Sarah Elizabeth Dessen ’93

Distinguished Young Alumni Award

Sarah Elizabeth Dessen ’93

Smart, plucky girl flirts with the wrong crowd, then, through her own resilience and pragmatism, and with the help of supportive friends and family, builds her dream life. She transfers to the big university, waitresses at a popular Mexican restaurant until her novels begin to sell, and falls into a happy marriage with her high school sweetheart.

Stay with me here. If Sarah Dessen could put herself into one of her young adult novels, this is how it might play out.

She writes one best seller after another, which leads to a teaching slot at the university, in the creative writing department that first uncovered her talents as a writer. A wildly popular teacher — sometimes the first thing her students notice is the cute outfits, a product of her love for the Gap clearance rack — she leaves reluctantly after eight years, to continue to write a best seller every year and raise her own smart, plucky daughter. Then the school that means so much to her names her a Distinguished Young Alumna.

Wait. That really is her life.

But it’s not as magical as it seems on paper. She backs her talent with self-discipline, keeping up the exhausting pace demanded by publishers of “hot” writers whose fans clamor for the next book as soon as they’ve closed the cover on the last one. She navigates big-name literary parties without engaging in the backbiting prevalent among any fiercely competitive group. She never cops a diva attitude, even though her face appears on New York City buses. She follows her dad’s advice to “pick your snits,” and asserts herself only in the points of contention that matter most.

Sarah’s first best seller was published in 1996; her 10th will come out in May. Two of her novels were combined into a movie starring Mandy Moore. Yet when she appeared at a Chapel Hill grade school class as a volunteer “celebrity reader” and one of the youngsters asked her whether paparazzi camped outside her door, she set him straight with, “No, no, no. Not when you’re a writer. It doesn’t work like that.”

Growing up with an English professor father and a classics professor mother, Sarah nevertheless held the title of family storyteller. One night, during a lull in conversation at the dinner table, she announced, “I have some news. I’m pregnant.” She was all of 10 at the time. Even at that young age she understood that what you have to say can be much more interesting if you make it up.

Her novels, written for teenage girls, engage their mothers as well. And sometimes their fathers. Courtney Mitchell ’01, a budding writer and former student whom Sarah has mentored, said her father wished he’d had Sarah’s novels to read while his daughters were growing up to help him understand the complexities of being a teenage girl. Sarah’s father said some of his male friends read and enjoy his daughter’s work. Sarah has changed the definition of young adult literature, Courtney said, elevated it and given so many young women a voice. Sarah’s protagonists don’t have perfect lives. They make mistakes and bounce back. “Through Sarah’s books,” Courtney said, “young girls see what the world is like, and know they’re going to be OK.”

Anyone who has ever been in the same house with a teenage girl slumber party knows the energy and stamina it takes to interact with that demographic. Yet Sarah engages with those girls, times tens of thousands, through her readings and by responding to blog comments and e-mail. She hears the same questions over and over from eager young women who hold her up as their ideal, yet always responds as though it’s the first time she’s heard them. She smiles warmly for pictures with her fans and never cuts short the line at book signings. If she’s tired because she spent the previous night sleeping in an airport, she’ll never show it to her fans. Yet she lets her audience into her life several times a day through Twitter, where she has more than 77,000 followers. 77,000! OMG! “You forget that there’s someone of that magnitude right here in Chapel Hill, still living a normal life, grocery shopping at Whole Foods,” Courtney said.

Novelist and writing teacher Marianne Gingher, who recruited Sarah to teach at Carolina, has watched her grow in confidence as a writer and a teacher, and understood when she had to decline a tenure-track position because her publisher demanded much more of her writing. “She knows herself well enough to know what she can and can’t take on,” Marianne said. “She’s a professional. Sarah gives the appearance of someone doing what she loves to do and enjoying sharing that love with her audience.”

It’s not just the appearance. Esse quam videri, you know.

She grew up on campus, ran in and out of her parents’ offices, skateboarded in the pit, worked hard in her classes and demanded her students do the same.

“So much of my life is intertwined with UNC,” she said, “to have UNC think I’m distinguished is like being told by your parents that they’re proud of you.”

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