High school. It's the best time of a young person's life, right? That's what people say. It's when you make great friends, have a social life (finally), and become more independent thanks to that new driver's license.
Sarah Dessen, who writes novels for teens, set me straight on the topic of the supposed "bestness" of the high school years. "I don't agree with that. That's said by somebody who's looking back and not remembering how your body, life and friends change. They think you didn't have to worry about the mortgage or child care, or how you're going to put food on the table. But I never felt that way," Ms. Dessen said in a phone interview.
In fact, she emphasized that in her fiction, "I've made a point of saying the opposite. You're not supposed to have it all figured out in high school. If you knew it all, and it was the best, it's all downhill from there."
Ms. Dessen is author of 11 novels for teens, such as "Just Listen" and "The Truth About Forever." The 2009 film "How to Deal," starring Mandy Moore, was based on two of her novels, "Someone Like You" and "That Summer."
Her fiction often features teens who struggle with serious issues such as their parents' divorce and remarriage, sexual assault, and balancing parental expectations with a growing sense of individuality. There's romance in Ms. Dessen's fiction, but the development of the female protagonist takes center stage.
Ms. Dessen appears Friday at 7 p.m. in the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series Black, White & Read All Over. Her appearance will be followed by refreshments and a book signing in the Carnegie library.
Some critics call her a "rock star of young adult literature."
"It's very flattering, but at the same time if you knew me and what a big hot mess I am, you'd laugh," Ms. Dessen said. "I don't live in New York or California. I'm in the grocery store, at the park with my kids, and I'm a normal person. I'm feeding my chickens and agonizing about my next book!"
Her most recent novel, "What Happened to Goodbye," features Mclean, a high school senior who, as a result of her parents' very messy divorce, has not only moved four times in three years, but also has become a different person with each of those moves.
Mclean's mother left her father for the local college's celebrity basketball coach and soon after became pregnant with twins. Mclean shuts her mother out and lives with her father, who moves from town to town, renovating struggling restaurants. In each town, Mclean reinvents herself: She is Lizbet, drama queen who wears a lot of black, and then Eliza, a popular kid who hangs out with jocks. In another town, she's Beth, student council secretary and "all around joiner."
When the novel opens, readers encounter Mclean as she just arrives at her fourth town, unsure of who she'll be this time around. After she meets Dave, the super smart boy next door, she does something unexpected: she quits the act and starts to be just herself. Even though it's the last few months of senior year, Mclean constructs a community of new friends as she repairs her estranged relationship with her mother.
Ms. Dessen said that she got the idea to write about Mclean because she always envied people who were able to move around and reinvent themselves. "I grew up in Chapel Hill [N.C.] and have lived here my whole life. I always wished I could move around and switch schools. It was hard to have these radical transformations. You'd think, 'I will be a totally different person tomorrow,' but it never worked. I loved the idea of being able to put on a different face, and part of it was not being able to fess up to your real self, and not being able to deal with your past," she said.
There's a lot of tension between mothers and daughters in Ms. Dessen's fiction; these tensions were made all the more complex when she became a mother five years ago. "I've changed in my sympathies since I've become a mother myself. In high school I went through a period where I was close with my mom and had to break with her in order to find myself and come back. Since that was my experience, that's often what happens in my books. It's the coming back together that makes each realize that the other person is not perfect," she said.
Because her fiction delves deep into teen girls' relationships with their mothers, it's not surprising that her books are so popular with mother/daughter book clubs.
"Emotions run high with moms and daughters. Often, if mothers and daughters can't see eye to eye, reading is something they can do together. It's different to discuss how they feel than about what a character does.
"The girls see something different in the books than the moms," Ms. Dessen said. "The moms get the overprotectiveness. The girl feels stifled and needs certain experiences [that the mother tries to prevent]. It's safer to talk about these feelings in fiction; it's one step removed."
Julie Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about parenting and children's literature at www.instantlyinterruptible.com. First Published January 16, 2013 5:00 AM