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Interview: July 2009

July 2009

Author/poet/blogger Lizzie Skurnick's new book, SHELF DISCOVERY, is a collection of essays that sprung from a column she writes for the women's blog Jezebel, in which she revisits and deconstructs old favorite YA books from her childhood and adolescence.
In this interview with's Sarah A. Wood, Skurnick discusses the origins of the column and explains why she chose the specific novels she included in the book. She also muses on the positive messages she hopes young girls can learn from both these older teen reads and current YA titles, shares her thoughts on how the act of reading in general can enrich people's lives, and offers advice for those aspiring toward careers in writing and publishing. I really enjoyed reading SHELF DISCOVERY and have referred many of my friends to your "Fine Lines" column on Jezebel so they can get a sneak peek at the book. How did this book come to be? What inspired your column?
Lizzie Skurnick: When I found out that Gawker was launching a website for women, Jezebel, I knew there would never be another place where I could write about these books for women my age on a weekly basis. (Glamour isn't going to devote a column on Lois Duncan to every issue of the magazine, as much as someone there might like to.) But the idea of the column just came to me --- I'd been working as a book reviewer for years, occasionally giving a look-back to a great novel from the past, but it was as if the idea to write about the books of this era had just been waiting for an outlet for me to realize I could do it. (Also, it turned out that Anna Holmes, the EIC of Jezebel, was going to ask me to write this column as well --- synergy!)
TRC: Many of the books that appear here were published more than 20 years ago. Do you think they will continue to be classics? What books being published now do you predict will become classics?
LS: In my column, I tried to focus on books that aren't classics --- books that have been forgotten or aren't given the attention I think they deserve. I always make it a point in bookstores to see what books they are still stocking in the YA sections, and I'm always heartened to see some Cormier, Blume, L'Engle or O'Dell still hanging in there. (Yesterday I saw a copy of Blume's IGGIE'S HOUSE, which I'm so glad is still in print.) But there's lots of books you just wouldn't know about if you didn't already, like THE LONG SECRET, the sequel to HARRIET THE SPY -- a book I really preferred. I'm hoping SHELF DISCOVERY will bring some attention back to books that are totally forgotten as well as the minor books an author writes that tend to quickly go by the wayside --- the books that are actually usually my favorite. (I'm wondering if other readers also remember Cormier's EIGHT PLUS 1, a hilarious collection of short stories! Or Paul Zindel's TO TAKE A DARE, which he wrote with Crescent Dragonwagon? NED KELLY AND THE KINGDOM OF BEES? I have a zillion of these floating around in my brain.)
TRC: Most of the titles in SHELF DISCOVERY feature female characters learning about themselves and their world. Do you think girls have a different relationship to books than boys? Can you recommend a “books for boys” equivalent to your book?
LS: I do think that for the most part girls become dedicated readers a bit earlier, so it's not surprising that they're the most active readers for teen books. (Or any other books around.) And women writers have often been shuttled into the YA or midlist market, which is more interested in girls' and womens' stories, and those books garner far fewer prizes, get less attention and have a shorter shelf life. When I started this column, I wasn't really thinking boys/girls --- I was writing about the books that were important to me. But I'm surprised at how many people seem to think it's my responsibility to throw in some boys! When the publishing world starts to be ruled by books for and about women, I'll be happy to throw them a bone. For now, any reviewer who thinks I've neglected boys or books for boys is totally welcome to get to work on a book like this for boys, which would be great, I think. (And did I mention NED KELLY AND THE KINGDOM OF BEES? I, ROBOT? Also, A LONG DAY IN WINTER, or A LIGHT IN THE FOREST.... Oh, maybe I should just do one for boys.)
TRC: One of the things I really enjoyed in SHELF DISCOVERY was how many positive messages for girls you found in YA. I particularly liked your spin on the domestic arts in the “Girls Gone Wild” chapter and your take on supernatural powers in “She Comes By It Supernaturally.” Do you think girls are getting the same positive messages in books they read today?
LS: It's hard to say. So many of these books were written in an era where women's liberation was far more of an active question than now, when we take it for granted that, say, that women can thrive at work, or are as good at math as men, or can survive a divorce. (Look to SISTER OF THE BRIDE or DAUGHTERS OF EVE for some very different viewpoints!) I really do remember the days before Title IX, when we didn't get new uniforms as often as the boys' teams, or had to fight for gym time. These books played such an important part in opening my eyes to various injustices.

On the other hand, when I was growing up, there was so much less casual sexualization of girls --- the media and advertising industry had far less of a choke hold on everything --- see this post on Jezebel on earlier depictions of girls in the media, which coincidentally went up as I was writing this. (I think my main takeaway from TV at that time was that if I used Dove soap, my boyfriend might recommend me for a commercial, too.) I think feminism helped society stop taking certain things for granted about girls, but nowadays I think we take different things for granted that are equally damaging --- and the media is a much more pernicious tool when it's trying to sell something. 
I guess I'm glad I didn't get raised in an era where I was expected to get a Brazilian wax; to be able to converse expertly with adults; to be always appealing to boys; to volunteer for the homeless and get straight A's and be impressive in college applications when I didn't really even know what flavor of ice cream I liked best. (Basically, I was very nerdy, and I sat around and read in my old dirty Tretorns and went to diners with my friends, and I still turned into a productive citizen.) I hope that the YA today is also challenging some of the pressures I see younger girls facing now.

