Columns > Published on June 26th, 2015

My Summer of Sarah Dessen

When it comes to long, sultry nights and first kisses on the beach, no author does summertime quite like Sarah Dessen. With her latest novel, Saint Anything, released this past May, I was prompted to go back and re-read her impressive backlist.

Sure, she’s known for her light, contemporary young adult romances, but there’s more to Sarah Dessen than ice cream cones on the boardwalk. As I go back through her novels, I am finding big takeaways in each one. Not to mention the fact that Dessen knows her way around the tastes of summer. Besides imparting important life lessons, she also leaves readers ravenous.

Now is a great time to get re-acquainted with the Queen of Summer and learn a thing or two along the way. Here are valuable takeaways from each of her twelve novels, along with a recommended food and/or beverage pairing for each. You know, just to get the whole experience.

1. 'That Summer'

About the Book: In That Summer, we meet 15-year-old Haven McPhail, who is struggling to cope with her father’s remarriage to Lorna the Weather Pet, her sister’s engagement to a man Haven feels is a poor match, and changes in her best friend Casey’s personality. Haven yearns to go back to a more stable time, and when her sister’s ex-boyfriend Sumner Lee comes back into her life, she is flooded with memories. But Haven doesn’t know everything there is to know about her sister’s relationship with Sumner, and when Haven finds out the truth, her outlook on life is changed.

Valuable Takeaway: Memories are fallible, and first loves are forever.

Even though the first love in this book actually belongs to Haven’s sister, the impact of that relationship has shaped the way that Haven looks at men and life in general for years to come. This proves the fact that first loves are critical and their influence is far reaching. And this book also reminds me that even our most ingrained memories are imperfect. What we might see so clearly in our minds after the fact is often a clouded version of what actually happened.

What to Eat: Cheese, of course. There is a brilliant scene in the book where Sumner lands a commercial gig after eating samples outside of the Cheesables shop and exclaiming, “This is the best cheese I’ve ever eaten!” for a waiting camera crew. You can choose whatever cheese you like best, but you get bonus points for using Sumner’s famous line while eating.

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2. 'Someone Like You'

About the Book: Someone Like You is the story of best friends Halley and Scarlett, and the summer that changes everything for them. It is difficult enough that they lose classmate (and Scarlett’s crush) Michael Sherwood in a tragic motorcycle accident, but when Scarlett realizes that her one time being intimate with Michael has left her pregnant and grieving, Halley must rally to keep her best friend afloat, all while navigating the muddy waters of her own first serious relationship with Macon.

Valuable Takeaway: You can do anything with a lifelong best friend at your side.

All of Dessen’s novels feature a friendship story at heart, but none more so than Someone Like You, where we learn that life will always throws you curveballs, and things will always get difficult, but as long as you have a true ally on your side, anything is possible. Halley and Scarlett do not always see eye to eye, and their lives quickly go in very different directions in this heart wrenching story, but it is ultimately their connection to one another that makes things okay.

What to Eat: Candy, especially Jolly Ranchers. Macon is forever slipping Halley different types of candy in this book, and has candy wrappers littering his car. There is an adorable scene towards the beginning of the book involving a Jolly Rancher that will leave you craving one of the watermelon or green apple variety.

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3. 'Keeping The Moon'

About the Book: In Keeping the Moon, Colie is sent to live with her eccentric aunt Mira while her infomercial star mother tours Europe. Having lived her life as an outcast, Colie is surprised to fall into an easy friendship with Morgan and Isabel when she lands a job at the Last Chance Café. Together, the girls help Colie navigate the emotions of first love with artsy Norman, and realize the potential she had in her all along.

Valuable Takeaway: “Everything, and everyone, has its purpose.” -Mira

This valuable life lesson comes from Colie’s unconventional aunt Mira herself, who is constantly scouring thrift sales to find oddities that she can bring home and fix up, often to varying degrees of actual success. But it doesn’t matter. Mira teaches Colie, and Colie teaches us, that nothing in life is superfluous. Every thing we encounter, including other people, has a purpose in our lives. We just need to look a little closer sometimes to find the reason.

