Growing up, Sarah Dessen was on the quieter side. She loved having gregarious friends but mostly, she sat and listened. “I was the storyteller,” Dessen says. “I remembered everything. I was the Oracle.”
Staying in her hometown is one of the things that’s kept her in touch with those teenage voices. Being in Chapel Hill for most of her life, Dessen still has a connection to those stories.
“It’s really easy for me to put myself back in that place,” Dessen says. “It’s not always a good thing.”
She’s not a huge fan of having to hold on to the adolescent angst that defines many of her protagonists and much of her own high school experience, but it is, at least partly, what she thinks has allowed her to write more than a dozen successful young adult books.
“I remember graduating at Chapel Hill High School, and everyone had their little Class of ’88 keychains,” she says. Everyone was so excited. And I was like, get me out of here.”
She didn’t leave, though. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, she worked mornings as Chapel Hill writer Lee Smith’s assistant and in the evenings pulled shifts as a waitress at the Flying Burrito. In between, she sat down to write every day, seven days a week.
“If I wasn’t writing,” Dessen says, “it was like having that feeling like I left the curling iron on.”
After about a year of rejections, Smith enjoyed one of Dessen’s books enough to send it to her agent who passed it along to another agent, who has worked with Dessen ever since. For nearly a decade, Dessen kept working alongside her writing, moving from waitressing to teaching at UNC’s creative writing program. She became a full-time writer before the book release and tour for 2006’s Just Listen.
With her daughter away at summer camp, Dessen agreed to speak from her vacation on a North Carolina beach about the Netflix adaptation of her 2009 novel, Along for the Ride, which came out in May.
She’s been along for her own kind of ride. In the 25 years she’s been writing from Chapel Hill, Dessen has seen the young adult genre grow up, even if she’s worked hard to keep her voice that of a teenager. When Dessen’s first book came out, in 1996, there was no real young adult section. She said her books were shelved—metaphorically, at least—next to Goodnight Moon.
“Now you go in, and you can find a paranormal romance YA section. It’s so specific!” Dessen said. “The big sea change was when we realized booksellers and librarians are always ahead of the curve. Teenagers don’t want to walk into the kids’ section.”
When selling her first book, Dessen resisted the label.
“I was like, ‘Oh, God, no, I don’t write YA,’” she remembers telling her agent. “‘I’m a serious writer.’” But Dessen decided to trust her agent, et voilà: “And now here I am, 25 years later, and it’s a dream. It’s amazing. I think sometimes the genre picks you.”
If you’ve read one of Dessen’s novels, you’re acquainted with the comfortable rhythm with which she writes. An isolated teenage girl with some kind of life-defining problem or obsession meets a boy—and usually his friends and family—whose problems intersect with hers in some way. There’s usually a new interest, music or BMX riding, and at least one major fight or misunderstanding. They all help each other grow.
If Dessen has repeated the same message through many of her 15 young adult novels, it’s one that withstands the repetition. Vulnerability is dangerous but important. Her characters might think they need to be perfect to feel healthy, but humans need each other to grow and overcome everything from PTSD to insomnia.
As a result, her books are wildly popular among their intended crowd, enough to make her a #1 New York Times bestseller several times over. Dessen has become a one-woman YA empire, so it might seem surprising that there haven’t been more film adaptations of her work. Mandy Moore and Allison Janney starred in How to Deal, a film mash-up of two of her books in 2003—otherwise, until this film, it’s been crickets.
Along for the Ride is the directorial debut of Sofia Alvarez, who, notably, wrote the adaptation of Netflix’s blockbuster To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Netflix owns the rights to three other Dessen books: This Lullaby (2002), The Truth about Forever (2004), and Once and for All (2017). Netflix’s exact viewing numbers can be opaque but Dessen was told that, on its first weekend, Along for the Ride hit the top 10 globally on the streaming platform. It’s not alone in the YA boom: series like Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty and Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone are reaching tens of millions of viewers and reviving interest in books released years before the current YA audience started reading.
