On June 3, Sarah Dessen is releasing her eleventh book, The Moon and More. Though I have loyally read her entire collection several times over, for a long time I thought they were little more than formulaic (if well-written) teen romances. And because the phrase “teen romance” is laughable and wince-worthy in and of itself, I set them aside without much more consideration. But recently, I’ve begun to believe that there’s more to these books than I originally thought — that Dessen’s protagonists are, in fact, feminist role models for teenagers.
Many of the young women featured in Dessen’s books are smart and ambitious, the kind of high-achieving high schooler any parent would be proud of. This Lullaby features Remy, who is about to leave for Stanford and has saved enough money to buy a car and become financially independent from her parents. Auden in Along for the Ride is also bound for a top-tier college called Defriese (a thinly disguised proxy for Duke) and is proud of her intelligence. These are typical criteria for a role model, yes, but they’re also important. Dessen’s characters don’t think it’s cool to ignore their schoolwork or act unambitious; they are unapologetic in pursuing their dreams. And perhaps most importantly, even though Dessen’s books are almost always classified as romances, her characters’ successes have nothing to do with their boyfriends.
The young women in Dessen’s books always receive validation and admiration from their love interests, but they never start out with desperately low self-esteem or a need for a man to complete them. And while the romance is the center plot of the book, there’s always a subplot — familial, personal, or otherwise — that the main character has to deal with on her own. Dessen’s characters may be uncertain or confused, but they’re also strong and self-possessed.
While most of her books follow the same basic formula (girl falls in love with boy, solving her problems in the process), there are some notable exceptions. Dreamland deals with an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, which the main character is eventually able to leave. Intimate partner violence in teenagers is pervasive but rarely discussed; the act of telling this story honestly and completely is a feminist act.
In Just Listen, the main character, Annabel, was a victim of attempted rape the summer before the book begins. Dessen thoughtfully deals with rape culture as a teenage girl would witness it. Annabel is called a slut and a whore and told she made the wrong “decision;” a girl gossipping in the restroom says, “He could date any girl he wanted. It’s not like he’s desperate. So why would he do something like that?”
In writing Annabel, Dessen eloquently shows what it might feel like to be a survivor shamed by her peers. The concept of rape culture is all too foreign to most teenagers, and Just Listen follows in the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak by explaining rape culture to young women in a way that is accessible and sensible.
Sarah Dessen’s characters would probably not identify as feminists, and her books are not directly political. But her characters are strong young women, and many of the problems they face are the same issues feminists are working so hard to alleviate. I haven’t yet read The Moon and More, but I hope it’s not a straightforward teen romance; I hope it delves more deeply into the real and serious issues facing young women today. With Dessen’s track record, I think it might well do just that.