Sometimes I like to pretend like I have a very mature and refined taste when it comes to literature (Like Rory Gilmore). Even just calling it literature makes me sound mature, right? Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve gotten older my taste in books has changed and I definitely read some interesting novels. But sometimes what you really need is a good old fashion young-adult romance book. And when it comes to YA romance, Sarah Dessen is one of the all-time greats.
When I was in middle school, reading Sarah Dessen taught me all about high school love. Did it give me false expectations? Maybe! But who cares because the books are amazing. And despite definitely being out of her target demographic these days, that doesn’t stop me from reading and re-reading her books whenever I feel like it! She recently came out with her newest addition, Once and For All so in celebration of her newest hit, I took it upon myself to rank all of her books. If you’ve never read a Sarah Dessen book (I feel sorry for you), take this as the perfect introduction. And a way to discover which books are must-reads and which ones not so much (spoiler alert: no matter what, they're all must-reads).
Julia MacRae Books
15-year-old Haven is coping with her father’s remarriage (after cheating on his wife/Haven's mom with his younger co-worker... ugh) and her sister’s engagement. Basically, she’s angsty and insecure because, well, she’s 15! She’s constantly daydreaming about better days when her family was together and happy, and then one of her sister’s boyfriends from the past reenters her life.
This is Sarah Dessen’s first book, so we can thank it for starting everything. However, it’s simply not my fave. There’s no love interest, which for me is always a letdown, and to be honest I was a little bored with it. I get the point of the book, and why some people might like it, but it’s nowhere close to her best work. How to Deal starring Mandy Moore was partially based on this YA novel.
Pengun Young Readers
Emaline lives in the small beach town Colby (a town that makes a cameo in basically every S.D. book) with her almost “too perfect” boyfriend Luke. They break up and in comes Theo, the assistant to a filmmaker from New York. While their summer romance is beginning, Emaline’s estranged father comes back in the picture with her half-brother and as per ushe, teen angst ensues.
This is the first time Sarah Dessen almost let me down. I say almost because, let’s be real, she could never really let me down. But this came close, and I’m not entirely convinced it shouldn’t be the last one my list. Emaline’s love interest is basically a total tool and so annoying. This book was definitely a page-turner... as in I kept turning the pages because I just wanted it to end. Sorry!
Halley and Scarlett have been BFFs for years. Scarlett is outgoing and confident, and Halley is basically her quiet sidekick. But then everything changes when Scarlett’s boyfriend dies in a motorcycle accident and she finds out she’s pregnant. The balance shifts, and it turns out Scarlett needs Halley more than ever.
I love the female friendship in this book and the fact that it takes priority over the romance aspect. These girls are 100% there for each other and at the end of the day, it's always sisters before misters. The only reason it’s not higher up is that it doesn’t stick out in my mind, but it’s still great. This is the other book that How to Deal is based on.
Caitlin’s perfect older sister, Cass runs away on Caitlin’s 16th birthday and leaves the family in shambles over it. Now Caitlin has to figure out what life without Cass looks like and pretty soon she meets an ~edgy~ and ~misunderstood~ guy named Rogerson. But when their relationship becomes violent, she still finds herself drawn to him and unable to leave.
Sarah Dessen does an amazing job when it comes to addressing heavy and important issues, and Dreamland is no exception. While the story is obviously sad, I think the way she portrays Caitlin while struggling through domestic violence is so raw and real.
Penguin Young Readers
Ever since McLean’s parents got divorced, she’s been moving from place to place with her dad while he fixes up restaurants. Each time she moves, she creates an entirely new identity (normal, right?). But of course this time things are different and she decides maybe she should just be herself.
This book is pretty solid, but nothing extraordinary. And I do find it a bit strange that McLean literally becomes an entirely new person every time she moves. She even creates her new persona a social media account in each city, basically catfishing everyone. That said, you can't argue with the message. In the end, she learns to be herself, comes to terms with the divorce, and finally starts to feel like she has actually found a home. Bonus points for her dad finding love, too!
Ruby and her troubled mother have been on their own for a while now until her mom straight up leaves her and suddenly it’s just Ruby. Since she’s a minor, she has to go live with her estranged older sister, who has a well-established life married to the founder of Ume.com (aka Facebook). Ruby wants to be carefree and independent so she’s not having any of it. In the midst of all her pouting and whining, she meets Nate, the next door neighbor.
