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Lizzie Skurnick's ode to Judy Blume, et al.

August 6, 2009 | 10:51 am


In our pages, Susan Carpenter reviews "Shelf Discovery" by Lizzie Skurnick, a look back at 73 favorite young adult books -- mostly for girls -- that were written in the 1960s and '70s.

"Twilight," shmilight. Any self-respecting Gen-Xer will tell you, with a certain nostalgic twinge: The books we read as kids were better. Of course, we're showing our age, but it's impossible to think of our childhoods without giving a major nod to Judy Blume, Madeleine L'Engle, Robert Cormier and other young-adult novelists of the 1960s and 1970s whose writings brought the world into focus and helped to shape our souls. ...

For Skurnick, these books marked a turning point in YA lit for girls, a genre that, in earlier decades, may have featured young women but didn't really deal with their "issues." Messy topics like menstruation, self-esteem, sibling rivalry, bullying and divorce were taboo until titles such as "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" and "I Am the Cheese" came along. What was different about YA books from those of the early '60s until the late '80s is that they allowed young women to see themselves "in the actual girl," Skurnick writes. These books "challenged us, like the best of friends ... not only to be ourselves, but to be more interesting, inspired versions of ourselves."

The project was born of a series of posts Skurnick wrote for the blog Jezebel. "When I started the column I thought I might just be doing a nostalgia trip, and if that had wound up being all I had to say or all I was capable of doing, I know I wouldn’t have been able to do the column for very long," she told Bitch magazine. In the interview, she explains what makes it more than nostalgia:

It is what the women around me that I talk to about these books are feeling -- that you look up and someone says, “Jacob Have I Loved” or whatever your particular book is, and the reaction is really to scream,“Oh, my god! I love it!” It’s odd to experience that, because then you’re suddenly like, “Wait, what was it about those books? Why don’t we read those books anymore? Those books were so important to us. What was happening in those books?”

Skurnick's blogging goes back a few years -- her litblog Old Hag was one of the smartest, funniest takes on books on the Internet. I was such a fan that I saw her at a conference and tried to tell her how awesome the blog was, doing all but screaming "Oh, my God! I love it!" It took years before she believed I wasn't a straitjacket-ready stalker.

Yet with all my fandom, I do wonder whether it's hard to transition from blog to book. The Daily Beast thinks the book's style is too casual in places but concludes, "This is a book whose worst problem is that it makes you want to reread every book it covers."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Author Judy Blume, left, signs a book for Elizabeth Lender, an adult fan. Credit: Carl Lender via Flickr