What to Eat: Standard beach food, and lots of it. Colie gets a job working at the Last Chance, where she gets to enjoy all the foods her heath-conscious mother has banned from her life. After reading about Last Chance, you’ll be dying for fried seafood, burgers, onion rings, and other beachside restaurant fare.

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4. 'Dreamland'

About the Book: Dreamland takes a turn for the darker side of young adult life in depicting a dangerous romance between Caitlin and Rogerson. Being with Rogerson makes Caitlin forget about her troubles at home until it becomes clear that his own dark family life has led him down a path of destruction. Suddenly Caitlin finds herself in an abusive relationship with no way out.

Valuable Takeaway: Art heals.

In this novel, Caitlin loses sense of self in the worst way possible as she finds herself caught in an ongoing cycle of physical abuse, but it is a photography course that she reluctantly takes with her mother and loving neighbor Boo that heals her in amazing ways. As the abuse becomes more intense, Caitlin falls away from photography just as she shies away from friends and family, but in the end, in recovery, she comes back to it and the art heals her. It is a wonderful reminder of the incredible healing power of the arts.

What to Eat: Clark bars. Caitlin’s best friend Rina soothes her frayed nerves and teaches Caitlin the normal phases of pining for a boy while consuming massive amounts of chocolate Clark bars. After reading this scene, not only will you know that boys are super complicated, you’ll also be hankering for a candy bar yourself.

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5. 'This Lullaby'

About the Book: In This Lullaby, we meet Remy, who is known for her revolving door of past boyfriends. It’s easy for her to say goodbye, after learning all she knows about love from her mother, who is on husband number five. But when Remy meets Dexter, everything she knows about love and relationships gets thrown into question.

Valuable Takeaway: You cannot plan for love.

In this novel, Remy is a pro when it comes to breaking up. She lets boys get only so close before giving them the brush off and sending them on their way. After seeing her romance novelist mother go through husband after husband, she believes this is the best policy. But all of sudden she meets Dexter and he proves to her that you can plan your life and you can manage your feelings, but only up to a point. This book teaches me that even with the best of intentions toward the contrary, true love will sneak up on you and change absolutely everything.

What to Eat: Technically this isn’t a food, but This Lullaby will leave you dying for an ice cold Coke, the larger the better. The group of teens in this novel spends a lot of time hanging out or stopping by the local Quick Zip, where they all buy snacks and, most importantly, an extra large Zip Coke. Don’t feel bad about wanting to add a splash of rum to your ice cold Coke—Remy does it too!

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6. 'The Truth About Forever'

About the Book: In The Truth About Forever, Macy’s got her summer plans all laid out, taking over her perfect boyfriend’s perfect library job, and she has no intentions of shaking things up. After the death of her father, Macy has fallen into the habit of perfection to please those around her, from her very meticulous boyfriend to her extremely busy mother. Perfect is important to Macy, so why does the total chaos of Wish Catering appeal to her? Taking on a second summer job with Wish opens Macy up to a whole new world where she finds herself amongst the company of Delia, Bert, Monica, Kristy, and the very dreamy Wes. If Macy has the perfect boyfriend, why is she so drawn to Wes with his tattoos and artistic skill? A summer of the unexpected is just what Macy needs to break free from her grief and find that maybe perfection isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Valuable Takeaway: Perfection is overrated.

This novel teaches us that the constant need to attain perfection is not only tiring—it’s highly overrated. Macy spends a good portion of this book trying to be the perfect girl to overcome for a moment in her past, but the whole endeavor leaves her miserable. When she accepts the joyful chaos of Wish Catering into her life and begins to see the beauty in the imperfect, she blossoms and life becomes vibrant for her once again. The book reminds us all that it’s okay to yearn for a better life, but it’s also okay to enjoy the messiness of it too.

What to Eat: Waffles! Wes introduces Macy to the World of Waffles, where she eats the best waffle she’s ever had, and after reading about her hot, buttered waffle doused in just the right amount of sweet syrup, you’ll be ready for breakfast yourself.

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7. 'Just Listen'

About the Book: One year ago, Annabel had everything; evidenced by the part she played in a television commercial for Kopf’s Department store. Fast-forward a year and Annabel is just the opposite. An awful event at a party has left her with no friends, and her home life is a mess with her anorexic sister and overbearing mother. When Annabel meets tall, dark, and music-obsessed Owen Armstrong, she finds the strength to face what happened the night she lost her best friend.

