautiful blue body of water, and it had a solitary human image.  Naturally this was the book I picked up and begged my Mawmaw to buy for me for the $1.25 that the store was asking for. (I feel like it’s needless to say at this point that the store is no longer open, as their prices weren’t exactly sustainable.)

This book was Dreamland by Sarah Dessen.

Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what impact this book made on me, or if it was one of my favorite reads at the time, but her name stuck with me. I liked Dessen’s novel enough to remember to look for her name in the bookstore.  It wasn’t long before I had devoured her other three novels, That Summer, Keeping the Moon, and Someone like You. During this time I was playing on a traveling softball team on the weekends, so we would end up in the car for a few hours driving to and from fields, and we would also have an hour or two to kill between games…so I would read.

No other book that I can remember stuck out to me more than Dessen’s next novel This Lullaby.  This was the book that I found by chance in the bookstore when we were at the beach for a softball tournament as this was way before I got into book blogging or even knew what day new books were released.  We were just killing time, hitting up the food court for lunch, and wandering in and out of stores. Even then I was known as a bit of a book nerd, since I was the one who always had a novel on hand and a book suggestion on the tip of my tongue.  So it was no surprise that I practically demanded to go into the bookstore.  

At this point, I don’t remember if there was a specific young adult book shelf like there is now, or rather, a whole section, but I remember seeing Dessen’s name and immediately grabbing the hardcover off the shelf. This novel quickly became one of my all-time favorite books, and that hasn’t changed 15 years later.
Remy’s extreme negative attitude toward relationships and love spoke to me on so many levels.  As a teenager, I was extremely jaded already, because this character made me feel like I was reading my own thoughts.  Not only was Remy an amazingly relatable character, but Dexter quickly became my first book boyfriend (Huzzah!).

My first copy of This Lullaby eventually fell apart from me carrying it in my bat bag, my friends’ borrowing it, and from reading it over and over. I went to the store to pick up a new copy, paperback, this time, and found The Truth About Forever.

I cannot credit anyone with my love of young adult literature more than I can credit Sarah Dessen.  

When I was a teenager struggling with first love, my eating disorder, deaths in the family, etc, her novels spoke to me on a level I didn’t realize books could.

Two years ago I finally had the chance to meet Sarah in person for the first time, and it was like meeting a lifelong hero for me.  I was 28, but I may as well have been 13 again, because all those emotions of reading Dreamland and This Lullaby came back.  It was one of the highlights of being a book blogger and reader, so the release of Dessen’s thirteenth novel reminds me that I’ve been reading her novels since I WAS thirteen.  It’s serendipitous, in a way, because Once and For All takes me back to all of the feelings I had about This Lullaby more than any of her others.

Louna and Ambrose will sit in my mind just as much as Remy and Dexter, Macy and Wes, Auden and Eli, and so many more Dessen characters.

So I have to throw out a thank you to Sarah Dessen for being there for me since I was 13 and for being a go-to read for me for seventeen years. That’s crazy! Seventeen (which is fewer than the number of times I’ve read This Lullaby. Not a lie.)

Once and For All comes out on June 6, 2017 and it is not a book to be missed.

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