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Book Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

In Sarah Dessen’s latest novel, Saint Anything, we meet main character Sydney at a turning point in her life. Her brother Peyton, in and out of trouble since middle school, has just been sentenced to time in prison for a drunk driving accident that severely injured another teen boy. Sydney’s parents, especially her mother, are devastated that their son will have to spend time in prison. Sydney is devastated that because of her brother, a young man her age will never walk again. Unable to face returning to her private day school where everyone knows both her brother and his fate, Sydney has decided to enroll in the local public school for her junior year. Adrift in a sea of new faces and reluctant to head home to an empty house after school, she chooses to go for a slice of pizza at a local restaurant, where she meets and is quickly befriended by the Chatham family, who own the pizza parlor. Two of the Chathams, Mac and Layla, are fellow students at Sydney’s new school, and she is quickly enfolded into their circle of friends, which includes an entitled, self-styled musical genius, and a giant young black man who plays football. The Chathams know nothing about Sydney’s life or family and she initially prefers it that way. Gradually, she reveals more about herself and is relieved to find that the Chathams still warmly accept her, having family issues of their own.

Honestly, this novel seemed much longer than it was, in the best of possible ways. Dessen is a gifted author with the ability to speak volumes through her characters’ brief observations and opinions. She brilliantly to shows us how intensely creepy the ‘bad guy’ (Ames) of the story is, not through describing him but through other characters’ reactions to him. Much of the undercurrent of Sydney’s story – one of a girl who has lived in the shadow of her older brother’s magnetic personality her whole life finally realizing herself as a person – revolves around the complex Ames. A former addict himself, Ames became friends with Peyton during one of his stays in a rehabilitation facility. He worms his way into every aspect of Sydney’s family’s life through manipulation that her parents seem not to see until it is almost too late.

Like all of Dessen’s novels, there is so much to this story – and so much of it happens so subtly as to almost go unnoticed. This work, in particular, is very quiet. Characters are so well developed that they are as familiar as one’s own family and friends. Most readers will easily see themselves in Sydney, a girl who feels invisible and is brought into her own by the love and acceptance of her flawed but wonderful new friends. It has been quite some time since I’ve read a novel where I was so easily absorbed into the story and felt so much as if I were there, one of Sydney’s new crowd, along for the ride. It is the work of a gifted story teller.

It is also a novel I am eager to put into the hands of my students. My hope is that many of them will be able to relate to one or more of the main characters and see the others for the well drawn portraits of familiar people in their lives. As well, I hope that the realistic but nonjudgemental portrayal of the issues that teens must deal with will help them to both navigate their own lives successfully and have empathy for others who are navigating their own issues. I highly recommend this book to any collection serving teen readers. Dessen has earned her star reputation for good reason.

Full disclosure, Sarah Dessen is local to me and I had the opportunity to see her at my local book store for this book tour. She is just as lovely and real in person as her books suggest. If you haven’t had a chance to read her recent essay in Seventeen Magazine, please go do so now. Also, we have an extra copy to give away! Enter our drawing for your own copy of Saint Anything!

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Sarah Dessen, on SAINT ANYTHING and more

Karen meets Sarah Dessen!!

Last night I had the honor of meeting author Sarah Dessen at the flagship Half Price Books in Dallas, Texas. She is out on tour promoting her 12th YA novel, SAINT ANYTHING. SAINT ANYTHING is the story of Sydney, a teenage girl whose family is kind of floundering as her brother is convicted for a drunk driving accident that has left another boy, David Ibarra, paralyzed. After changing schools, in part because she wants a chance to start over where no one knows her and her brother’s shadow doesn’t loom large over her, Sydney becomes friends with a girl named Layla and begins to fall for her brother Mac. This story of family, friendship, and the quest to find yourself in the shadow of those around you is moving, poignant and a spot on portrayal of teenage life. Which of course is no surprise to fans of Sarah Dessen; she writes touching portrayals of teenage life that capture an authentic look into the struggles of adolescence and self acceptance. And the relationships in SAINT ANYTHING – mother daughter, girl friends, romantic – they are deep, rich, and moving.

The Tween, Caron Ervin and Mary Hinson before the event.