Valuable Takeaway: Don’t stay silent—finding your voice is the path to liberation.

In this novel, Annabel allows the events of a horrible night to silence her, forcing her to face family dramas and the day-to-day life of a teenager alone. When she meets Owen, he slowly draws her out of her shell and helps her find her own truth, leading to Annabel finding her voice and standing up for herself. This book teaches us that staying silent can be detrimental to the healing process. It reminds us that when we have the strength to use our voices, we are well on our way to freedom.

What to Eat: Spaghetti. This novel at first doesn’t seem like the book to go to when it comes to food, given the complicated relationship that Annabel’s sister Whitney has with it, but there is a beautiful moment on Whitney’s path to healing where she learns to cook a simple spaghetti dinner that is just beautiful. So sit back, make a huge bowl of comforting pasta, and enjoy this novel.

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8. 'Lock and Key'

About the Book: In Lock and Key, we meet Ruby, who has been living alone in a ramshackle house on the verge of poverty after her mother abandoned her. When authorities find out, she is sent to live with her sister Cora, who she hasn’t seen in ten years. Despite being given everything she could possibly ask for, including a room in Cora’s luxurious house, a fancy private school education, and a promise for the future, Ruby is reluctant to feel at home. When Ruby meets Nate, the sweet boy next door, she finds that she’s not the only one with secrets.

Valuable Takeaway: The concept of family is fluid.

In Lock and Key, Ruby is assigned to do a project on the topic of family and is constantly asking herself and the people around her, what is family? Throughout the book she receives many different answers, but the project teaches us that family can be a complex and fluid term. Cora teaches us that family isn’t something static—it’s ever evolving. And Ruby teaches us that family are the ones who claim us, both in good times and bad. The entire book teaches us that family is what you make it.

What to Eat: Lasagna. In this novel, the lasagna that Ruby’s sister Cora leaves for her to reheat symbolizes a life that Ruby never had; a sort of stability and comfort. After reading about it, you’ll be ready for a homemade cheesy slice of your own.

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9. 'Along for the Ride'

About the Book: In Along For the Ride, Auden has the opportunity to escape the drama of her parent’s divorce and spend a carefree summer with her father and his new family in the charming beach town of Colby. There, she gets a job that introduces her to friends who teach her that it is okay to just unwind a little, and a fellow insomniac boy, Eli who shows her how to be young. Both Eli and Auden are lonely, but together they find joy.

Valuable Takeaway: “What defines you isn’t how many times you crash, but the number of times you get back on the bike." -Adam

In this novel, the valuable life lesson comes from one of Auden’s new friends, Adam. It’s simple, really, and has been said so many times in so many ways, but it all comes down to being the absolute truth. This book teaches us that although we are destined to fail many times, it’s how we bounce back that really matters. We always have the ability to get back up and try again. As Adam wisely tells Auden, “as long as it’s one more, you’re all good.”

What to Eat: This book will just downright make you hungry, and there are two things you’ll want on the menu. The first are onion rings, because we are back at the Last Chance, and when they say they have the “best O rings on the beach,” you’ll want some of your own. The second is pie, because Eli introduces Auden to a sort of underground pie shop (being dished out from a Laundromat, no less) and the descriptions of the sweet and savory pies will have you ready for some dessert.

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10. 'What Happened to Goodbye'

About the Book: In What Happened to Goodbye, McLean reinvents herself so many times in search of who she really is. After her parents’ bitter divorce, she took off with her dad, moving from place to place and becoming someone different in each new place. But on their most recent move, McLean has found a reason to be herself, even if it has become hard to remember exactly who that is. With the help of new friends and a very patient guy next door, McLean learns the meaning of true authenticity.

Valuable Takeaway: Just be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.

In this novel, McLean has spent so much time pretending to be who she thinks people want her to be that she almost forgets what it’s like to just be herself. Playing all of those different roles has left her feeling lost and empty, but when she finds friends who teach her the meaning of being genuine, she really comes around and begins to thrive. This book reminds us of the importance of authentic living and teaches us how things can simply fall into place when we allow our true selves to shine through.

