Dessen carved out a niche for herself when YA was still a fairly new genre, prior to the early 2000s, when the Twilight phenomenon took the publishing world by storm. Despite the proliferation of paranormal romances that followed--and a number of other trends that have come along, from boarding school stories to dystopian--Dessen has stayed the course. Realistic fiction all the way.
Her books remain top sellers, and some have garnered awards from the ALA and the School Library Journal. There are a number of things Dessen does well--and frankly quite differently from many others in the genre--that are worth studying and perhaps even emulating.
Good kids have stories worth telling
Some critics consistently ding Dessen's books for focusing on a "passive" protagonist. Indeed, her heroines are not the kind to deliberately seek out trouble. They'd knock politely, not kick open your door with their biker boots and attack you with nunchuks. They resemble kids you're likely to actually meet in real life, rather than a comic book.
What makes her good-kid stories worth reading are the very real dilemmas they face because they're good kids--striving to succeed academically, navigate friendships and dating, be a good daughter and sister, hold a part time job, and somehow figure out where they're going in life. You know, the kinds of problems most every teen has, not just the ones who own nunchucks and biker boots.
I don't know that I'd go so far as to call her heroines role models--each has flaws, especially a tendency to be less than truthful with adults in their lives. But these girls have strong consciences--they strive to do the right thing, even when it hurts. How they navigate the good girl way when life keeps throwing them curveballs is where the drama happens, which brings me to point 2.
Inner arcs are where it's at
Dessen's books tend to be lighter on plot, or what you might call surface problems. In Saint Anything, the biggest problem occurred in the narrative past. Sydney's older brother morphed into party-boy in recent years, went on to drive drunk, and permanently disabled another kid. The story begins at his sentencing hearing. It explores the aftermath, especially how his sin affects the family dynamic. Their varied responses to the crisis put them at cross purposes, and also expose deep problems with how each character copes.
What Dessen especially does well is showing how strengths and weaknesses can often be two sides of the same coin. The always-agreeable character can be cowardly in the face of conflict; the super-organized person can become frenetically controlling when hardship hits.
Let the judgement commence
Developmental psychologists say that a key task of the teen years is "individuation"--that is, building a unique identity. Part of this process involves evaluating everything and determining whether it's something to embrace or reject.
In Dessen's books nearly everything is fodder for evaluation, including one's socioeconomic status. Most kids become aware of income disparity in their community if they have occasion to leave the bubble of their comfort zone. Dessen's heroines always rub up against this reality, whether going from rags to riches, as in Lock and Key, or being rejected by the "haves" and choosing to align themselves with the "have-nots," like in Just Listen. Contact with other classes opens critical evaluation of everything the heroines have considered normal, and they each begin to consider which pieces of life as they knew it they want to hang onto or jettison.
While most adventure stories for younger readers have the heroes striking out on their own and leaving family, Dessen's stories always involve family conflicts in the main plotline or as a subplot. Because the reality is, most people under 18 can't --and won't-- simply take off on their own.
Rather than chafe against reality or create nothing but dead or absentee parents, Dessen sees dramatic potential. Because a big piece of the individuation process I mentioned above involves beginning to see parents as people instead of functional roles. People with flaws, yes, but also people with histories and hurts and loves and aspirations and even wisdom. Peer relationships can certainly push teens away from family, but family continues to have a strong pull on their self-concept. That tug-of-war plays out differently for each teen, and it's a rather gripping process to watch.
The importance of extracurricular world
Teens spend most of their day in school--it's equivalent to a full-time job. So the last thing they want in pleasure reading is for it to feel like they're having to sit through classes all over again with a fictional person. And yet, kids also gravitate toward spaces where they can have quality time with peers. In Dessen's books, there are always non-school spaces where much of the story action takes place. In What Happened to Goodbye and Keeping the Moon, it's a restaurant where the heroine works part time; in Saint Anything and Just Listen, a lunchtime hangout spot. In The Truth About Forever, it's the local library.
Quirks make the character
Dessen especially makes her secondary characters memorable by giving them particular quirks--often funny likes or dislikes--that appear again and again, like a running gag in a comedy film. In Saint Anything, the heroine's BFF Layla is obsessed with finding the perfect French fry and has some peculiar rituals around eating them. The quirk becomes a way for others to connect with her, and even rebuild the friendship after a falling out.
In Along for the Ride, the heroine's father named her Auden, after the poet, and his new baby Thisbe, after a minor Shakespeare character. That he is often absorbed in his own fiction writing isn't surprising, considering this quirky penchant for obscure literary references.
Forsake not the symbol(ism)
Dessen doesn't shy away from the occasional literary fiction technique, like using symbolism to undergird her themes, often using everyday objects to carry an important meaning for the heroine. In Along for the Ride, Auden's desire to master riding a bike symbolizes not only a sense of rebuilding a stunted childhood, but also learning to balance herself and become self-propelling. In Lock and Key, the recurring motif of doors, keys, fences, houses are used to examine what makes a place home, and people around us family.
Here's a list of Dessen's titles to date, for further reading.
1996 – That Summer
1998 – Someone Like You
1999 – Keeping the Moon
1999 - Last Chance
2000 – Dreamland
2002 – This Lullaby
2004 – The Truth About Forever
2006 – Just Listen
2008 – Lock and Key
2009 – Along for the Ride
2010 - Infinity (novella)
2011 – What Happened to Goodbye
2013 – The Moon and More
2015 – Saint Anything
Have you read any of Dessen's books? Have a favorite?
What author's works have been influential for you and how?