Before the event I had the opportunity to meet briefly with Dessen to discuss SAINT ANYTHING. There are some moments in SAINT ANYTHING that really fall into the Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature Project (The #SVYALit Project) that I was anxious to talk about. While in prison Syndey’s brother Peyton befriends a young man named Ames. Ames weedles his way into the family as an advocate and confidante to their mother, but I think most women quickly recognize that Ames has some inappropriate feelings towards the younger and more vulnerable Sydney. Dessen wrote about her own personal life experience with an older man similar to Ames in Seventeen Magazine, an experience that helped inform the Ames storyline in SAINT ANYTHING:

But the idea of T. feeling the same way about me made me shudder. He was a big brother, someone to pal around with. Hearing that he wanted more felt like wading into the deep end. Just like that, you lose your footing, and you’re in over your head.

And later in the article . . .

As I got older, however, the more I realized that my experience was not an uncommon one. It seemed just about every woman I knew had a similar story, a time when wanting attention meant getting the wrong kind entirely. As a teen wishing to be an adult, it is easy to get in over your head. Especially for girls, who are often taught that being polite and sweet should override all other instincts. It was with this in mind that I began my narrator Sydney’s story in Saint Anything.

In our one on one conversation and then later during the event Sarah Dessen spoke about this event and the Ames storyline, about how important it is that women – that teenage girls – know that it is okay to trust their instincts about the guys who seem “creepy” and that they have a right to draw boundaries around themselves to protect themselves. She shared how the article in Seventeen magazine had taken on a life of its own and so she felt she needed to let her mom know that it was out there. After reading it her mom said that she was glad Sarah listened to her when she said a guy that age had no business being around a girl her age. That, too, is an important message. We’re so often busy telling girls to be nice that we forget to tell them that it’s okay to say no, and you don’t need to explain yourself.

Sarah Dessen and The Tween

This led to a discussion about mother-daughter relationships, something that take prime real estate in SAINT ANYTHING. There are two families in this story, both of whom have married, involved and loving parents. Not perfect parents mind you, because no parents are perfect, but they are doing their best. Syndney’s mother is super involved and organized, operating out an office that Sydney and her brother call “the war room”. In comparison, Layla’s mother is more laid back, but she also has a slowly debilitating case of MS which is a specter that hangs over her family. There are late night scares that result in ER visits, and the sadness that sometimes overtakes her new friends as they wrestle with seeing their mother struggle with moments of pain. Dessen talked about how her mother was a dynamic, multifaceted character in her own life and how she wanted to portray that in her novel, allowing the parents to be an essential force in SAINT ANYTHING as parents often are in the life of teens off the page.

We then went on to talk about Peyton. Sydney initially views her older brother a this big, fearless, unrepentant character. She feels like she alone must shoulder the guilt of what happened to David Ibarra, with everyone else so focused on Peyton and what life in prison must be like for him. But when Sydney finally starts to talk to her brother on the phone, she begins to realize that no two people see events the same way, that her brother views himself and her memories – the moments that make them – quite differently than she does. In our conversation, Dessen talked about how she grew up knowing a lot of boys like Peyton, boys who seemed to have every advantage afforded to them but they just seemed to seek out trouble.

During the event, when Dessen opened it up to Q&As, a teen asked her about reading DREAMLAND, which is one of my favorite Sarah Dessen books. Typically considered the darkest of her books, it is the first YA novel I remember reading about domestic violence. I was glad to hear this teen asking about it, to know that teens are still finding and reading this title. Now in its 9th edition, it still resonates, reminding girls everywhere some relationships can be unhealthy, what that can look like, and that no one deserves to be in that kind of relationship. Caitlin’s story has always haunted me.

At the event there was also a beautiful model of a carousel made out of book pages. The carousel depicts the cover of the book, appearing in the story as one of the magical life moments that you know you will remember forever. Sarah Dessen shared a picture of the carousel on her Instagram:

I was also very honored because I had the opportunity to take The Tween with me, and she also sat in on the interview. Then later, Sarah went on to speak about her books and how she herself growing up was shy, often overshadowed, and sometimes difficult. She talked about how when her publisher asked her to write This Lullably, about Remy the girl who was the vibrant one of the group of friends, she didn’t think she could do it because she has never been that girl. Driving home after the event The Tween started crying. When I asked her why she said, “I felt like she was talking about me, right to me. I always feel so shy and like everyone around me shines and I’m hiding in the background. But look at her, she’s written all these amazing books and she sat there and talked to us so confidently. Maybe I’ll be okay.” As a mom, as HER mom, I began to cry as well as I was so incredibly thankful that I got to share this moment with my daughter. I not only got to take her with me to meet one of the most influential authors of my YA librarian career, but I got to introduce her to this woman who told her that it’s okay to be the shy, quiet one who sometimes seems to be overshadowed, that you too can shine. Which is kind of the theme of SAINT ANYTHING, this idea that we all want to be noticed and the various things that can happen when we finally are, both good and bad. Sydney is a reminder to teens everywhere that the journey is sometimes bumpy, but eventually you find a way.

Sarah Dessen has shared a lot lately about her struggles as a writer. Although she has 12 books published, she has shared often that she has 13 books that aren’t, books that she called failures at the event. She recently discussed with Entertainment Weekly that she might take a little break from writing, a topic she talked more about last night. SAINT ANYTHING, she says, is the book of her heart. If she never writes another YA novel, she’s okay with this being the last one because she says it speaks to her. And although I also think this would be a good novel to end on if for some reason that proves to be the case, I can’t imagine being a YA librarian without another Sarah Dessen novel to look forward to. For most of my YA librarian career she has always been there, the cornerstone of YA literature. I would hate to think that suddenly we might not keep sharing this journey together. But I did love SAINT ANYTHING and the first thing I thought when I finished it was I can’t wait to share this with my teens and, for the first time ever now that she is getting old enough, my daughter. If this is the last, she would definitely be finishing out on top. But I think one day there will be more, because she’s just too good of a writer for there not to be.

Thank you Sarah, for last night, for this journey, for your books, and for SAINT ANYTHING. Thank you for writing honest, rich, complex and flawed female characters in a world that often wants to make our girls into something else.

About SAINT ANYTHING:

Peyton, Sydney’s charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion’s share of their parents’ attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton’s increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?

Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.

The uber-popular Sarah Dessen explores her signature themes of family, self-discovery, and change in her twelfth novel, sure to delight her legions of fans.

Take 5: My Favorite Friendships

I’m often struck by how beautifully written friendships are in YA. In fact, they are often much more important and detailed than any other personal relationships – dating or family. I suppose it makes sense, since the teen years are a time when we practice separating from our family and are only just learning how to date, that our friendships wold take on primary importance.

Far and away my favorite YA friendship is the one between (capital letters) Will Grayson and Tiny Cooper in John Green and David Levithan’s co-authored Will Grayson, Will Grayson. It is beautiful and sincere and touching as well as hilarious and full of mischief. Will and Tiny are in high school but have been best friends since elementary. It’s hard to explain what is so magical about this relationship. I can only sum it up by saying “Everyone should have a friend like Tiny Cooper.” It’s funny to me that this relationship is almost exclusively portrayed in the John Green written parts of the novel, since I think of David Levithan as being the master of the teenage friendship. Not that John Green is a slacker. Anyway, read it, will you please? Then come back and tell me your favorite part.


Speaking of David Levithan, I can’t leave out his amazing Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. Dash, while described by everyone in the book who meets him as being ‘snarly,’ has a good number of close friends whose fondness for him bely his outward appearance. My favorite of his friendships is with his long-term friend Boomer. Yes, that’s a nickname, but it’s also a description of his personality. Boomer is described as being like a somewhat exciteable retriever. Always bouncing all over the place, and not quite the sharpest knife in the drawer. I love how, even though their paths have diverged widely since they became friends (to call Dash an intellectual would be putting it mildly) Dash regards his friend with the utmost warmth and respect. And you can tell that Boomer feels this deeply, though he only plays a minor role in the novel.

Hidden within the comedic genius of Sarah Rees Brennan’s trope-twisting gothic mystery, Unspoken, is one of the most beautiful, loving girl friendships I’ve ever read. Kami and Angela are almost polar opposites, drawn together by their outsider status, but kept together by their solid love and affection (and their willingness to not just put up with, but embrace, each others idiosyncrasies.) Even though it’s Jared with whom Kami has had a psychic bond since infancy, it’s Angela I can’t imagine her without. I’d expect nothing less from Brennan, however, who is a world-class champion of girl friendships.