What to Eat: A traditional Southern meal. In this book, McLean goes to a friend’s house for a family dinner where she eats some of the best food she’s ever tasted. (And that’s saying something since she’s grown up in the restaurant business!) After reading this scene, you’ll be dying for a good, old-fashioned Southern cooked meal, including crisp fried chicken, creamy mac and cheese, green beans cooked with pork fat, and fresh baked rolls.

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11. 'The Moon and More'

About the Book: Emaline goes into the last summer before college with the perfect boyfriend and solid plans. Although she struggles with a mostly absent father, she’s happy to be working in the family rental business with her mother, sister, and grandmother. One minute the perfect boyfriend is talking engagement plans and the next he’s cheated on Emaline, leaving her to jump into a new relationship with a super-ambitious outsider who is staying in town. But this new boy has no respect for the small town that Emaline loves and calls home, leaving her to balance where she’s headed with where she’s from.

Valuable Takeaway: There’s more to life than the grand gesture.

When Emaline meets Theo, he is all about the grand gesture. Every date is more elaborate than the last, and he is very focused on having the Best Night ever, every time. At first Emaline is touched and flattered by all of the attention, but after a while she realizes that some of her best moments aren’t all about that big, grand gesture. At one point in the book, Emaline teaches us that in reality, everything can’t be the best. As she tells us, “sometimes, when it came to events and people, it has to be okay to just be.” And that is a reminder we can all use.

What to Eat: Shrimp burgers and Cheez Doodles. Colby is home of some of the best shrimp burgers around, and they are a favorite of the locals who live there. According to Emaline’s perfect boyfriend Luke, the best ones are “not too bready, light on the cocktail sauce.” But be sure to grab a snack first, because hearing Emaline wax poetic about the perfect Cheez Doodle will surely leave you hungry.

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12. 'Saint Anything'

About the Book: Sydney has always lived in the shadow of charismatic older brother Peyton, consigned to the fate of being invisible. When Peyton’s increasingly questionable behavior results in a terrible accident that paralyzes a young boy, he lands in prison, leaving Sydney to search for her own place in the family. Sydney is overcome with guilt for the young victim of the accident and worries about how everyone seems to be more concerned for Peyton. When she meets Layla Chatham and her warm, and chaotic family, she feels accepted for the first time. And when she develops feeling for Layla’s older brother Mac, their relationship brings her from invisible to seen.

Valuable Takeaway: “It’s not only important for us to be seen, but to have someone to look for us, as well.” –Sydney

 Seeing Sydney navigate her life as someone always under the radar and torn between wanting to be understood and wanting to hide, we learn the importance of being seen. Towards the end of the book she realizes that it’s not just about feeling invisible- it’s about having someone look for you too. When Mac tells her that she has never been invisible to him, and she begins to feel accepted by both the Chathams and her own family, we learn the importance of having someone look out for you.

What to Eat: This choice is a no-brainer. After reading Saint Anything, you will be dying for an extra large slice of greasy cheese pizza, which is Sydney’s favorite food. To go along with your slice, you’ll want to get French fries to honor Layla and her unorthodox way of eating them. She’s a frites connoisseur, and the endless descriptions of various fries in this book will leave you starving. For desert, grab a lollipop, and earn bonus points if you can find a cotton candy or bubblegum, since everyone knows those are the ones that go first.

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For my Summer of Sarah Dessen, I went back and read each book in order of publication, and presented them that way here, which was a wonderful way to see how her writing and style developed over time. Reading them in order, you have the added bonus of catching all of the wonderful cameos that Dessen inserts into future books, revisiting characters you have met before and come to love. However, if I had to suggest a book to start with if you’ve never read her, I’d begin with The Truth About Forever. It’s everything Sarah Dessen is known for and excels at, and I feel like it is the perfect book to begin your journey.

About the author

Riki has a long-standing love affair with all things books and writing. She indulged her love for all things literary with a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University and is currently studying at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Although she is well past her own teen years, Riki’s reading passion lies with Young Adult literature where she devours books that handle the “firsts” in life. When not reading and writing she can be found yelling at the television while watching sports.

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