Hey, book nerds, guess what? This has been a long time coming because we have stan’d Sarah Dessen for, uh, HER WHOLE CAREER. Seriously, ever since That Summer, we have been at the feet of this YA queen. And with The Rest of the Story out now (finally!), we have yet another classic Dessen summer novel to add to our beloved list.
And isn’t Sarah Dessen synonymous with summer books? Also, books with strong heroines, books with the emotional depth that will have us shaking and crying and laughing all at once, books with quotes that have shaped our very being now and forevermore?!? Dessen books (and beach- or lake-side settings) take us back to the trials and thrills of growing up in a world that is sometimes confusing and overwhelming, but, filled with the right people, sometimes magical.
Without further ado, here’s all the lessons we’ve learned from every Sarah Dessen book out there. We honestly don’t know how we’d be without these books, tbh.
Everything We’ve Learned From Every Sarah Dessen Book
A must-read exhaustive list for every fan, in order of publication
What we learned: Summers really are when everything begins.
The first Sarah Dessen novel will always have a special place in our hearts! We all have that one summer that changes us, and for fifteen-year-old Haven, this summer will be one to remember for more reasons than one.
For fifteen-year-old Haven, life is changing too quickly. She’s nearly six feet tall, her father is getting remarried, and her sister—the always perfect Ashley—is planning a wedding of her own. Haven wishes things could just go back to the way they were. Then an old boyfriend of Ashley’s reenters the picture, and through him, Haven sees the past for what it really was, and comes to grips with the future.
Someone Like You
What we learned: A real friend is always going to be there.
Halley has always followed in the wake of her best friend, Scarlett. But when Scarlett learns that her boyfriend has been killed in a motorcycle accident, and that she’s carrying his baby, she’s devastated. For the first time ever, Scarlett really needs Halley. Their friendship may bend under the weight, but it’ll never break—because a true friendship is a promise you keep forever.
Keeping the Moon
What we learned: Sometimes life’s most important lessons come from unexpected places.
Another classic Dessen summer novel set by the beach, in the town of Colby, North Carolina that populates multiple Dessen books. We follow Colie as she, over the course of one summer, learns the true meaning of friendship.
Colie expects the worst when she’s sent to spend the summer with her eccentric aunt Mira while her mother, queen of the television infomercial, tours Europe. Always an outcast — first for being fat and then for being “easy” — Colie has no friends at home and doesn’t expect to find any in Colby, North Carolina.
But then she lands a job at the Last Chance Cafe and meets fellow waitresses Morgan and Isabel, best friends with a loving yet volatile relationship. Wacky yet wise, Morgan and Isabel help Colie see herself in a new way and realize the potential that has been there all along.
What we learned: Love = respect, always.
Dreamland is darker than other Dessen novels, but even more unforgettable because of it. With her trade lyricism and compassion, Dessen explores a dangerous relationship with empathy and care, as Caitlin falls deeper into her relationship with Rogerson and farther away from herself and everyone she loves in the process.
Ever since she started going out with Rogerson Biscoe, Caitlin seems to have fallen into a semiconscious dreamland where nothing is quite real. Rogerson is different from anyone Caitlin has ever known. He’s magnetic. He’s compelling. He’s dangerous. Being with him makes Caitlin forget about everything else—her missing sister, her withdrawn mother, her lackluster life. But what happens when being with Rogerson becomes a larger problem than being without him?
What we learned: Don’t close yourself off to new experiences.
When it comes to relationships, Remy doesn’t mess around. After all, she’s learned all there is to know from her mother, who’s currently working on husband number five. But there’s something about Dexter that seems to defy all of Remy’s rules. He certainly doesn’t seem like Mr. Right. For some reason, however, Remy just can’t seem to shake him. Could it be that Remy’s starting to understand what those love songs are all about?
The Truth About Forever
What we learned: Don’t dwell on what might happen.
A long, hot summer…
That’s what Macy has to look forward to while her boyfriend, Jason, is away at Brain Camp. Days will be spent at a boring job in the library, evenings will be filled with vocabulary drills for the SATs, and spare time will be passed with her mother, the two of them sharing a silent grief at the traumatic loss of Macy’s father.
But sometimes, unexpected things can happen—things such as the catering job at Wish, with its fun-loving, chaotic crew. Or her sister’s project of renovating the neglected beach house, awakening long-buried memories. Things such as meeting Wes, a boy with a past, a taste for Truth-telling, and an amazing artistic talent, the kind of boy who could turn any girl’s world upside down. As Macy ventures out of her shell, she begins to question her sheltered life.
Is it really always better to be safe than sorry?
What we learned: Don’t judge, just listen.
Not that we choose favorites, but this is one of our favorite Dessen books … for all the reasons. We all know that appearances can be deceiving; likewise, we know that one boy or girl in class who seems to “have everything”. We judge quickly, when we should be listening. Dessen reminds us that everyone truly has a story to tell, and it’s up to us to listen.
Last year, Annabel was “the girl who has everything” — at least that’s the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf’s Department Store.
This year, she’s the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong.
Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen’s help, maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends.
Lock & Key
What we learned: Family comes in many forms.
Who and what makes up a family is at the heart of this incredible novel about new opportunities and second chances.
Ruby has accepted her mother isn’t coming back. She’s been living in the little yellow house by herself, until it’s not sustainable anymore. And so she moves into her sister Cora’s home, the sister she hasn’t seen in ten years. Cora and her husband have a life completely different than Ruby is used to, and with all these new changes, including enrollment in a new private school and a new luxurious life, she doesn’t know how to react. With the help of her new family and boy-next-door Nate, Ruby is about to learn just what makes a family, and a life.
Along For The Ride
What we learned: It’s never too late to try what you’ve never done.
Auden has been the dutiful, obedient, studious daughter her whole life, and it has gotten her far academically…but socially? Not so much. Eli used to be the popular guy, until his best friend died, and his life hasn’t been the same since. Both are insomniacs, determined to live a meaningful life. Can one summer spark the change they both need?
It’s been so long since Auden slept at night. Ever since her parents’ divorce—or since the fighting started. Now she has the chance to spend a carefree summer with her dad and his new family in the charming beach town where they live.
A job in a clothes boutique introduces Auden to the world of girls: their talk, their friendship, their crushes. She missed out on all that, too busy being the perfect daughter to her demanding mother. Then she meets Eli, an intriguing loner and a fellow insomniac who becomes her guide to the nocturnal world of the town. Together they embark on parallel quests: for Auden, to experience the carefree teenage life she’s been denied; for Eli, to come to terms with the guilt he feels for the death of a friend.
What Happened To Goodbye
What we learned: It turns out that being yourself is the best thing you can be.
Since her parents’ bitter divorce, McLean and her dad, a restaurant consultant, have been on the move-four towns in two years. Estranged from her mother and her mother’s new family, McLean has followed her dad in leaving the unhappy past behind. And each new place gives her a chance to try out a new persona: from cheerleader to drama diva. But now, for the first time, McLean discovers a desire to stay in one place and just be herself, whoever that is. Perhaps Dave, the guy next door, can help her find out.
The Moon & More:
What we learned: It’s okay to change if it helps you figure out who you really are!
Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough.
Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo’s sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.
Emaline’s mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he’s convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby?
Emaline wants the moon and more, but how can she balance where she comes from with where she’s going?
What we learned: The family you make is just as valid as the one you’re born into.
Peyton, Sydney’s charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion’s share of their parents’ attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton’s increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?
Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.
Once and For All
What we learned: The past is never forgotten, but it can’t stop you from living in the present.
Tragedy shaped the only real love Louna’s ever known, and she’s convinced that kind of epic story doesn’t happen twice, her cynicism strong despite her family’s wedding planning business. But maybe all it takes to believe again is the right person.
Louna’s life revolves around school, friends, and working for her mother’s uber-successful bridal company with her partner William. Growing up in the business means she’s become cynical about true love, for better or for worse. And with the one true romance she’s ever known behind her due to tragedy, Louna is not looking for anything more. Enter Ambrose. Oblivious, carefree, infuriating Ambrose, who somehow manages to grow on her over time. But will looking into the future mean forgetting the past? A classic Sarah Dessen summer novel about trusting your gut, but also taking risks.
Louna, daughter of famed wedding planner Natalie Barrett, has seen every sort of wedding: on the beach, at historic mansions, in fancy hotels and clubs. Perhaps that’s why she’s cynical about happily-ever-after endings, especially since her own first love ended tragically. When Louna meets charming, happy-go-lucky serial dater Ambrose, she holds him at arm’s length. But Ambrose isn’t about to be discouraged, now that he’s met the one girl he really wants.
The Rest of the Story
What we learned: Knowing who you are means embracing where you’re from.
The perfect lake-side summer story full of bursting-with-life characters, Dessen’s latest novel is all about exploring your roots, making peace with the past, and looking forward to a brave new future. By summer’s end, will it be Emma or Saylor who leaves the lake?
Emma Saylor doesn’t remember a lot about her mother, who died when Emma was twelve. But she does remember the stories her mom told her about the big lake that went on forever, with cold, clear water and mossy trees at the edges.
Now it’s just Emma and her dad, and life is good, if a little predictable…until Emma is unexpectedly sent to spend the summer with her mother’s family that she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl.
When Emma arrives at North Lake, she realizes there are actually two very different communities there. Her mother grew up in working class North Lake, while her dad spent summers in the wealthier Lake North resort. The more time Emma spends there, the more it starts to feel like she is also divided into two people. To her father, she is Emma. But to her new family, she is Saylor, the name her mother always called her.
Then there’s Roo, the boy who was her very best friend when she was little. Roo holds the key to her family’s history, and slowly, he helps her put the pieces together about her past. It’s hard not to get caught up in the magic of North Lake—and Saylor finds herself falling under Roo’s spell as well.
For Saylor, it’s like a whole new world is opening up to her. But when it’s time to go back home, which side of her—Emma or Saylor—will win out?