Someone Like You may very well have been the first YA novel I read after my move from the elementary library to middle school. I know it was definitely one of the first, and it is the only one I remember from my first whirlwind year learning to cope with the broad span of readers in middle school. My students were somewhat more life savvy than I had been at that age, and were very ready for books involving teenage pregnancy. This is one of the best out there, even after all this time I look to it to appeal to some of my most dedicated non-readers, looking for a story that seems real to them. My favorite thing about it is that it is told through the lens of the friendship between pregnant Scarlett and her BFF Haley, who stands by her side throughout the most difficult experience of either of their young lives.

I hesitate a little to claim that the relationship between narrator Austin Szerba and his best friend Robby Brees is a simple friendship. If you’ve read the book, in Austin’s own words, “You know what I mean.” But, fundamentally, beneath everything else, there is the solid love and affection of friendship that Austin and Robby have for each other. Whether they are suffering the abuse of the brainless jocks who beat them up in the alley they refer to as Grasshopper Jungle, sharing smokes while they contemplate the disastrous lives of the adults they know, or defending the world from an invasion of six foot tall praying mantises, Robby and Austin depend on one another in a beautiful and compelling way.

I highly recommend each of these books for their individual merit, although I think probably only Dash & Lily is what I would refer to as an ‘almost everybody’ book. Each, however, is a beautiful example of the strong emphasis YA places on friendship.

Take 5: Reproductive Rights in YA Lit

Today Christie and I are talking about Reproductive Rights and Abortion in YA literature.  Here is a list of 5 books where teens acknowledge that abortion exists in their world.  Some of them consider it and decide it is not the right option for them, and others do make the choice to terminate their pregnancy.  It is important that a wide variety of discussions and choices and reactions be represented because it reflects the real world, the world teens are living in and allows them to make more informed opinions and choices because it helps them develop a more complete picture.

Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen

“You can’t just plan a moment when things get back on track, just as you can’t plan the moment you lose your way in the first place.” 

Halley has always followed in the wake of her best friend, Scarlett. But when Scarlett learns that her boyfriend has been killed in a motorcycle accident, and that she’s carrying his baby, she’s devastated. For the first time ever, Scarlett really needs Halley. Their friendship may bend under the weight, but it’ll never break–because a true friendship is a promise you keep forever. (Goodreads)

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles

“I stretch my fingers across my belly and glide my hand back and forth, waving softly. Sometimes I think I feel a hand reaching out for mine. Or it could be a foot, kicking my hand away. I wish I could tell the difference.” 

Ellie remembers how the boys kissed her. Touched her. How they begged for more. And when she gave it to them, she felt loved. For a while anyway. So when Josh, an eager virgin with a troubled home life, leads her from a party to the backseat of his van, Ellie follows. But their “one-time thing” is far from perfect: Ellie gets pregnant. Josh reacts with shame and heartbreak, while their confidantes, Caleb and Corinne, deal with their own complex swirl of emotions. No matter what Ellie chooses, all four teenagers will be forced to grow up a little faster as a result. Told alternately from each character’s point of view, this deeply insightful novel explores the aftershocks of the biggest decision of one fragile girl’s life — and the realities of leaving innocence behind. (Goodreads)

Six Rules of Maybe by Deb Caletti

 “A lot of life is just surviving what happens.” 

Scarlett Hughes is overly involved in the lives of everyone around her, and exceptionally interested in the habits of her neighbors. But Scarlett is thrust solidly into her own life when her sister, Juliet, returns home from school—pregnant and surprisingly married to a sweet, handsome man whom she seems to have no interest in, but who is hopelessly in love with her. Forced to take a look inward for the first time, Scarlett discovers the necessity of dreams, as well as the necessity of facing reality and speaking the truth. (Goodreads)

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

“In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world. The problem is people who think it is.”

The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive. (Goodreads)

Dear Cassie by Lisa Burstein

 “Words aren’t magic,” Rawe said, “but talking, opening up can be.”
 

There’s the reason I was sent to Turning Pines in the first place: I got arrested. On prom night. With my two best friends, who I haven’t talked to since and probably never will again. And then there’s the real reason I was sent here. The thing I can’t talk about with the guy I can’t even think about. (Goodreads)

Do you know of other titles where the issues are discussed? Share with us in the comments.