In my mind, this book is pretty on par with What Happened to Goodbye, but I ranked it just a bit higher because I feel like it deals with important topics and Ruby grows a lot over the course of the book. She mends relationships with her sister, who FYI had been trying to reconnect for years without Ruby knowing, and also helps Nate with a serious family issue he’s facing... but I don't want to spoil, so you'll just have to read!
Colie and her mom both used to be overweight, but when her mom became an international fitness guru they both shed a lot. However, Colie is still tormented by the taunts of bullies from the past and can’t really feel comfortable in her new skin. Nothing fixes your problems like a summer in Colby, though, and when she meets new friends and a new guy, things change.
This was the first Sarah Dessen book I ever read, and I sort of forgot about it over the years. When I re-read it though, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a really sweet story about gaining confidence and new friendships. I will say that it's a bit too short for a ton of character development, but I’ll let it slide. While I do feel like sometimes they overlook how hard it can be to regain self-esteem (in the book it seems as easy as 1, 2, 3), I do think the message is a good one.
Viking Books For Young Readers
Louna works with her mom in the wedding business, so she’s seen a lot of happily ever afters and a lot of not-so happily ever afters. Basically, she’s jaded with the idea of love. Her dad walked out on her, her first love ended tragically, and she’s seen one too many failed marriages. Enter Ambrose, a serial dater, and he may be the one to change her.
Ambrose, to me, is a classic Sarah Dessen character. He's an endearing love interest in a kind of goofy and almost annoying way — which is so typical. He and Louna have a fun friendship that grows over a dating bet where Ambrose has to settle down and Louna has to date around. Once again, it’s not a Sarah Dessen book without addressing some serious issues, and this one has its fair share.
Sydney’s older brother has always been the star of the show, her parents favorite. But after a series of bad decisions end up with a drunk driving accident paralyzing a child, he ends up in jail. Now her parents are coping and taking out their stress on her and she feels more invisible than ever. Enter in her new school, new friends, and eventually new love interest, Mac. Is it just me or are all these books starting to sound the same?
Okay these final five are the top tier of Sarah Dessen books. I mean — seriously — they’re all so good. The Chatham family Sydney befriends is amazing, her character development is great, even her annoying controlling mother adds an important (and #relatable) element to the book. All around a great read!
Auden (these names!) has the classic case of a kid who had to grow up too fast. She’s now spending the summer with her dad and his new wife and baby for some quality bonding, but her dad is MIA basically 24/7. She meets some new friends and a new boy (of course) and her summer quickly changes.
Sarah comes through again with another classic. As per usual, I love the new friendships Auden forms, but I really love her and Eli’s relationship. The sweetest part is the “quest” they embark on, for Auden to experience a normal teenage life.
Penguin Young Readers Group
Annabel has seemingly the perfect life. She and her two sisters are all models, she’s popular, and her family has it all together. But obviously, nothing is really how it seems. While she’s dealing with major family issues and a traumatic event from the summer, she meets Owen, who helps her come to terms with things.
Once again, this book covers a lot of serious topics. Annabel’s mother struggles with depression, her sister has a serious eating disorder, and she’s hiding the fact that she was raped by her best friend’s boyfriend, Will, at a summer party. Everything is covered really well and I honestly think it’s an important book for young women to read. The only semi-frustrating part is at the end when Will rapes another girl, she reports him, everybody stands by her, and in a matter of weeks, he’s arrested. Unfortunately, it’s simply unrealistic.
Remy’s dad left when she was young, and her mom has been married so many times that Remy is disillusioned by love. In fact, she has it down to a science. She knows the perfect time to end a relationship, right as the honeymoon phase is wearing off and before any real feeling starts to kick in. But in comes carefree musician, Dexter, and the story changes.
I have a special place in my heart for This Lullaby. If the #1 book on this list weren’t so amazing then this one would be first and it was a pretty close call between the two. Dexter is just so annoyingly endearing and I think the hopeless romantic in me loves to watch Remy’s ice cold heart melt. Sigh, I love it.
When Macy’s dad suddenly dies, she throws herself into a super structured and control-freak life as a way to cope. Then her super lame boyfriend decides he wants to take a break while he is at brain camp over the summer. Meanwhile, Macy is working two jobs, one at the library and one at a catering company, which a bunch of new friends and a dreamy, all-around great, guy, Wes.
This book is amazing, the best of the best. If you could only read one Sarah Dessen book (that’d be a terrible situation) but it should be this one. Wes is one of my favorite book characters ever, and his and Macy’s love story is too cute. Of course, he helps Macy come to terms with her father’s death and her controlling mother, and all ends well. Wes sets the bar high for any reader's future boyfriend.