August 2009

Lizzie Skurnick

In ‘Shelf Discovery,’ Lizzie Skurnick revisits the YA books she couldn’t put down
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Last year, blogger and writer Lizzie Skurnick set out to revisit a few of her favorite young adult novels. She chronicled the experience in Fine Lines, a weekly column on The series was a hit: hundreds of women (including me) had their memories jogged or saw old favorites get their day in the sun. Now, the columns have been turned  a book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading.

Reading Shelf Discovery feels like attending a high school reunion and reminiscing about the best of your teenage escapades with a particulary entertaining friend. Skurnick's witty, conversational and insightful summaries of novels like Flowers in the Attic, Bridge to Terebithia, The Little Princess and Little Women are supplemented by a sprinkling of guest essays from writers like Jennifer Weiner, Tayari Jones and Cecily Von Ziegesar. The collection reminds women of a certain age how the literature we read back then helped us understand our lives—while at the same time explaining that a pig bladder could be the best toy ever (Little House in the Big Woods), the Met was a really cool place at night (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler) and that you should never, ever trust your long-lost twin (Lois Duncan's Stranger With My Face).

BookPage talked with Skurnick about teen crossovers, desert islands and why she hasn't read Anne of Green Gables in a web exclusive Q&A.

Fine Lines got an amazing response. Were you surprised that so many other women remembered your childhood favorites?
The success of Fine Lines is very much a question of a happy meeting of circumstance. On the one hand, you have the rise of the web, which makes it easy to categorize and find fellow obsessesives in just about anything. On the other, you have this generation of women coming of age who've been busy with college and grad school and jobs and families and are suddenly like, Wait—what happened to that great book by Lois Duncan I loved? Oh, here it is for 2 cents on eBay! I did know that this was more than a moment of kitschy nostalgia. It's more that we're only just now grown up enough to see how important to us these books were, and we have the means to have the conversation.

Teen or young adult books that crossover to find adult audiences are all the rage these days (Twilight, the Hunger Games). Do you think this is a new phenomenon?
I think they're an unsurprising development in a society where everyone young wants to be old and everyone old wants to be young. But I rather like some entries into new genre—when you marry the sophistication of an adult books with the absurd fun of YA, basically you've taken an adult book and given it a plot, something a lot of adult books could use. Putting a sophisticated twist on a children's story is a bit trickier. (Disney has been putting double entendres to good use to make their product palatable to parents for centuries.) But if you simply raise the stakes—no pun intended—on a children's story by adding adult histrionics, the results are a little more uneven.

A related question: what do you think YA books offer adults that their intended audience might miss? And vice versa?
Well, I'm not sure I'd say "miss" as much as I'd say each audience is taking away what they need. I can't speak for any particular reader, but I know, as a child, I was much more interested in the small details that showed what people were thinking and feeling. I still remember so well that, in Nicholas and Alexandra, the Empress yells, "Abdique! Abdique!" when Nicholas abdicates–speaking French, not Russian, even as the autocracy crumbles–though why I remember this, I cannot say. Now, I can barely remember the characters' names—I'm much more interested in what people are doing. Adult readers moving some of their bookshelves over for YA may be impatient with the fact that you often only find a decent story–a real story, with an arc and everything—in adult genre writing, not literary fiction.

If we're talking about what children miss when they read adult books, I can safely say, pretty much everything. (What does it mean, technically, to abdicate, after all? Thank God in those pre-Wikipedia days I had a good dictionary, not that I used it that often.) But when you read an adult book as a child, you're doing the literary equivalent of listening in on your parents' fight–you understand the drama, though you have no idea what they are talking about.

Is there a book you revisited that turned out not to live up to its memory? 
There were two books out of the nearly 100 I read doing this book that I found I couldn't enjoy as much as I had as a child. The first was Constance C. Greene's Beat the Turtle Drum, which was truly one of my favorite books when I was 8—I must have read it 30 times—and which I remembered as this enormous opus. In fact it's a very slim book with only a few scenes. And it's a good book, too—it's just that's it's actually written for a child. That was instructive to me, because it showed how reader age-agnostic so many of these other books really are.

The second was Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. I think that book may have actually been too important to me at a certain point in my life to make it decent to return—I wrote a column about how I felt like I was a dotty old aunt spying on a bunch of girls when I tried.

Is there a YA classic that people would be surprised to learn you hadn't read?
There are so many! But I'll give two shockers: Anne of Green Gables (gasp) and most of Nancy Drew. I'll stop there before I alienate anyone else.

