Given her youthful appearance and complete lack of attitude, it's difficult to believe that Sarah Dessen has been publishing books for a decade. Dessen, who is 35, started early. Her first novel, That Summer, was released not long after she graduated from college, and since then, six titles have followed, five of which have been named Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association. That Summer, along with Dessen's second novel, Someone Like You, provided the basis for the popular 2003 movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore.
"It's gotten harder as I've gotten older," Dessen says of the writing process. "Maybe I just had more energy when I first started, but I'd also like to think there's more going on in the books now, that they're becoming more complex." There's plenty happening in her new novel, Just Listen, a fast-moving, often lyrical narrative about sisterhood and self-esteem that demonstrates the author's intuitive understanding of the pressures of adolescence. The book is sure to please the legions of readers 1,200 a day who visit Dessen's website to check out the blog she posts from her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
"With Just Listen, I wanted to explore the drive for perfection that's so typical in teenage girls today," Dessen says. "Why do girls feel they have to look perfect, make perfect grades, make everything appear effortless? I wanted to explore the roots of that stress."
An image provided Dessen with the inspiration for the novel. Flipping through a high school yearbook, she came across a photograph of three beautiful girls, obviously sisters, and had what she terms a knee-jerk reaction to the picture, automatically assuming the flawless-looking trio led perfect lives. In the new novel, she wanted to depict the flip side of that scenario to portray characters who appeared to have it all, but in reality were struggling just like everyone else.
Just Listen features Annabel, Whitney and Kirsten Greene, three very different sisters who work as part-time models. While the girls have a solid family life a fussy but well-intentioned mother; a successful father who's an architect their lives are far from tranquil. Reserved Whitney, the oldest sibling, has an eating disorder. Kirsten, the loud-mouthed middle sister, is desperately trying to find herself. And then there's Annabel, the novel's narrator, the youngest of them all and a quiet-natured observer. "I fell somewhere between my sisters and their strong personalities, the very personification of the vast gray area that separated them," Annabel says.
A new school year is beginning, and Annabel, who is in 10th grade, finds herself completely alone, thanks to a falling-out over the summer with her best friend, Sophie. One of the most popular girls in school, Sophie is brash and brave gutsy enough to go for cute senior Will Cash. But her involvement with Will leads to big trouble, with repercussions that affect Annabel and others.
Through the use of flashbacks, Dessen builds suspense, hinting at the conflict between Annabel and Sophie, which isn't fully revealed until late in the book. Structuring the novel was tricky, she says, but writing about Whitney's problem was even more challenging.
"When you're writing about a delicate subject like an eating disorder, you really have to be cautious," Dessen says. "A certain responsibility comes with presenting a subject like that. You have to make sure you put it out there in the best way possible."
After so much success so early in her career, what's next for Dessen? "I don't know if I'll write for teenagers forever," she says. "I'd like to write for an older audience, maybe essays or short stories. But the young adult readers are so devoted and genuinely affected by the books. There's a passion there I'm not sure I would find other places, so I won't be going anywhere anytime soon."