Graduation is nigh upon us, with high schoolers across the nation giving tearful goodbyes to their hallowed halls and having everyone sign their yearbook. I may sound cynical about my own high school memories (ones backed by Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever)” and Green Day’s “Time of Your Life”), but I still love reading young adult fiction and experiencing those teenage feelings again and again.
Sarah Dessen is one of the few Young Adult authors with such a wide variety of teenagers that she’d make producers at ABC Family blush with shame. The best part is that these characters are normal, filled with just as much angst, drama and love as an average teenager. When I was in high school I wish I had some of these characters as friends, but I suppose I’ll have to settle for just giving superlatives to my favorite Dessen denizens.
Most Likely to be on Broadway: Maclean, What Happened to Goodbye
Sarah Dessen, as one reviewer on Amazon put it, “could write a grocery list with more charm, depth, and realism than most of the YA writers out there.” While What Happened to Goodbye isn’t Dessen at her finest, Maclean is one of the most memoriable characters that just gets stuck in my head—in a good way!
Maclean doesn’t have any real talent as an actress or dancer, but she does have a natural ability as a chameleon. She’s been to four schools in the two years since her parents’ bitter divorce—one that was both nasty and public and involving a famous college basketball couch. With each new school, Maclean finds a new persona to help her ease through the change—and why not, high school’s hard enough with the labels and cliques, you might as well change it up! Of course, Maclean’s need to change covers up some serious issues and a deep-seated need to separate herself from the things that can hurt her.
While these issues are confronted in the end, her ability as a chameleon is what earns Maclean the title of “Most Likely to be on Broadway,” despite her overuse of metaphors and taking herself a little too seriously—after all any self-respecting actress should be!
Most Musical: Annabel, Just Listen
This is the book I started with, and so it will always hold a special place in my heart. Annabel is “that pretty girl” in the department store ads who’s paid to look happy while the cameras are rolling, but that’s not the real Annabel—she’s just been dropped by her best friend, who thought Annabel slept with her boyfriend, and things aren’t much better at home with an anorexic sister.
Enter Owen, the resident loner and all-around “freak.” He’s the one person who doesn’t ask Annabel to talk, but is totally ready to listen. The pair bond over music and some great playlists. A much darker reason for Annabel’s split with her friend takes the story to another level. While Annabel isn’t the most obvious choice for this title, it just show that you shouldn’t take everything at face value.
Most Changed: Caitlin, Dreamland
Dreamland is by far the darkest of Dessen’s books, but with that darkness, comes the biggest chance for redemption. Caitlin is not an easy pill to swallow—she’s caught in a miasma of drug addiction, the loss of her run-away sister, and the toxic relationship she has with Rogerson, her boyfriend-cum-drug dealer. As a teenager this book brought to light issues of loss, abuse, and addiction that were completely foreign to me, and rereading it as an adult that shock turned to out-and-out anger for this character. No one could know this more than the author herself.
It’s hard to create a character, like Caitlin, on the page and then systematically break her down to nothing before you can begin to build her up again. I think that’s why I relied so much on the humor in Dreamland – the neighbors Boo and Stewart, Rina, anything to lighten to tone here and there. I’ve been really pleased with the reception the book has gotten, and glad that it hasn’t been simply labeled an Issue Book, which makes it sound like I sat down with the intention of writing a story around domestic violence.
At the end of Dreamland, Caitlin doesn’t live happily ever after. Caitlin…Lived. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
Most Likely to Become a Rockstar: Dexter, This Lullaby
Not to be confused with “Most Likely to be on Broadway” or “Most Musical,” to become a rockstar one needs a certain flair, and Dexter has that in spades. As the lead singer of Truth Squad (known as The G-Flats in the wedding circuit), Dexter is rockin’, but still charming and exactly what Remy, the queen of love cynics, needs. Remy thinks she has everything figured out, but like any good rockstar Dexter comes along to shake that all up and prove her wrong in all the right ways. Did I mention he’s in a band? ‘Nough said.
Most Athletic: Eli, Along for the Ride
We meet Eli as he tries to escape the guilt of his friend’s death in a car accident. Auden is just trying to escape life and meets him as they both ride their bikes around town in the middle of the night. Before his friend’s death, Eli was a competitive biker. With a little love and a lot of understanding, Eli learns to love riding again and how to deal with life after death without punishing yourself. Auden has many of her own issues, including a controlling and egotistical mother and a father who is just as egotistical and neglectful. Eli adds a light to both Auden’s and the reader’s life.
Over Achiever: Auden, Along for the Ride; Macy, The Truth About Forever
Both girls are striving for perfection and both learn that perfect isn’t always better. Auden’s mother has always treated her more like a trophy (one that doesn’t sparkle quite as much as her brother) than a daughter, and her father treats Auden much the same. Macy faces more of an internal stimulus as she deals with the recent death of her father. In attempt to satisfy the need to be perfect, both girls reach further than they can actually climb. By the end of each book, Macy and Auden learned to confront their flaws and love themselves anyway.
Class Clown: Dexter, This Lullaby
Yes, Dexter is a musician, but he’s also hilarious. Well, if you have the right type of humor. Mine goes for the sort of person who dares their friends to eat 10 bananas, or sit on their head for 20 minutes (peer pressure at its finest!). Dexter also works for a one-hour photo lab and loves finding funny pictures at work…which kind of backfires in the end. Everyone loves a good prankster, and Dexter’s just want the doctor ordered for Remy.
Most Likely to be a Spy: Ruby, Lock and Key
No one keeps a secret better than Ruby. Even if that secret is that her mother disappeared and she was living on her own for weeks before social services found out. Sometimes those secrets are just too impossible to keep though, like when she finds out one of her friends is being abused (I learned that lesson too, Ruby, in an episode of Full House). Ruby doesn’t trust anyone, including her sister and brother-in-law who she has been forced to live with. Because of these trust issues, Ruby is a hard nut to crack, which I guess is a good quality in a spy!
Best Couple: Macy/Wes, The Truth About Forever
I love you even with your flaws, are just about the best words a guy could say to a girl. Wes is the exact opposite of Macy: easy going, tattooed, and artistic. Dessen has a particular talent for writing opposites who really shouldn’t work in the real world. I like to think of it more as the perfect yin and yang combination. Wes balances out Macy and makes me wish I had known a few more guys like this in high school. Even Sarah Dessen pictures Wes as her ideal teenage crush.
Wes to me is hope. To him, nothing is ever finished, or broken. It’s just waiting to be incarnated, to begin as something new, again. And that, to me, is what Macy’s story is all about. How life is a continuing series of beginnings and endings, losses and gains, all folding into one long stretch, one lifetime, and one forever.
And that’s really the overarching theme of all of Dessen’s novels. Life is all about change and redemption, and you can deal with any change as long as you have the right people around you to keep you up.
Did I miss one of your favorite characters? What high school superlative would you assign to your favorite characters?
Jennifer Proffitt is a Midwest transplant to New York City. She spends most of her time reading and writing about romance, but you can follow her other adventures on Twitter @JennProffitt.