Nearly 20 years ago, Sarah Dessen had a newly minted college degree in creative writing, a job as a personal assistant to author Lee Smith and a desperate desire to get published.
After Dessen received numerous rejections of her first novel, Smith asked her agent to look at Dessen’s writing. The agent particularly liked a manuscript featuring a 15-year-old narrator, telling Dessen that it would make a great teen novel.
“I said, ‘No, I’m a serious writer!’” Dessen laughed in a recent telephone interview from her home in Chapel Hill, N.C. “But she sold it as a young-adult book, and I’m so glad she did. I can’t imagine a better place for me to be.”
Dessen’s millions of fans would likely agree. Since her first book, “That Summer,” was published in 1996, Dessen has built a solid reputation as a novelist whose realistic fiction rings true for teens. The Los Angeles Times has called Dessen “a rock star in young-adult fiction.”
More than 8 million copies of Dessen’s books are in print, and her books have been translated into 25 languages. Dessen’s first book was combined with her second, “Someone Like You,” to become the basis for a 2003 film, “How to Deal,” starring actress Mandy Moore.
Now Dessen has just published her 11th book, “The Moon and More” (Viking, $19.99, ages 12 up), which also tackles tough issues via a page-turning story, compelling characters, and plenty of humor and romance.
This time, the main character is a girl named Emaline, who has grown up in the beach town of Colby. Emaline has just graduated from high school and is working in her family’s rental-property business for the summer before heading off to college in the fall with longtime boyfriend Luke.
In fact, it seems that Emaline’s life has all been laid out neatly for her. Then, everything is suddenly upended by the arrival of her birth father, from whom she is basically estranged, and her 10-year-old half brother, Benji.
The birth father, whose summer romance with Emaline’s mother resulted in Emaline’s birth, had wanted his daughter to attend an Ivy League college. When Emaline actually is accepted at an Ivy League university, however, he tells her he can’t afford to pay for her to go there.
When her birth father arrives in Colby with Benji, Emaline has just made peace with the fact that she will be attending the local university. So it’s particularly hard at that point for Emaline to see her birth father, who has been absent for most of her life and is now going through a difficult divorce.
As if that weren’t enough change, things get even more complex when Emaline meets Theo, a recent college graduate and aspiring filmmaker from New York City.
Theo is working in Colby for the summer on a documentary, and takes it upon himself to widen what he believes is Emaline’s too-narrow perspective on the world.
The summer thus becomes a true crossroads for Emaline. Her life, which once seemed so certain, now is filled with change, and Emaline must figure out for herself just who she is and where’s she’s going.
“When you graduate from high school, everybody tells you, ‘You’ve got your whole life ahead of you,’” Dessen said.
“Well, when you’re age 18 and suddenly you’re faced with the first real choices to make about your life, it can seem overwhelming.
“I wanted to write about that sense of expectation and what it’s like to be there. ... And I also wanted to write a summer book.”
Dessen said she’s been a bit nervous about whether readers will like the way that Emaline eventually works things out for herself.
Writing “The Moon and More” also involved stretching herself as a writer, Dessen added.
“There was a lot of juggling, a lot of people and plotlines and threads to keep track of. It wasn’t easy, but I’m really happy with it.”
Dessen, 43, says she herself wasn’t much of a student in high school. As she told a crowd of readers in Pittsburgh at a January event reported by Publishers Weekly: “I find it ironic that I now spend half my day with one foot back in high school. I drive by my high school every day when I take my daughter to preschool.”
Dessen is cognizant that her readers are mainly female, something that doesn’t faze her.
But she bristles a bit when her books are casually referred to “chick lit,” especially since she has won consistent critical acclaim.
“I don’t call it ‘chick lit,’” Dessen said, adding that, while her books may include romance, “there’s a lot of other things going on in them.”
Dessen already is at work on her next book.
She doesn’t use an outline but always starts with a “skeleton — first scene, the last scene, the climactic scene and the first sentence.”
And while Dessen “would never say never” about writing a book for adults, she is committed to writing for teens, whose enthusiasm for her work, she says, fuels her inspiration.
“I did a reading recently where someone came up to me and said, ‘I started reading your books when I was 12. I’m 22 now and I’m still finding something in them,’” Dessen said. Given such devotion from her readers, “I count my lucky stars every day.”
Karen MacPherson, the children’s/teen librarian at the Takoma Park (Maryland) Library, can be reached at Kam. Macpherson@gmail.com.
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