Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading

Lizzie Skurnick
2009, Memoir
Avon, $14.99, 424 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061756350

Grade: B+
Sensuality: N/A

Unlike Lizzie Skurnick, I do remember the book that made me a reader: B is for Betsey by Carolyn Haywood. It was written before my mom was born, but I was completely captivated. It led to an epic reading summer, in which I devoured the entire Haywood oeuvre, scouring the various libraries of Monmouth County, New Jersey until I found them all (if they had inter-library loan in 1978, no one told me about it). It also led to a stunning win in the Holmdel Library summer reading contest, which netted me a stapler. No, I don't still have it. For reasons I never understood (maybe it was my prison-inmate-like pallor?), my mom was always telling me to "Put that book down and go play outside." Sometimes I did, but often I'd just take my book outside. Not much changed as I grew up; summer always seemed to me like nine glorious weeks in which I could read all the time.

Unbeknownst to me, Lizzie Skurnick was growing up at the same time, and evidently reading all the same books. Shelf Discovery is a reading memoir of YA and kid lit. It's essentially a book of reviews and memories, many of which I shared. Various Chick Lit authors (Laura Lippman, Meg Cabot, etc.) contribute as well. Skurnick uses the term "pioneer porn" to describe the way in which one revels in the minute details of the Ingalls family (I too remembered the real glass windows and white sugar wrapped in brown paper). In this vein, Shelf Discovery is bibliophile porn. Reading it was like taking a walk down memory lane, remembering books I'd loved in my childhood but hadn't thought about in years. It's a celebration of the world of YA reading in the 70s and 80s (even though some of the books covered were written long before that).

Essentially, the books are grouped into loose categories: Historical novels, books with supernatural elements, and (my personal favorite) "I Can't Believe They Let Us Read This." It's somewhat challenging to review a book of reviews, but here are some general impressions:

  • This book is really funny. Skurnick writes in a colloquial fashion, and has a knack for highlighting the best parts of YA classics. Her comments about them are as enjoyable as the memories. Her observation about A Wrinkle in Time (in which she quotes Charles Wallace's explanation about time as the fourth dimension, and then says, "That great whooshing sound you hear is the noise of 10 million readers deciding to just go ahead and be English majors") was what sold the book to me; I took it directly to the counter and bought it after that.
  • Laura Lippman's formula for signs that a book falls into the "YA Colonial Porn" category was both funny and accurate. It comes with the handy COVENS acronym:

    Clothing
    Orphans
    Villains
    England
    Nature Boys (a la Dickon)
    Specialized Schools.

    That more or less describes what pulled me in as a reader.

  • The comments on V.C. Andrews were simply hilarious. And if you're wondering whether the passages you remember are quoted, the answer is yes. I was only a little surprised that I recalled them word for word - doubtless because I kept skipping back to the dirty parts and reading them over and over. Like Skurnick, I know I was getting away with something when I read those. I'm quite sure my mom had no idea Flowers in the Attic was about incestuous teenagers locked in an attic with only their rampant hormones for company.
  • I'm so glad she included:
    1) All of a Kind Family
    2) The Girl with the Silver Eyes (I thought I was the only one who read that!)
    3) All of Judy Blume (I too was had no idea what Deenie was talking about when she said she liked to touch her "special place")
    4) Daughters of Eve (I think this book is really unappreciated).

  • I can't believe she forgot (or didn't read):
    1) Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I know, it's an animal book. But it's not really an animal book.
    2) Anne of Green Gables, and everything else by L.M. Montgomery. How can you love pioneer and orphan porn, and not read Anne and Emily?
    3) Other Sunfire romances. She mentions Caroline, which was really far down on my personal Sunfire pecking order. The best ones were Susannah, Amanda, Jessica, and Marilee.
    4) The Secret Friend, Luvvy and the Girls, Ruth Chew's Witch books. Or maybe I was the only one who read those.

When I closed the book, I wanted nothing more than to go out to lunch with Lizzie, so we could talk old books and childhood reads. One reason it was so enjoyable to revisit these reads is that I rarely had anyone to talk to about them at the time. My friends read too, but not quite as much as I did. And before the internet age, it was much harder to connect with other readers - something I think we almost take for granted now. At any rate, I heartily enjoyed Shelf Discovery, and my hunch is that if you are within ten years of my age (knocking on the door of forty) in either direction, you'll love it too.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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