07.31.09

Young Adult's High Drama

Supernatural powers, boy problems, scoliosis—the YA genre tackles all the important issues, and serves as a literary lifeline for millions of teens. A new homage finally gives it its due.

A few years ago, a magazine asked me to interview Judy Blume. When I would mention the upcoming meeting to friends—a group of more jaded women, I should add, it would be difficult to find—I was usually met with the kind of high-pitched squeal one associates with 12-year-old girls meeting a Twilight star or a Jonas brother.

That’s the magical thing with Blume’s oeuvre—and with all classic young-adult novels, from Little House on the Prairie to Flowers in the Attic. These are books that are read at an impressionable age and forever embossed on our consciousnesses. “I felt ravenous toward each book, like a vampire desperate to clamp my fangs into a foreign body until it was drained in its entirety, slumping lifeless to the floor,” writes Lizzie Skurnick of her own adolescent reading in the introduction to her new book on young-adult novels, Shelf Discovery.

Rereading A Wrinkle in Time, Skurnick writes, “That great wooshing sound you hear is the noise of 10 million readers deciding to just go ahead and be English majors.”

Skurnick, herself the author of several books in the Sweet Valley High, Love Stories, and Alias series, originally established herself as the consummate YA fiction expert with her popular Jezebel column, Fine Lines.   Shelf Discovery only bolsters this reputation. Rereading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time from an adult vantage point, Skurnick writes, “That great wooshing sound you hear is the noise of 10 million readers deciding to just go ahead and be English majors.” Claudia, the heroine of E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, is “exquisitely tasteful, stylized, demanding—the Michael Kors of the under-12 set.”

Each essay has a mix of nostalgia, analysis, memoir, and feminist revision that can make even the guiltiest read feel like it held a vital role in our coming of age. Take Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, a book she covers because it’s widely championed by adolescent readers, even if wasn’t strictly written for a young-adult audience. Skurnick assures us that if we felt like the only ones who had read the novel purely for the dirty parts, we’re not alone. “You don’t really get any kinkier than human/Neanderthal sex,” she writes. And leave it to the author, in her role as fearless YA tour guide and interpreter, to find a deeper meaning plumbed from the prehistoric porn: “On a fundamental level, it’s about sex not for sex’s sake but for how it interacts with our lives.”

Of the over 70 books, Skurnick (with a few contributions by other authors, like Gossip Girl’s Cecily von Ziegesar) tackles Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, Willo Davis Roberts, Louise Fitzhugh, and Bette Green. There are chapters on girls with Very Important Problems (scoliosis and masturbation in Blume’s Deenie, rape in Richard Peck’s Are You in the House Alone?), girls with supernatural powers (featuring multiple books by Lois Duncan), and girls who are boy-crazy (Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger, Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen). All in all, it’s an exhaustive list of books, almost indulgently so, though the length fits Shelf Discovery’s voracious tone. The book would have been just as successful—if not more so—with fewer books covered and longer, more in-depth essays. But that would have made for some difficult cuts.

Skurnick seems to have targeted books from the ‘60s to the ‘80s that she grew up on, but her list works just as well as a canon for younger readers. It would have been nice to hear her take on newer authors such as Francesca Lia Block, whose book Baby Be-Bop, about a gay boy, has recently been recently targeted for banning by a Wisconsin library for its “vulgar” and “anti-Christian” content.

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Shelf Discovery. By Lizzie Skurnick. 448 Pages. Avon A. $14.99 ()

The vast majority of books covered have female heroines, which, she says, is the point of reading (and rereading) all of this YA fiction. “They challenge us, like the best of friends, in general—not only to be ourselves, but to be more interesting, inspired versions of ourselves, girls unafraid to squeeze toothpaste, sleep on a Louis XIV bed or keep important tabs on all the neighbors.” There are a few books with male protagonists, like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World, though the question of what adolescent boys read, or what the effect of Joseph Conrad, J. D. Salinger, and Philip K. Dick on their burgeoning manhood is, perhaps, best saved for another book.

And besides, too many boys would ruin the gushing slumber-party vibe. The essays read like excited missives to a friend, complete with an overreliance on all caps and WTF-style abbreviations. They occasionally suffer from feeling like they haven’t been edited rigorously enough from the Web to the page. But that’s a minor critique; this is a book whose worst problem is that it makes you want to reread every book it covers.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book,  Girl Power, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.