Twenty Years Young: Sarah Dessen on Her Two Decades in YA

This week, fan favorite Sarah Dessen celebrates her twentieth year in YA with her new release, Saint Anything. As the genre has changed so much in the past two decades, we asked Sarah to share what she sees as the biggest shifts in YA. She was nice enough to oblige! 

My first book, That Summer, was released in the fall of 1996. In the almost 20 years since then, I’ve watched the YA world grow up all around me. There have been so many changes. But here are my top five.

1. A separate place for YA books. When my first novel came out, it was  shelved in the kids section, alongside Goodnight Moon and Strawberry Shortcake. Eventually, bookstores learned teens do NOT want to buy their books alongside toddlers and little kids. It was a serious game changer.

2. Acceptance that adults can, and DO, read YA. Credit Harry Potter with starting this: suddenly it was okay for adults enjoy books with kid or teen protagonists. No more did people assume that because I wrote for teens, my novels were about girls getting their periods. (Who writes an entire book about that, anyway? Would YOU want to read it?)

3. A bigger pond. Okay, this is a major understatement. In 1996, YA was populated by several big names and a handful of small ones. After Harry Potter and Twilight showed that writing for teens is not just awesome (as we in it already knew) but could be profitable, a lot more authors decided to try their hand, and I think our genre is better for it. Which leads me to …

4. … subject matter. In my opinion, YA has always been at the forefront of taking on tough topics, but in the last 20 years we’ve seen so many great books featuring characters of different races and sexual orientations. Back in 1996, there were very few YA books — that I was aware of, anyway — which featured LGBT characters, and while there were protagonists of color, there were not that many of them. The influx of writers to YA has meant more differing voices, which means more teens have a better chance to find themselves on the page. This is not to say we don’t have a ways to go still. But it is happening, at least to my eyes.

5.  Social media. It used to be readers only interacted with writers of their favorite books through snail mail or at appearances. With the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, authors are able to show sides of ourselves other than just their words on a page. I know not all writers are fans of social media, but personally, I love it. If I have something to say, I don’t have to wait until a book is done, edited and published to say it. The downside: social media is such a procrastination tool. I probably wrote more before it came along. Still, I’ll take the tradeoff. I always knew I had great readers. Now, I get to know them, as well. 

Saint Anything is available online and in stores today! And for more YA news and stories, visit our Everything YA page. 

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