TRC: While you wrote most of the essays in this book, SHELF DISCOVERY also contains essays by other authors about books they read as teenagers. Did you find that you have favorite books in common with other authors? What was the most interesting aspect of including other authors in this book?
LS: When I asked the other authors if they'd contribute (and I'm so glad they did!), I made it clear I wanted them to do a book that felt important to them and not something that was important to me or fit into my scheme. I do think there's always such funny crossover --- I posted one of my favorites, Berthe Amoss's SECRET LIVES, on Facebook a few days ago, just to find the other seven girls who had read it --- but I also think that people have their own particular loves and genres. It's been great to hear from readers of the column about their favorite authors, and I always feel bad when it's not someone I can write on. (Someone just put "Mary. Downing. Hahn" on my Facebook Wall, and I have no idea who that is!) So I was hoping that I could get even more of a sense of the entirety of the era from getting contributors' viewpoints, too. (My dream, actually, is to create some sort of virtual library for these books where anyone can submit their favorite book along with a review, like a massive global “Fine Lines.”)
TRC: As you re-read favorite books from your childhood, had your impressions about them changed? Do you have any specific examples of books that seem very different now from when you first read them?
LS: I was really thrilled to find that most of the books were exactly as great as I'd remembered them. The one book that I wasn't able to connect to was, surprisingly, that ur-YA masterpiece, ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME MARGARET, which I had such trouble with that I had to write a column about it. Instead of being able to get back into the character of Margaret, I felt like a batty old aunt spying on a bunch of teenage girls. Maybe there are some periods --- no pun intended --- of growing up we're really just never meant to return to --- which I think is actually good, in a way.
TRC: You note several times in SHELF DISCOVERY that you can always tell who the “good guys” are in YA because they are people who love words. How can a love of reading enrich people’s lives?
LS: People often focus on what “lessons” we can learn from books. While I think that truly good books actually rarely teach us anything as simple as lessons, they do teach us about other people. Most teenagers aren't circumnavigating the globe having adventures that teach them about human nature, but books are an easy, free way to expand your world and consider those outside yourself. (I also never understood asking readers to relate books to their own lives --- what's great about a book is that it's *not* your own life.) Someone who knows that other people are different; who has a grasp on something in the world outside herself; who knows far more goes on than what's happening in her little corner --- is likely going to be a more interesting, empathetic and alert person to be around.
TRC: What resources would you recommend to people who enjoy SHELF DISCOVERY? Is there a place where they can share their experiences reading with others? Will there be a wiki or forum on any of your websites where they can discuss this book? How would you encourage readers to share their passion for reading?
LS: I'm working on a wiki now! I'm hoping people can share thoughts/memories/cover scans/recipes for tomato sandwiches there. I think there are also some Fine Lines book clubs, which seems like a great way to get back in the swing too, if everyone else can find a copy on eBay.
TRC: Many of the people who visit are young readers engaging with literature for the first time. What would you like young readers to take away from your book?
LS: First, I hope they'll find some great books to read. But I also hope they'll be interested in seeing books that were written in a very different world from the one they're living in now. I'd love to hear what a reader nowadays would think of TIGER EYES, for instance (still in print!) or THE GROUNDING OF GROUP SIX (not), and I'd love to hear from any younger readers if they do try out one of the ’70s classics. 
TRC: You spent many years working in publishing. What would you tell young people interested in pursuing a career in publishing? Does this experience inform your writing and your goals as a writer?
LS: Well, most people will tell you if you want to be a writer, don't work in publishing for long, and I think that's good advice. Instead of writing, you'll be working on promoting other people's writing, and if that's not equally interesting to you too, it's going to feel bad. (It's like being a food critic when you really want to be a chef.) But my time in publishing was very valuable to me --- I saw how books were really made, how and why editors make certain choices, what an agent is for --- it made me less scared of launching my own career and also able to take things less personally when I became a full-time writer. To continue my handy food metaphor --- I saw how the sausage was made. So, if you're the kind of person who is curious and likes to know how things happen before jumping in, then working in publishing for a time is not a bad idea. It can also help with connections, of course. But a writer, above all, should write.

For young people interested in a career in publishing --- I'd just say you've joined at an exciting time! The industry is going to look completely different in 10 years, but no one knows how yet. You certainly won't be bored.

TRC: What’s your next big project? What can readers who enjoy SHELF DISCOVERY look forward to in the future?
LS: I am, of course, working on a novel. (What else?) But --- more Fine Lines will be incoming, and I'll be doing lots more stuff on the radio as well, including a literary podcast with a good friend of mine. My new website,, will have all the updates!