Chances are decent that if you are a teenager or were a teenager (we're looking at a good chunk of you Shmoopsters out there), then you've considered the fact that sometimes being a teenager is just the worst. If this is true for you, then you should definitely pick up Sarah Dessen's novel Just Listen, because the protagonist, Annabel, is having one of the worst teenage experiences ever.
Published in 2006, Just Listen follows Dessen's long list of successful young adult novels. Dessen writes in a gritty, relatable style that doesn't shy away from the turmoil of adolescence. She's not going to candy coat a single thing or turn it into a Princess Diaries fairytale—in fact her first published book, That Summer, deals with families breaking apart and infidelity. And Just Listen broaches an arguably touchier subject: rape. We get to follow Annabel Greene, the protagonist, as she deals with the aftermath of her rape, including social ostracism and family issues.
But even so, it's not a book that's entirely about misery and depression. You know that phrase what doesn't kill us makes us stronger? While this book definitely heaps on the misery, it also includes a good deal of self-exploration—and while tough, self-exploration is definitely a good thing.
Annabel is the kind of girl who's always been entirely too nice, putting other people's feelings before her own—and now that's backfired on her. As we go through the novel and see the different issues that characters are facing (rape, social isolation, depression, eating disorders, anger issues), we also get to see how they cope with them. And because of this, ultimately Just Listen looks at how people dig themselves out of their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad situations—which can be pretty inspiring stuff.
The book also explores the ideas of being honest and relying on other people. Annabel's so afraid of being vulnerable, but ultimately realizes that keeping everything inside hurts her even more. She's not the only character who we see grapple with honesty and asking for help in this book either, so as it unfolds we get to see up close the ways in which lives can improve by taking a leap and letting people know what's really going on inside.
You don't have to do everything alone, especially if it's hard. Sometimes leaning on other people isn't a burden to them—sometimes it makes you closer than you could have imagined. And no matter our life experiences, that's something we can all benefit from being reminded of from time to time.
Why Should I Care?
So maybe you're sitting there scratching your chin and thinking that this Annabel Greene character's life sounds hard, but that's not really your problem. Right? Wrong. The whole point of Just Listen is that no single person should have to suffer through their problems all alone.
If you're of the mind that we should all live in bubbles and be entirely self-sufficient, then maybe this book will change your mind. After all, some of the characters in the book start off by thinking that they can survive on their own too.
Annabel thinks she needs to keep her rape to herself so she doesn't destroy her already delicate mother; Whitney thinks her eating disorder is no one else's business and resents Kristen for ratting her out to the parents. None of this self-imposed isolation helps them in the end though, and seeing this unfold just might make you rethink the way you see your own independence and willingness to lean on others in hard times.
If you're in the midst of adolescent angst (we've all been there, no shame), Just Listen also offers up some very relatable characters. These aren't the teenagers you see in movies and TV shows. They don't have quirky lives where they—oops—just end up dating the president's son and jetting off to Paris for spring break. These are real teenagers with real problems—dealing with friends who turn out to be not so nice after all, sneaking out to go to shows, and fumbling romance pretty badly.
So if you're looking for a book that actually talks about real teenagers trying to make their way through this world, or if you're just really into some schadenfreude, check out Just Listen. It's worth it, we promise.