Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick. Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2009. Copy supplied by publisher.
I feel like I should put a disclosure in this review -- Lizzie Skurnick is my best friend.
The problem with such a disclosure is, of course, that Skurnick and I have never met. (I hope Skurnick isn't now on the phone to her lawyers, reporting me as a potential delusional stalker). But having read Skurnick's essays on teen books, Shelf Discovery, I am convinced that somehow we are friends. How else to explain how she wrote about my favorite books? She has snuck into my house and looked at my bookshelves; she has remembered the titles I have forgotten; she has eavesdropped on my fifth, seventh, ninth grade self as I sat and talked books with my friends.
One big difference exists between the child/teen reader I was and the one I am; at age ten, eleven, thirteen I said I loved a book; that someone had to read a book; I knew I was getting something important from a book. But to put it into words? No. Skurnick takes those best loved books, treats them (and the young reader) with respect, and, as an adult, explains why, exactly, that book worked so well for the reader. At times I nodded along with agreement (yes, that's exactly why!); and at others, I was hit with the sudden realization of just WHY a book meant so much to me.
Skurnick on V.C. Andrews: "Andrews writes like a non-native speaker who has done time in a jail where they only show 1960s sitcoms and One Life to Live, and my small heart aches and blood runs from many small paper cuts as I read her, beating my small fists on the pages." Not only does Skurnick explain Andrews' style, she also imitates it. Honors it. And here is the thing -- upon occasion, as here, Skurnick brings the snark but done the right way. With love.
Because Skurnick is writing about the books she loved, these are books that were published in the 60s, 70s, and 80s (with a handful of titles, like Understood Betsy that are even earlier). Books that were out, and read, before the current golden age of YA. They are the books that we, the readers in the 70s and 80s and 90s, chose to read. Wanted to read. Found, ourselves, on library shelves, in classrooms, passed on from a friend, picked up at a garage sale, found in a bookcase at home. And while there is a so-called classic or two among these pages (because even classics can be loved), most are not. They are classics in our hearts; because we remember and love them; not because of committees and teachers and assigned summer reading and classroom book discussions.
Reading this is like a discussion with a friend; Skurnick throws out a reference to Canby Hall totally assuming we will know exactly what she is talking about; and we do. And smile a little. And wonder if somewhere we have one of the Canby Hall books, to revisit. The jacket covers shown for the books are not the current ones but the ones that we had; and no matter how much we may think they are "bad" now and know that they wouldn't be picked up by any reader today, they are ours, our firsts, so we love them best and want that. exact. copy from eBay to replace the one lost or stolen or thrown out or sold at a garage sale.
A handful of the books reviewed were also reviewed at Skurnick's Fine Lines column for Jezebel; but even those essays have been revised. While some adults will (like myself) remember reading these books (even if we forgot the title of Beat the Turtle Drum we totally have memorized "if we were all on a boat and the boat capsized, and we had only one life jacket, they would put it on Joss"), others (I know from talking to the parents in libraries) have blanked out the books of their childhood and teen years. They forget that yes, teen books did have s.e.x. (please reprint Norma Klein); and gay characters; and bad things happened liked YOUR PARENTS SENT YOU TO CAMP TO KILL YOU. Good lord, the current parents who are so sensitive on behalf of their children (but really are sensitive as to how they are being portrayed in fiction to children, it's not really about their kids but about them) need this reminder of just how godawful the parents were in the books we read.
Having finished Shelf Discovery, I want to reread old favorites with the new insights from Skurnick. I want to track down the books I had never heard of. But I also want to pick up the phone, call Skurnick (tho if we're friends I guess I can call her Lizzie) and say, what, no A Summer to Die? No The Last of Eden? And she'll say, Liz, I included To Take a Dare, what more do you want from me? No one else on the planet knows that book, so be quiet already. And I'll pull out my copy of To Take a Dare and say, remember how Chrysta's dad wouldn't give her the pills, and we'll just continue talking about the books.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy