Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen; Viking/Penguin (2009)
Dessen's latest novel follows the same basic format of many of her previous novels: a girl has troubles (usually involving a boy, her family, and some girl friends) and is able to overcome those troubles by rediscovering herself and forming new (or fixing old) relationships (again, usually with a boy, her family, and some girl friends). Despite her formulaic writing, Dessen's novels are always a treat because of the well-developed characters, the witty dialogue, and her deft creation of a world that is both locally recognizable and universal.
Along for the Ride follows Auden, daughter of two selfish and immature college professor parents, as she spends the summer in Colby with her father and stepmother. Auden is over-the-top in her dedication to her school work, but doesn't always use her common sense in social situations. Even so, Auden is easy to like and to identify with. Auden's love interest, Eli, is also easy to like and will no doubt make many teenage hearts quiver.
The characters I enjoyed the most were Auden's stepmother, Heidi, and Auden's father. I wouldn't mind reading a novel geared towards adults about the two of them. At first, Heidi seems like a stereotypical ditzy stepmother, but Dessen gives Heidi more and more back-story and depth as the story progresses. Her relationship with Auden's father also seems stereotypical at first, but its twists and turns surprised me. Similarly, Auden's co-worker Maggie seems to be a typical "clothes-boys-make-up" type of girl, but turns out to be more like Auden than any reader will expect.
Dessen's unique, quirky touches aren't lost in Along for the Ride. Readers will remember Colby from Dessen's other novels, as well as The U, and some of the characters. Dessen says that she doesn't want her work to be too region-specific, but Carolina girls will easily place Colby on the map. Non-Carolina girls will be able to relate to Colby, as well, however. Eli and Auden's late night trips to Park Mart and the local convenience store made me laugh as I could picture myself doing the same thing.
I regularly suggest Dessen's novels to my middle school students (with the exception of Just Listen and Dreamland, which attempt to tackle topics that may be too difficult for middle schoolers). I plan to recommend Along for the Ride, as it is fun and easy to read, but still has enough depth to make it worth the time it takes to read it. High schoolers and college students will also enjoy this one.
1) Predict: In ten years, do you think Heidi will still be Auden's stepmother? Why or why not?
2) Eli and Auden both have trouble sleeping, but for different reasons. When have you had trouble sleeping, and why? How was your experience similar to/different from Auden and Eli's?
3) One criticism of Dessen's work is that everything works out too perfectly in the end. Do you agree or disagree with this criticism? Explain.
4) Read the interviews with Sarah Dessen on this page: http://www.teenreads.com/authors/au-dessen-sarah.asp, and view Sarah's personal website: http://www.sarahdessen.com. After viewing these sites, create FIVE interview questions that you think Sarah might not have been asked before and that she might enjoy answering. For each, explain why you think she might enjoying answering the question.
5) Dessen has been praised for her creation of interesting secondary characters. Which secondary character was your favorite, and why? How is this character different from or similar to another character from literature or someone you know?