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Banned Books Week: Someting About Sarah Dessen

Six years ago I was back in school. I was amazed at how well I was doing; I was getting all A's in my classes, I made friends, and people were asking me to be in their groups in classes. One of the groups was to show how teenagers are in their growth patterns, behavior, etc. For some reason I was drawn to doing a report on teenagers rather than toddlers or school age kids. I couldn't explain it, but I knew I had to.

Our group was pretty much all the A and B+ students, so we were all pretty driven. I volunteered to bring teen books to the presentation for decoration or I could read from them. Except for a couple of Judy Blume and Cynthia D. Grant books, it had been years since I read any YA books. The group loved it and said yes. I trooped over to the library and I got Judy Blume and Cynthia Voigt right away. I knew I needed to get other YA books, so I glanced at a shelf Young Adult services librarian Linda Phillips put together of up and coming YA authors. One of them was Sarah Dessen.

I looked at the book, remembering Dessen's name because she had (still has) a popular blog. I was struck at how young Dessen was (Dessen is two years older than me) checked out three of her books. Each day I had two hour breaks during classes, so I decided to read the books.

I finished the three books in two weeks. I was amazed by Dessen's writing. It was so crisp and so funny. She managed to write about several different main characters and they were all different: Halley, a girl who is fighting with her mother and falls for a "bad" boy, yet also supports her pregnant best friend; Colie, a girl who had the awful nick name "hole in one" for being "easy" yet manages to find her self esteem and dignity back when she visits her aunt in a beach town; Cass, a girl devestated when her older sister runs away and gets in an abusive relationship, yet tries to carve out a  desire to become a photographer. These girls were flawed, funny, and relatable. When I was done with the third book, I thought: Wow, I've just read the woman who's going to be the next Judy Blume to so many girls.

Something else clicked in me reading Dessen's work. For years, I wrote about teenage girls. Since I've stayed in the area where I grew up, I could always relate to teenage girls. I'm still close to my best friend from high school, and at the store I usually would see one person working there or shopping. Teachers always said I could write YA books. I was scared though. I never liked labels, I preferred it that I wrote for everyone. Honestly, I still do. However reading Dessen's work and seeing how she did it, I felt something stir in me. I remembered how I felt so many writers saved me while growing up-Blume, Beverly Cleary, Cynthia Grant, Cynthia Voigt...all of them YA writers. I kept on thinking of when Anne Lamott decided she knew she was a Christian when she opened the door and said "Fuck it, I quit. You can come in now." Okay, my moment wasn't as profane and funny as hers, but it was pretty similar. After I read another Dessen books, I sighed, then said "Okay, God, if I meant to write for YA, let it happen. I give up."

That's how it's been for six years, although now I'm writing essays as well. Sometimes I get panicky; what if I can't find an agent that publishes YA and essays? I read the article Jessica Barksdale read about publishing pretty much becoming like the ice caps and I think crud, what is going to happen. I then take a deep breath, and proceed to write. It's all you can do.

Back to Sarah Dessen: it was only a matter of time she would be banned, and it happened last year with her novel Just Listen.  The book deals with a attempted sexual assualt. A parent in Florida found the book in her daughter's backpack,and started to read the book, shocked at the content. She took the book to a school committee meeting and read the passage to them, and one of the committee members stopped her, saying the passage was "repulsive." However, I've read the book, and this passage is two pages, yes two pages, in a 200+ page book, which also deals with the narrator Annabel making new friends after being shunned by her old crowd of friends, trying to figure out her place in her family, and returning affections to a new boy in her life.

To their credit, the people in the Florida school read the book over winter break, and were amazed by the writing and said the book could stay. However, what about the next time?

I don't know. I'm sure Dessen doesn't know either. From her blog she seems like a nice woman who loves movies and music and is delighted by her baby daughter. This is not a woman who doesn't want to warp teen's minds. She just wants to tell good stories. By all means, we should let her.