A few years ago, after an insightful writing mentor suggested my work had a strong teen voice, I signed up for a young adult novel class offered by Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. For our first few meetings, in addition to submitting and critiquing manuscripts, we were to read and discuss Deb Caletti’s HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART and SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. It had been a long time since I’d picked up a young adult read, so I was eager to check out the current crop of YA titles at the bookstore and reacquaint myself with the genre.
After finding my assigned books, I spotted HOW TO DEAL, a movie tie-in combining the books THAT SUMMER and SOMEONE LIKE YOU by Sarah Dessen. The last YA book I’d read before this serendipitous trip to Tattered Cover Bookstore was CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger, so I didn’t know much about Sarah Dessen — just that we shared a first name and with the movie tie-in version I’d get two books for the price of one. I picked it up, paid for the books, and walked out of the bookstore, unaware that the purchase would — don don don! — change my life forever.
No, seriously! I mean people say that all the time, right? But that book really did change my life!
*Inserts ominous music and movie announcer voice*
“In a world where closet writers are afraid to dream big, one aspiring author crawled out of the YA cave and into the blinding light of Sarah Dessen books, and *nothing* was ever the same again…”
After devouring both books in HOW TO DEAL, I was eager to get my hands on the rest of Sarah’s titles. Macy, Wes, and the Wish Catering crew made THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER my #1 fave, but all of Sarah’s books sparked something in me. They immersed me in a new and beautiful world — the world of contemporary, realistic YA fiction — and I knew after reading my first one that I wanted to write for teens.
*Pauses momentarily to let the gravity of this set in*
Listen, I hated high school. Truly. I spent *years* running fast and far away from the memories (which, if I let them, would probably give me hives even today) and then Sarah Dessen showed up and… well, let the life-changing begin! Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to revisit the momentous, insane, roller-coaster ride of the teen years. I wanted to dig up and sift through memories and tragedies and old stories and fuse them with words and new ideas and images until I could find a way to connect with readers the way Sarah’s books connected with me.
Making me return to high school on purpose? Even from the safe and anonymous comforts of my imagination? Yikes. Double-ewwww! That’s no small feat, Sarah!
So I progressed through the Lighthouse YA class and worked hard on my YA novel-in-progress, developing my own voice as a writer, creating characters to tell the stories lodged in my heart and set free the words keeping me awake at night. Sarah Dessen and the characters who came to life through her books truly inspired me, encouraging and pushing me through the tough spots. I kept a copy of THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER close by for silent moral support, and on one particularly tough night, I glanced over at the book, hoping for some kind of sign or message — who knows what my neurotic writer brain was thinking — but her last name on the cover was obscured by papers. All I saw was “Sarah.” And in that moment, in the briefest flash, I saw “Ockler” following that “Sarah,” picturing my own book cover and somehow knowing and believing what my husband always believed — that the day really *would* come for me. The day when I’d see my own book on the shelves.
Five years after reading my first Sarah Dessen novel and falling in love with YA fiction, that day has finally come. My YA novel, TWENTY BOY SUMMER, is out in the world.
Now I can say it officially. Thank you, Sarah Dessen, for unknowingly helping me achieve my dream. Sarah, you’ve inspired me. Your books and characters and their struggles and fights and celebrations got me excited about young adult literature and the possibility of writing for and about teens. I continue to anticipate and love each of your new books and am honored today to wish you every success, every joy, every happiness you deserve, and of course, a very wonderful birthday!
With much admiration and gratitude,
Author of TWENTY BOY SUMMER (which is released day in all good book stores). Sarah has a sweet website that you should also check out.
Tomorrow – Sherryl Clark, author of soon-to-be-release Bone Song.