Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sarah Dessen: This generation’s Judy Blume?

If you walk through the young adult section of any bookstore, you won’t be able to miss her books. Sarah Dessen’s books have lovely covers of soft focused girls holding flowers or standing on the dock wearing rolled up blue jeans. They have just as lovely titles like: Just Listen, Keeping the Moon and The Truth About Forever.

They are middle school chick lit…books about girls and problems and relationships and falling in like (as I call it) and worrying about our looks and getting along with mom.

If you want to learn more about Sarah Dessen, check out her web-page and blog at: www.sarahdessen.com. She is hugely popular with the young adult audience and has just published her tenth novel. Sarah never intended to write for teens. Born in Illinois, she grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of two professors. She loved to read and write. She says that, “When I was eight or nine my parents gave me an old manual typewriter and a little desk in the corner of our den, and I'd sit there and type up my stories.”

Sarah’s books are loved by her readers and by major award givers. She has been on the New York Times Bestseller list but has also claimed awards by the American Library Association and School Library Journal. My daughter has already read three books by this author and her books in school library's are known by their well worn covers. There is no doubt she is influencing our young women.

So I decided to read one.

I borrowed The Truth About Forever from my daughter’s bookshelf. It tells the story of Macy, a smart girl who has suffered the tragic and unexpected death of her dad. The story details the summer following this loss where Macy faces troubles with her boyfriend and her mom. She struggles with learning to let go of grief and to also learn how to be a different person, one who has been significantly changed by loss.

Macy’s character is real and engaging. She has those quirks that endear me to characters – the faltering confidence, the longing for love, the parents with strange hobbies. Sarah’s dad loved to send away for telemarketed products called EZ Products – things that promise to change your life (but usually don’t). Part of her struggle with losing her dad revolves around a box of these quirky products that she hides under her bed. “I put the box down, running my finger over the edge. It’s funny what it takes to miss someone . . . every time a box came from Maine, it broke my heart.”

I enjoyed watching Macy learn and grow in her relationships. She finds out that her “perfect” boyfriend is not so perfect. She learns that her mom might not have everything in control. She learns that, just maybe, control is overrated. She makes new friends. She takes chances. She meets a new love.

Yes – there is always a new love. This one will make you sigh. He is perfect and dreamy and artistic and mysterious – this is the guy you always wished you would meet in high school but never did. The character of Wes is almost too good to be true. He is a rebel who has reformed. He has a tender and true heart. This is where the chick lit part kicks in – because Macy’s life’s problems do get solved a bit too easily with the appearance of this marvelous young man.

At times, as a mom, I was frustrated with the portrayal of parenting. The mother is removed and unreasonable. I wanted her to engage and to see her daughter and to talk to her. But, I do realize that this is written from a teen’s perspective. And, as parents, we often fail to listen and to see what our teens are really going through. A good lesson.

There is not too much to be afraid of as far as content goes. My daughter is in 7th grade and reads Sarah’s books. The characters are in high school. There is some sneaking around and the main character goes to a party and drinks a beer. In one scene, she plays a game of quarters and gets drunk. Luckily Wes rescues her and gets her home. Otherwise, there are little consequences to this act…. I worried a bit that this is portrayed as normal.

Sexual content was limited to a kiss at the end of the book. I have not read Sarah's other books, but I do know that this book portrays characters who are a bit more mature than her readers may be. This age/maturity gap is not unusual. I think that my age group read Judy Blume because she introduced us to ideas our parents just didn't talk about. Scary for parents? Yes. But it is also the way teens find out and think about topics as they grow. If your pre-teen is reading Sarah's books, it might be helpful to read one with her and to follow up with a conversation about the content.

Some questions to talk about with your teen who might read this novel:

1) Why does Macy feel the need to be perfect? Why does her mom feel that way too?

2) Can any of us achieve perfection?

3) How do we know what boy might be right for us? What were clues that her relationship with Jason was not the best one?

4) What did you think of Wes and Macy’s game of truth? Do you have anyone who you can ask true questions? Are you comfortable telling the truth with your friends?

5) Should Macy have stayed in the library job? Why does she finally leave?

6) Why do you think Wes creates sculptures? Are his sculptures important to the story? Why?

7) The characters talk a lot about forever? What is more important: now or the future? Do you believe that anything lasts forever?

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