Welcome to the second installment of “Beyond the Bestsellers.” Last month, I talked about Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series and what books readers who loved that series should visit next that weren’t the ones everyone already knew about or recommended.
This time, I’m going to go in a different direction and talk about what to read next if you’re a fan of YA superstar Sarah Dessen. You may be familiar with Dessen from her latest books, including The Moon and More and What Happened to Goodbye, both of which have appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers list. But Dessen’s career has spanned much further than that — in fact, she’s been writing YA fiction for twenty years. She’s a foundational writer and a mainstay of realistic YA.
In my mind, Dessen is one of the most underrated YA authors, as well as one of the most underappreciated for the depth, complexity, and style within each of her books. But it also doesn’t surprise me: many believe YA stories which feature female characters, particularly those who seek romantic relationships, are ephemeral and easily overlooked. That’s far from true, and I think in time, we’ll better recognize what Dessen has truly contributed to YA. Perhaps we’ll see her earn even more accolades for her well-written, engaging, and timeless novels.
Whether you’ve read and loved just one of her books or you’re a perpetual re-reader of things Dessen, here’s why you like her books and where you can go next to find books similar to hers. As always, your mileage may vary — no book or author will ever be “the next Sarah Dessen” because we already have the Sarah Dessen.
Why You Like Sarah Dessen
- Dessen writes authentic teen characters who have memorable voices, work through tough situations, and have significant — but realistic — agency within their own lives. There are no super powers nor any shortcuts. When life gets hard for these teens, Dessen allows her characters just enough savvy to make decisions and navigate challenges but she doesn’t give them complete control or a simple solution. The limitations within the stories are believable.
- To date, Dessen’s stories have all featured flawed and complex female characters who could be considered “the any girl.” Though they each have their unique situations, personalities, and conflicts, these girls are reminiscent of and relatable to many teen girls (and I’d argue some boys, too).
- Perhaps the biggest reason readers love Dessen is the way she writes relationships. Each story is crafted so that every romance, every mother-daughter or mother-father or sibling relationship, every long-standing or newly-emerging friendship, and every casual encounter between characters matters. There are dynamic connections and fall outs. Dessen doesn’t take shortcuts in exploring hardships nor celebrations.
- Without question, Dessen has some of the best world-building in realistic YA. Every scene and setting is layered and nuanced, and every interaction a character has with a place is intentional and pushes either the story or characters forward.
Try One of These Authors Next
Scott’s been writing YA since 2007, though unlike Dessen, she’s branched beyond realistic fiction a few times — as well as tackled very dark topics such as kidnapping — so not all the titles in her catalog make for strong next reads. But those who love Dessen should not miss Bloom, Perfect You, Stealing Heaven, Between Here and Forever, The Unwritten Rule, or Something, Maybe. The character voices, relationships, and world-building should satisfy any Dessen fan.
Scott’s Heartbeat, which comes out from Harlequin Teen January 28, looks like it will be one for the Dessen fans as well.
Kirby’s debut novel Moonglass published in 2011, and the use of setting, of challenging family relationships and the possibilities of romance between the main character and a cute boy have all the markings of a perfect next-read for Dessen fans. Moonglass is also set on the beach in a way that’s reminiscent of Dessen’s recurring Colby setting.
In 2007, Zarr earned a spot on the National Book Award’s shortlist for her debut novel Story of a Girl and now four books later (five if you count December’s Roomies), there’s no question Zarr’s a YA author to watch. Her books, like Dessen’s, feature characters with agency, who must navigate the bumpy roads of teenhood, relationships — familial, romantic, and platonic — and changing expectations placed upon them. Zarr’s characters wrestle with questions similar to those Dessen’s do: What makes and breaks a family? What happens when adults don’t always comes through? Can you give up or reinvent your identity? What is faith and belief and where or how do you find it?
Start with Story of a Girl, then work your way through Zarr’s list by publication date to see incredible talent as it continues to grow.
If you’re still seeking more books to read that are similar to Sarah Dessen’s, don’t miss books by authors such as Deb Caletti, Susane Colasanti, Morgan Matson, Jennifer E. Smith, Sarah Ockler, or Jenny Han.
Sign up for our newsletter to have the best of Book Riot delivered straight to your inbox every two weeks. No spam. We promise.