Leigh Feldman, Dessen’s agent since her first book in 1996, told Dessen they just needed to wait until her first generation of fans worked in development. That’s exactly what happened: in 2019, three different people in Hollywood were interested in acquiring rights to her nearly 20-year-old books. Netflix won out and now owns the rights to four of Dessen’s books. She also knows that a script exists for one of the other books Netflix has the rights to, though she doesn’t know which one.
“The idea was to do one a year, but with COVID it’s a miracle this movie even got made,” Dessen says. “It’s such a triumph to even think about the next one.”
Along for the Ride, Dessen thinks, might be a particularly poignant film for teens who lost time to the pandemic: “This movie tracks so much with the idea of things that you didn’t get to do, missed opportunities.” Just as her main character, Auden, didn’t have a memorable high school experience because of her ambition, Dessen saw her own daughter, who is 14, miss out on formative social experiences during the thick of the pandemic.
“The idea of the bucket list, I feel like that really resonates,” she says. “Even if we’re not addressing the pandemic at all it’s still sort of there.”
Along for the Ride follows 18-year-old Auden, (yes, named after W.H. by her work-obsessed novelist dad) the summer after she graduates high school. Auden is an insomniac who uses her sleepless nights to gain an academic edge, reading ahead for the college courses she’ll be attending in the fall.
Realizing she has no social memories of high school, Auden decamps to her father’s house in a small beach town (modeled, Dessen says, on “Emerald Isle with a boardwalk”). There she makes a group of friends and also meets Eli, a damaged teenager who wants to help her catch up on the things she missed in high school.
Alvarez’s vision for the book met expectations.
“I drove down here for filming, and I literally pulled right up at the pier and walked into my book,” Dessen says. “It was insane.”
The film version was shot in Carolina Beach, with some small updates to bring it up to speed a few years. Emails are replaced by annoying voicemails and Auden’s cast of friends includes a Black girl and a lesbian. It’s not a complete overhaul, but Dessen—who, it should be mentioned, almost exclusively writes about straight white girls—acknowledges the necessity.
“In this case, it’s a perfect opportunity to update the book and to show the world more as it is,” Dessen said. “And I thought Fia [Sofia Alvarez] did an amazing job with that.”
Dessen was hands-off with this adaptation and expects to be going forward, as well. She had one three-hour phone call with Alvarez at the beginning of the project, after which she says she had full faith in Alvarez.
The biggest change Dessen celebrates in the decades since beginning her writing career, she says, is the growing diversity of stories available to YA readers.
“When I was getting published, there were not a lot of writers of color that were getting published,” Dessen said. “Now we’re getting all these stories. And they mean so much for teenagers. That’s what it’s all about.”
Dessen regularly writes about things like anxiety and eating disorders in an effort to make girls struggling with their mental health feel seen, so she can imagine the way representation matters to teens of color.
“You feel lost and hopeless,” Dessen said. “But you open a book and there’s somebody that’s like you.”
Still: “YA has gotten much more inclusive, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
While she celebrates the fact that editors want diverse stories, Dessen doesn’t see herself straying from a lead character who is a straight, white woman. Her last book, 2019’s The Rest of the Story, features the first lesbian she’s written—a supporting character—which is something she says readers have been asking for for years.
“We were very careful,” she said. “We had a sensitivity reader. We worked really hard because I knew that people were watching me.”
But her desire to reflect her readers is balanced out by an acknowledgment of her own privilege.
“As a white cis woman, I should not be telling certain stories,” Dessen said. “That’s not my story to tell. Right? I have my story. So it’s respecting other people’s stories but at the same time showing the world as it actually is.”
“I do think I have more responsibility,” Dessen adds. “I think at the time I did the best I could. Looking back, I wish there was more diversity. I wish I showed more sides of things so that more people would feel included in the books, and all I can do moving forward is say I’m doing better and I’m listening. For white writers who have already been successful, we need to be listening.”
Listening, and maybe also taking a breather, as Dessen watches her stories come to life on-screen. She’s finishing up her 15th book right as her own daughter turns 15 and wonders if it’s time to give teenage angst some space.
“I’ve always sort of said that I wanted to step out of YA for a couple of years while she was a teenager and just let her live her life and not, you know, have her mom writing books about people her age, you know?” Dessen says. “So that’s always the plan. But I don’t know.”
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