Monday, September 7, 2009

Just take those old books off the shelf

Though I might be the last person on the planet to read Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick, I've been a fan of Skurnick's Fine Lines feature at Jezebel almost since it debuted. Fine Lines is one of those terrific ideas where you read it, kick yourself, and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" For non-Jezebel readers, Fine Lines is a weekly feature that recaps a classic YA novel from the 1960's, '70's, or '80's (I know, right? Genius!), and Shelf Discovery is the book of recaps. It also has guest contributions from authors including Meg Cabot, Cecily von Ziegesar, Jennifer Weiner, and Margo Rabb.

Skurnick, the original Book Thief, writes from her personal collection of vintage YA novels, dividing the book into chapters like "She's at that Age: Girls on the Verge" and "You Heard it Here First: Very Afterschool Specials," highlighting ten books per chapter, give or take. Because this book is a memoir and not an analysis of reading, Skurnick recaps the books that are near and dear to her heart...which are also books that are near and dear to the hearts of many Gen X women. Those are the people Skurnick speaks to, rather than the librarians and academics of YA literature. Reading her writing makes me feel like I'm talking to a really cool, smart friend who understands how much these books formed our worlds when we were teens (and younger). We're older and wiser now, and we can look at things like Harriet Welsch's growing empathy in Harriet the Spy and the ultimately bleak endings of Blubber and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit with an eye for literary technique, but ultimately, we are still ten years old and reading these books, reacting to them viscerally and re-reading with hunger. Reading Skurnick makes me unafraid to giggle and gasp and OMG as I read Go Ask Alice and Flowers in the Attic. I confess I've only read about half the books in Shelf Discovery, but Skurnick's writing makes me want to go pick up many more. (Except Island of the Blue Dolphins. No force on this earth will ever make me believe that book is anything but deathly boring.)

After I read, I got to thinking about the roles that parents, friends, and imagination play in these novels of decades past. The part of me newly indoctrinated into the children's publishing business wonders how many of these books could be published today, just as they are save for a few technology and fashion updates. Then again, in some of these books, technology updates would wreck the plot. A lot has changed in terms of pop culture, technology, parenting, and the idea of independence, which are all things that govern the background of YA literature. The books in Shelf Discovery all give indication as to some of the people who are writing, editing, and selling YA today. Which gives me hope for the genre. Well, not just hope...knowledge that a passion for books will pass on to future generations.

Now what I'd really love to see a the version of Shelf Discovery in 2020.


Charlotte said...

No, no! Island of the Blue Dolphins is Not boring! It's a Hunger Games of one, a Life as We Knew It with fresh fish instead of canned goods, My Side of the Mountain with dogs instead of a falcon. And cool craft ideas.

tbrosz said...

How about a compilation of books that leans toward the kind of things boys read?

Heinlein's juveniles and other SF, Danny Dunn, the Mushroom Planet books, Kipling, Homer Price, Henry Reed, Tom Swift...

Okay, I admit I tended toward genre fiction, but you get the idea!

Don't knock classic comic books as part of the formative reading experience for boys either.

Carlie Webber said...

@tbrosz: I think that'd be a great compilation. Who's going to write it?

The thing with Shelf Discovery is that it's a reflection on Skurnick's reading habits, not the reading habits of girls in general. I would love to see a compilation of guy books from the formative years of Gen X, genre fiction or not.