December 12, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

2017 Margaret A. Edwards Award Winner Sarah Dessen Woos YA Readers

Photograph by Brownie Harris

Two years ago when she was doing press for her book Saint Anything, Sarah Dessen wondered how many more YA novels she had left to write, unsure of how many books she had left, period. Then, of course, the story of Once and for All popped into her mind, and now she finds herself promoting her latest release, which comes out on June 6, as the 2017 recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award. This award is given annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, and is sponsored by School Library Journal. It recognizes an author who has made a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” For more than 20 years, Dessen’s novels have connected with teen readers through her authentic voices, nuanced characters, and compelling plots. However, even after 13 books and consistent success, she doesn’t take anything for granted. We spoke over the phone on a Friday morning about the Edwards Award, her process—it involves chocolate—and why writing for teens is so special. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

How did you feel when you heard the news?

I was in shock. Normally I don’t think of myself as someone whose books win awards and that’s fine. I’ve never seen myself as that kind of a writer. But this one is so special because it’s really about making teens feel at home in their lives and making them feel like their voices matter, that their stories count. To me that was the greatest thing about it.

The minute that they announced it, my phone just started to blow up. The first person who messaged me was Jackie Woodson, which I thought was just the sweetest, and then David Levithan, and all these people. Everyone was so excited; it’s like our Oscars, so it was thrilling.

Everybody on the committee was so enthusiastic, and these are people who love books so much and love their jobs. I just feel honored. After this long in the business, and my 13th book getting ready to come out, I feel like everything is just gravy.

You mention “making teens feel at home.” Is your goal to tell the stories of today’s teen girls?

When I was in high school, I was really unhappy, and reading was such a big part of what made me feel safer and better. I think the greatest compliment I get is when [readers] say, “Your books got me through high school,” because that’s how I felt. I had a good core set of friends who saved me in many ways, but it wasn’t the greatest time, and books were an escape. Even if you couldn’t find someone nearby who understood what was going on, usually in a book you could find something that you could relate to. That’s the importance for me; I think everyone wants to feel that they’re not alone. Everyone wants to feel that someone can understand their story or has also lived their story. That’s the way I felt the first time I read Judy Blume. It was like an epiphany. “Oh! Here’s somebody else who has these questions about bodies and boys and all these things.” Nobody else was writing about that. It opened up this big window into the rest of the world. Not that I’m comparing myself to Judy Blume, but I think that some aspect of this applies to my work. If people can see something they relate to, it’s huge.

You really capture teens’ voices so well. How do you keep your voice and your ear sharp?

Gosh, well, thank you for that! I just try to write the way that we talk. I think it’s helpful for me that I still live in my hometown and I’m never too far away from my own high school experience. I can choose to drive a detour and not pass my high school every day on the way into town, but more often than not I do.

Teenagers are savvy readers. That’s the thing that’s been interesting to me. YA, in the 20 years that I’ve been doing this, has exploded. When I first started out, there wasn’t even a YA section in the bookstore. There were children’s books and Paddington and my book and Goodnight Moon, and now there’s a whole section for paranormal romances. But what you see is that a lot of people who have written for other markets say, ‘Hey, I want to write a YA book because YA’s really hot right now and it seems like it’s fun,’ but it’s not so easy. It’s not just a matter of taking an adult character, making them a teenager, and writing a book that way. Teenagers are the first to know when you’re doing that; they’re the first to know when you’re talking down to them or you’re faking it. They have a nose; they’re like Holden Caulfield. They can smell a phony a mile away.

I was reading an interview you did a couple years ago around the release of Saint Anything, and you said that you didn’t know how many more YA books you had in you; are you still feeling like that?

The market has changed so much and it’s very competitive now, but the great thing about the YA community is that there’s room for everyone. Even as the popularity of the genre has grown, with lots of new voices coming in, I feel like we’ve retained that sense of closeness. There’s an incredible amount of support. We all lift each other up. But after 20 years and 12 books with Saint Anything, I was like, maybe it’s time to take a break. Maybe I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. Maybe I should go write a contemporary novel, maybe I should sit at home and not do anything. But then, as always happens with me, I get bored. So I finished all the touring for Saint Anything and this story for Once and for All just bubbled up. The nice thing about this book is that it feels like the bonus round. Because I did do a lot of interviews where I said stuff like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to do this again’ and ‘Maybe I won’t’ so this feels like a gift. It’s actually really fun, because I didn’t think that I would be here so soon—two years later—doing this again, and this book is a lot lighter and it’s fun. So I feel very lucky. I still feel very fortunate to be here.

Then the Edwards Award was just a huge bonus.

Writing has always been the one thing in my life that I can’t control. I sit down at the same time every day, I have the same chocolates, and some days it’s great and some days it’s a disaster, and you just never know whether it’s going to be one or the other. So I have to accept that sort of chaos. But it is good chaos, at least.

Talking about process, some of the fun in reading your books is seeing all the shared places, characters, and references. Do you have a Dessen universe bible somewhere to keep track of everything?

I actually don’t. It’s so funny. I’m reading the “Harry Potter” books with my daughter. We’re reading them out loud before bed. It is giving me life right now in the current political climate. We are enjoying it so much, but I’m in awe. Talk about a universe to keep track of!

I don’t have that. I keep it all in my head, and sometimes I forget things. I have a general idea of what everything is and where everything is. But because I live in my hometown, it’s not that hard for me to put myself there and be like, okay, these are how the things overlap and everything.