Shelf Discovery deals mostly with novels from the 70s and 80s. What do you think is the identifying feature among books published during that time?
I think because they pre-date this idea of teenage girls we have now, the feature they share is that they all resist easy categorization. On the one hand, you have these hilariously inner-directed, wildly curious girls, like Harriet (of Harriet the Spy), of course, but also The Westing Game's Turtle or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler's Claudia. Then you have these historical survivalists, like Island of the Blue Dolphin's Karana or The Witch of Blackbird Pond's Kit. Then you've also got Lois Duncan's cadre of ordinary girls suddenly wrestling with supernatural powers, or Norma Klein's Upper West Side sophisticates, who may or may not have lost their virginity but don't hang the idea of their girlhood on it. Even Beverly Cleary's novels are always questioning what being a girl is for—what's good or bad about it, how we can thrive but also protect ourselves in the world. (Fifteen is really quite a provoking novel about what it's like to like a boy.) Madeleine L'Engle manages to pull all of these factors in and add intergalactic time travel. 

I think that the feminist movement influenced so many of those novels (as it did women's midlist fiction of the period, like that of authors Marge Piercy or Alix Kates Shulman). There's a far more mutable attitude towards sex and sexuality, what growing up really means, what women are supposed to be and what women are becoming. I also think that so many women had the opportunity to write and publish on a large scale for the first time, so you have this flood of stories about girlhood, about family, about divorce, about marriage. Why these books get steered into YA and the stories in Goodbye, Columbus do not, I can only (ungenerously, I'm sure) speculate.

Do you still read fiction aimed at teens, and if so, do you think it has changed?
I actually signed up to judge a YA fiction prize this year to get a closer look at what is happening. From what I have read, it seems sophisticated in different ways and innocent in other ways (for lack of a better comparison, I'll say it's like "One Day at a Time" versus "Gilmore Girls") while so much of what's interesting seems to be taking place in genre works rather than the kind of realist narrative I'm used to, like Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved, for instance. 

I do think what's changed in literature is what's changed in society: now we have this idea of what teenagers are and should be—movies, stores, TV shows, schools of therapy, books are dedicated entirely to the question. When I was growing up it was Meatballs and friendship bracelets and you were pretty much done. I can't help but thinking the books of my era were devoted to releasing teenage-hood from this opaque prison (look at Paul Zindel!) while now they, like so much else in our lives, are about what happens when you live under a microscope with a pre-determined idea of what you should be. Is it better to have someone assume you're a juvenile deliquent or assume you should speak five languages and be interested in the plight of the homeless? I don't know.

It's clear from your essays that these books helped shape the way you think about the world. Do you think kids get the same benefits from books today?
You would have to talk to the kids today 20 years from now and see if Twilight has damaged them as much as 9,000 pundits seem to feel it will! But I think reading at a young age is almost always world-shaping—it's a very intimate experience, after all, one of the only ways to look deeply at another world when you still barely know your own. One practical change is that the books themselves are a quite a bit more expensive—the books I read growing up cost anywhere from 95 cents $1.25, and it was a big difference when they started going up to $4.95. I think it's unlikely that technology will make books cheaper for children—and it shouldn't, because author should be paid for their work–but I do hope it can make books more available and accessible. 

If you had to pick one book featured in Shelf Discovery that everyone should read, what would it be?
I've made it my official campaign position for this book tour that I'd like everyone to buy and read Berthe Amoss' Secret Lives, a wonderful book about a girl growing up in turn-of-the-century New Orleans trying to find out the truth about her mother's death. I forgot the title for years and was only able to actually locate it through the powers of Google four years ago—I don't want that to happen to anyone else.

What's the most surprising thing you have learned from a book?
There's so many: that the Czar and Czarina spoke French at home, of course; that red abalones are the sweetest; that you can nick off enough metal from bullet shavings to make another bullet; that you have not converted a man because just because you have silenced him. (I could keep up with the references, but there are really too many.)

Who would you rather be marooned on a desert island with: Laura Ingalls or Sara Crewe?
Oh, that is so hard! Sara would be fun because she would tell stories, but you get the sense she'd be kind of useless hauling wood and might waste away from a disease if you weren't careful. Laura you'd just fight with, because she'd be as bossy as you are. Can't I just go with Karana?

What's next on your reading list?
I just moved and donated half of my books, a process during which I unearthed a biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett I've been meaning to read for years. Then Wharton, Summer, and then A Summer to Die, which my friend Elizabeth has insisted I write about, and maybe Seventeenth Summer, just to stick with the theme. 

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Shelf Discovery

Shelf Discovery

By LIzzie Skurnick
ISBN 9780061756351

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