God help me, my baby cousin is turning 13 years old this week. On Oct. 29, 1996, baby Ciara came howling into the world as the perfect, sweet kid she still is today! The youngest grandchild on my mother’s side of the family, Ciara is one kind, intelligent and vivacious young lady! And now she’s a teenager. Sweet Moses. If I close my eyes tight and breathe deeply, I can still feel her baby weight in my 11-year-old arms and remember her little hands on my cheek. Ciara has always felt more like a sister than a cousin, and I feel much the way I’m sure a parent must feel as they look at their wonder of a kid and think, Where did she come from? and How did she get to be so awesome — and old?
So like any good bookish cousin, my mom and I ran into Books-A-Million a few weeks back looking for a great novel to bestow upon my newly-teen relative. The selection process was daunting. Do I pick something frothy and light, or grab a book with a little more substance? I wasn’t comfortable picking up anything for her that I haven’t read myself, so that narrowed down my choices in the young adult novel aisle. While my YA reading list is always expanding, there are still so many great books I simply haven’t gotten around to yet.
In the end, I went with a personal classic: Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen. I know I’ve written about Dessen on numerous occasions and it’s true that I rarely get tired of talking about one of the reigning queens of young adult fiction! Her characters are always well-drawn, believable and moving — and her plots involve real-life issues (family dynamics, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, friendship, death, grief) in a empathetic, sincere way. I never feel like her novels become boring or condescending, but they’re not all action and adventure and drama! the way some YA reads can be. They’re quieter — but I love that about them.
So yes — Ciara’s birthday gifts included a copy of one of my favorite reads ever — a story of sisters, friendship, love and loss that still appeals to me when I flip it open now, many years later. In fact, I’m thinking I should go back and re-read it so I can text her about the plot once she starts reading! Yes, as difficult as it is for me to accept . . . I can now text Ciara. And she texts me back. Immediately.