Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading (A Reading Memoir) by Lizzie Skurnik
Avon, 1st printing, 2009
Genre: Memoir, YA
Synopsis & Review: Sometime in the Sixties, says Lizzie Skurnik, YA literature for girls underwent a sea change, from wholesome entertainment into something rich and strange. Out of this marvelous transformation came Judy Blume and Lois Duncan, and then others followed suit: Katherine Paterson, Richard Peck, Robert Cormier, Scott O’Dell, Paula Danziger, Norma Klein, and Willo Davis Roberts, among others. Skurnik declares that this is when writers began dealing with “the lives and dramas of adolescent girls on their own terms, in their own worlds.” Her reading memoir Shelf Discovery is an epic odyssey through YA lit of a certain time, from the late Sixties to the late Eighties, and nearly all of the books will be recognizable to readers (women?) of a certain age. Shelf Discovery sprang forth from Skurnik’s Jezebel column Fine Lines, and spurred on by the enthusiastic response of readers, Skurnik gathered, categorized, and dissected a number of the classics of the genre. From Alcott and Burnett to L’Engle and Blume, Shelf Discovery features essays not only by Skurnik, but also popular authors like Meg Cabot and Cecily von Ziegesar.
The book is divided into chapters categorizing books nominally by theme, with the exception of Chapter One, Still Checked Out/YA Heroines We’ll Never Return. After these classics come She’s at that Age/Girls on the Verge; Danger Girls/I Know What You Did Last Summer (Reading); Read ‘em and Weep/Tearing Up the Pages; You Heard it Here First/Very Afterschool Specials; Girls Gone Wild/Runaways, Left Behinds, and Ladies Living off the Fat of the Land; She Comes by It Supernaturally/Girls Who are Gifted and Talented; Him She Loves/Romanced, Rejected, Affianced, Dejected; Old-Fashioned Girls/They Wear Bonnets, Don’t They?; and Panty Lines/I Can’t Believe They Let Us Read This. Essays vary from full-length Book Reports with synopsis and analysis, to the much shorter Overdue and Extra Credit selections, which were usually all-too brief.
At a Christmas Eve party, my friend Matt asked me why exactly all the girls in intermediate school were reading Flowers in the Attic and Clan of the Cave Bear all the damn time. (I have no idea how the topic came up; I was a little tipsy.) Though Matt is about a decade older than I am, I immediately had the answers for him, being part of the tail of that YA movement that flourished in the late Sixties up through the Eighties (when I got my greasy little mitts on them). So I began expounding on V.C. Andrews and Jean M. Auel at length, declaiming the narratives of the Dollanganger and Earth’s Children sagas (with brief forays into the Casteels and Adares during the former), while Matt and Josh listened raptly, dazzled by the secret lives of girls. I can’t even remember the last time I read FitA or CotCB, but I remembered everything about the books, including how much I had loved them and why.
Reading Shelf Discovery will bring back some of those feelings, and may inspire you to re-read some of the volumes you nearly forgot, or will perhaps inspire you to investigate some of the books you missed out on. Despite the splash Shelf Lives made in the book blogging universe both before and after its debut, I avoided it and its progenitor Fine Lines, not wanting to taint my own reactions and occasional analyses with those of Skurnik et alia. I put off reading it till I joined the Shelf Discovery Challenge; I wanted to investigate some of those books I missed out on for whatever reason (and let me tell you, I am shocked, just SHOCKED at some of the books I never read.), but I wanted to know more about them. So I borrowed Shelf Discovery from the library, intending to just read some of the essays on books I’d never read (mostly weepies and romances), but ended up instead reading the whole thing in one sitting.
It’s easy to do; Skurnik writes breezily, and with an engaging, often VERY funny tone. At times it was like avidly discussing favorite books over the lunch table with a kindred spirit. But there were also disappointments. As I mentioned above, some of the “essays” were extremely brief, scarcely a full page in length—The Great Brain’s entry is one short paragraph. And the longer entries were sometimes simply spent recounting the plot, with little to no analysis of subtext, and quite frankly, it was that close reading, the gravity and dignity—shit, the reverence! —given to the subject of YA lit and reading, that were the strongest points of Skurnik’s work. Memoir is fun, and the feeling of recognition enjoyable, but the careful consideration of the readers and themes made the good parts of Shelf Discovery very good. The other parts, not so much.
But! I did rediscover a book I’d been looking for for some time: Berthe Amoss’ Secret Lives (in the Extra Credit category, and granted two and three-quarter pages, hmmph). I’d racked my brains for a title or author to match what little I recalled of the plot, and even posted in the Lost and Found over at The Dairi Burger looking for it, to no avail. So hooray for that! I was a little mystified by the lack of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, or any of L.M. Montgomery’s heroines, particularly in light of the Eighties revival of both. There was also no Barthe deClemens, whose Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade and Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You (among others), were disturbing and avidly read by my elementary school peers. Or Jerry Spinelli’s Space Station Seventh Grade and Who Put that Hair in My Toothbrush, dealing with death and intense sibling rivalry—and pubescence both male and female. Whither they, hmmm?
Shelf Discovery is a fun walk down Memory lane, and probably worthwhile for educators and librarians, but get it from the library if you can. There isn’t enough depth or detail to make it worth buying.
Read also: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, any of the books in the table of contents
Cover: Little Girl and Big Girl, reading, bathed in a soft glow of white light. Meh. The text is okay, with a slightly retro paperback vibe, but I think an homage to the classic painted covers of the era would have been a better choice.