It all started because I had a lot of people asking for sequels. I didn’t see myself as a sequel person. Usually by the time I’m done with a book, I’m done. But I had so many people asking for [them], specifically to Someone Like You, that I thought I would bring Scarlett from Someone Like You back in This Lullaby as a nice wink to those people and to say, “Hey, she’s good, Grace is good, everything’s fine.” It was just supposed to be a one-off, but it was so much fun and people liked it so much that it just sort of became a thing. I like it because it is a very small town. That your brother’s best friend [is someone] you would see at the gas station; this is how things are in a smaller town. It’s that sense of community that I think is very helpful.

It’s expected now that I’m going to plant these things in the book. I think I’m being really clever, but then the minute the book comes out everybody is on Wikipedia listing them all. Every once in a while, there’ll be one that I didn’t do on purpose. Like at the end of Just Listen there was a black car that came to pick up Sophie, Annabel’s estranged best friend. Somebody said, “Oh, that’s Rogerson from Dreamland,” and I was like, “Whoa, that hadn’t even occurred to me.” I learned in college that if you write something that’s really cool and you don’t realize it, you have to pretend you did it on purpose and be like, “Oh right, yeah, of course I meant to do that.” My readers are very smart. I think all writers think their readers are the best, but mine really are—and they’re sharp.

Having your stories take place in this world that feels so complete is deeply satisfying because you get that sense of familiarity and you feel like this world is recognizable.

And that’s the great thing about writing for teenagers. That—and this is the secret that we all know as YA authors—they’re the best audience because they’re experiencing that connection to reading, where everything is heightened, for the first time. As adult readers we tend to be more jaded, right? I’ll read a book now and I’ll be like, “This book was so good,” but I won’t scream and cry and jump up and down and lose my mind. In the [same] way that I won’t go on Amazon and leave a review that is all exclamation points or burst into tears. It’s so heightened and it’s so amazing because you’re catching these people at the beginning of their connections to reading. When it’s really blowing their minds.

All of the characters in your novels seem like they could be protagonists in their own books. Do you write backstories? Or do you just let their personalities reveal themselves to you as you write?

I think it’s more letting their personality reveal itself. Sometimes when people are writing YA, you have your narrator, maybe you have the love interest, and then everybody else is sort of not real, especially the adult characters in some YA. It’s like the adults are Charlie Brown’s parents talking. I never felt that way about my mother or my dad. They contained multitudes; they were like a different person every day to me.

Often I’ll get really enamored with a side character. In my book What Happened to Goodbye, I had this character named Deb, who was supposed to be this one-off character. My narrator, Mclean, comes to school and there’s this super over-enthusiastic girl who has no friends but has appointed herself to be student ambassador. I was just going to have a little bit of fun with Deb and send her on her way, but she became so much fun to write that initially, in the first draft, there was a lot more about her. My editor said, “You know that this is not Deb’s book; let’s pull it back a little.”

Your new novel, Once and for All, is a lighter romance set in the world of wedding planning. A strong theme throughout is how planning a wedding is the construction of the perfect love story.

Exactly. The best part of relationships is the very beginning. It’s funny, I’ve often made this parallel with writing. The first 50 pages of writing a book is usually so fun in some ways because it’s brand-new. I would say it’s like falling in love. It’s like you have a crush and everything about it is perfect and there’s all this potential. And then you hit the point where, okay, so maybe it’s not so perfect; maybe there are a couple of things you do that are annoying, but I still love you! It’s still fun and everything. Then you get to about page 125 and you’re like, all right, we’re either going to break up or we’re going to try to get through this.

This book was a really hard one to write. This time last year I was getting to ready to buckle down and trying to finish it and I was not sure I was going to be able to do it. There are some books you finish and you cross the finish line cheering and feel great about it. And some books you finish and you’re crawling across and slapping your hand over the finish line and collapse. Some marathon runners have to be carried across—that’s how I felt when I finished this book. I did not feel good about it. Then I remembered my experience with Just Listen, which is one of my most popular books. I felt terrible when I finished it, too. I’ve learned that I can’t really trust my own perspective at all. I usually just need to take a break and then go back and look at it again, and usually it’s not as bad as I thought it was.

The Edwards Award is for a lasting contribution to young adult literature, so if you could choose, how would you want to be remembered? What would you like to be your legacy?

The highest praise for me is when someone says, ‘You just understand me,’ ‘This is exactly how I feel,’ ‘This is exactly how my school is, how my friends are.’ It’s the sense that I got something right…that something I wrote resonates with people in the way that the [books I read] shaped me.

That’s the legacy for me, that someone was given solace at some point. When people say, ‘Your books got me through high school,’ that makes it all worthwhile. That my books provided comfort at a time when it was really needed. I think that to me, that’s the best I could ever hope for. Cause that’s what books have done for me. And every time I hear from someone that something resonated or they were going through a hard time, that to me is what really matters.

Joy Piedmont is a librarian at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School.

The Margaret A. Edwards Award

Committee selected seven titles to include in their citation. They are The Truth About Forever, Dreamland, This Lullaby, Along for the Ride, Keeping the Moon, What Happened to Goodbye, and Just Listen, all published by Viking. All of the books feature engaging, multifaceted, contemporary characters and highlight the many complexities teens face today.

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Comments

  1. This was such a lovely interview! Thank you SLJ and thank you Sarah Dessen for this. It made my day a little brighter.

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