Sydney’s brother Peyton has always been the center of attention: first because of his daring and charisma, later because of his trouble with the law. When things get bad for Peyton, Sydney all but disappears in the eyes of her parents. In an effort to get out from Peyton’s shadow, Sydney changes schools, a move that leads her to new friends and a way to be seen for herself.
I think Sarah Dessen is a great author, but she woefully underrepresented on my blog. I’ll confess, I like her books so much that I’d rather just read them for myself without any of the careful attention that goes into documenting the content. I want to tear through the pages when I can’t stand not knowing what happens next. I want to linger in the best parts and not be asking myself “hmm, anything anyone needs to know about here”. But I realized that just isn’t fair to you guys. If you have a tween or teen at home, it is very likely that Sarah Dessen’s books would be a huge hit, so it’s just not fair to keep them from you!
I would even go further and say that this particular Sarah Dessen novel should be required reading for teens and tweens. It covers so many issues that teens face and handles them beautifully. Dessen writes about these difficult topics in a way that is completely and compellingly real. You believe her. You trust her. And that has so much importance. Because when readers trust an author and her characters like that, they can take away valuable lessons. In the wrong hands this could be a melodramatic “issues” book. Or a funny, jokey tale of making it through the rough times. But it’s neither of those things. It reads as honest. And this is key, as Dessen talks about things that just aren’t talked about enough.
The most important of these is Sydney’s continuous feeling of discomfort around Ames. A friend her brother met during one of his many rehab stints, Ames is constantly around Sydney’s family. Her mother views him as part guide, part replacement son. Sydney sees things differently. Something about Ames just makes her terribly uncomfortable. He looks at her too long. He is more physically demonstrative than she’d like, hugging her or squeezing her shoulders. But because Ames hasn’t done anything that Sydney can specifically cite as “wrong”, she feels like she can’t say anything about it. She thinks everyone would ignore her or think she was just trying to cause trouble. As the book progresses, Ames becomes more and more intimidating and the situation becomes untenable. I cannot emphasize enough how important I think this representation is. So many teens find themselves in a situation where they are the recipients of unwanted attention but are afraid or ashamed to speak up. They worry they’ve exaggerated things in their minds or that they might be to blame. It is clear throughout Saint Anything that Sydney really wants protection and help and at the end, it is clear that she should not have been afraid to ask for it.
I was also impressed with the depiction of teen alcohol use. While the very serious consequences of underage drinking are at the heart of Saint Anything, it does not read as preachy or even demonizing. Characters who most certainly are aware of these consequences do still drink. But the decisions they make regarding how much they drink, who they drink with and how they can best take care of their friends who have been drinking are the same decisions that face todays teens. So while the intention of the book isn’t to scare kids straight, neither is it depicting teen drinking as only something that occurs at wild, exciting parties. And as I said, I think it will read as more honest because of that.
But neither drinking nor creepy Ames is the main story. At its heart, Saint Anything is a story about love. And I don’t mean that in the romantic sense, even though there is a little romance along the way. It’s about friendship and families and the ways that love can save us, but also how it can give us blind spots relative to those we care about. It truly shows the complexity of emotions that are tied up in caring about people.
Age Recommendation: Grades 7 and up. As I said, I think kids of this age need to read about Sydney’s world. They will soon be facing many decisions of their own about how to be responsible and functional in the face of peer and family pressure. The special thing about Saint Anything is that it will subtly point towards the right path while feeling realistic.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – A girl feels uncomfortable with the small bits of attention shown to her by an older guy. Initially here is nothing overtly sexual or threatening in his actions. But he sets up a romantic dinner with candles when he’s supposed to be taking care of her and has rented romantic movies. He begins hugging her for a bit too long. It is incredibly important that this is shown here as so often girls will dismiss their discomfort when they can’t put their finger on what is wrong. It’s important that they share how they feel with friends and trusted adults. A character on a show was once a Playmate. A girl was dumped. A girl talks about a guy using “his act” on someone. There’s definitely girls noticing guys are attractive and vice versa. There’s a joke about castrating elephants. A family had fertility problems including miscarriages before having a child. A girl and guy disappear upstairs at someone’s house where they were doing “god knew what”. An older girl puts her head on a younger guys shoulder and presses herself up against him. He is not comfortable with this. There’s flirting. People date. People kiss on the lips (in front of other people). Tween girls giggle and squeal over a cute boy. People hug. A couple holds hands. There’s more kissing, including tongue kissing. A guy asks if certain girls are hot. There’s definitely some cuddling and snuggling.
Profanity – “bitch”, “hell”, “oh my God”, “shit”, a woman gives people the finger, “moron”, “assholes”, “crap”, “ass”,
Death, Violence and Gore – Someone is hit by a drunk driver. The extent of the injuries is not immediately reported. We learn eventually that he is paralyzed and unlikely to walk again. A guy forcibly restrains a girl and tries to kiss her. An adult male assaults another male to protect someone he cares about.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – A teen smokes pot. A teen goes to rehab. A teen goes to Narcotics Anonymous. A teen is found with pills. Teens smoke cigarettes. Teens drink beers and do shots. There is drunk driving. There’s more talk of getting busted for drug use. A teen abused Vicodin after being prescribed it for pain. Someone has a collection of beer steins. Teens lie to their parents and drink. There is definitely peer pressure surrounding the consumption of alcohol. A teen who does not drink takes a polite sip to avoid further hassling about drinking. A group of teens drinks beer. Teens drink to the point of passing out. Teens drink to the point of vomiting. Teens play drinking games. It’s worth noting that drinking is shown being done underage both incredibly irresponsibly and relatively responsibly (although I don’t know that underage drinking can be all that responsible). Parents drink in front of their kids both beer and wine. Workers drink beer on break. A teen is intoxicated, drinking vodka straight from the bottle. Several teens take swigs from a bottle of vodka. Teens get high.
Frightening or Intense Things – A teen is frequently in trouble with the police. Issues include shoplifting, drugs, reckless driving breaking and entering, resisting arrest. Teens go to jail for their crimes. Adults make questionable decisions like not apologizing or contacting someone who is injured as well as victim blaming. A friend is asked to lie and cover for someone. A parent has MS and subsequently has health issues and scares including hospital visits. Someone has a heart attack (not fatal).