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Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick

Now, I don't want to alienate the (considerable) male readership of The Blogulator, but I need to say something to all the ladies in the crowd, and it is this: If you are not reading Lizzie Skurnick's book columns on super ladyblog Jezebel (most importantly Fine Lines, but also Shelf Pleasuring, if you know what's good for you, which I'm sure you do if you ever pilfered your parents' copy of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear and read it with a flashlight in your closet like, um, some people), you are doing yourself an extreme disservice.

Boys, you should totally read them, too, religiously in fact, but I know my audience.

Lizzie Skurnick is, as her bio page so helpfully describes her, a critic, poet, essayist, blogger and author (not to mention National Book Critics Circle member, which is, in a word, awesome). Basically, she's a literary Jack of all trades. I first encountered Lizzie in November 2007, when she started up Fine Lines, a column devoted to the experience of rereading "the children's and YA books we loved in our youth"--and here by "our" they pretty much mean women in their twenties and thirties who grew up reading books for teens released in the '70s and '80s, painted covers and all.

About a year ago, someone at HarperCollins decided that Fine Lines was a great blog-to-book idea, and, quite unusually for this type of thing, they were right! Why hadn't anyone written this book already? So Lizzie pounded out what looks like a frillion more essays, organized them by loosely bound categories, and whamo, the best reading memoir I've ever had the pleasure of devouring whole. An ARC of the book landed in my lap about a week ago, and I've been in hog heaven ever since, because my absolutely wretched memory has given privileged space to only a scant few of these classics, many of which I read over and over again as a child (NOT a teenager--one of the nice things about YA today is that it actually appeals to teenagers, not eight-year-olds who WISH they were teenagers).

But the best part of Shelf Discovery is not revisiting old favorites (although that has been delightful; I could read about The Girl With the Silver Eyes, Island of the Blue Dolphins, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and A Wrinkle In Time--ESPECIALLY A Wrinkle In Time--all day, every day), or rediscovering them (now I remember! I read Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck probably half a dozen times in middle school, a fact which had totally slipped my sieve-like mind)--it's hearing about books I never read (like Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret., which, I know, sacrilige, but it's true! In fact, my entire Judy Blume experience revolves exclusively around the Fudge books, which is woeful AT BEST*) or, ridiculously enough, never even heard of (like The Grounding of Group Six and Don't Hurt Laurie!).

I'm starting to see that I moved on from children's literature far too soon, which is bound to happen when you start reading at age three and add in being ahead a grade and also the undeniable fact that kids read up, anyway. I also spent far too much time and energy reading Sweet Valley books at all levels (Kids, Twins and High, but not University, although several of those covers have pictures of the university I attended on them), and read a lot more Lois Duncan books than I would have thought--although, she wrote so many, and they're mostly the same (i.e. paranormal, terrifying), so it makes sense that they blended together a bit.

But wait, can we go back to A Wrinkle In Time for a second? This is probably one of my favorite books, like, ever. (That cover to the left is the one on the copy I grew up reading, by the way.) I remember laying on the floor in my bedroom--it was a dark and stormy night (for reals! I'm not even making this up because that's the first line of the book! Which it totally is, if I remember correctly)--with my headphones on, listening to Natalie Imbruglia's first CD, Left of the Middle, which I'd gotten for Christmas from my cousin Michelle (and TO THIS DAY listening to any song off that CD makes me think of this book, they are so intricately woven together in my mind), reading A Wrinkle In Time for probably the seventieth time or something and marking pages because I was planning to write a screenplay of it! (???) That never happened, but the book lives on inside of me, as any and all good books do. They become part of your DNA even if, unlike Anne Fadiman's son Henry, you refrain from actually eating them.**

So anyway, A Wrinkle In Time, right? There is no better story. All the most wonderful possible aspects of a book are there--the brutally lonely but fiercely brave heroine (one Meg Murry, daughter of brilliant scientists and best big sister ever), the infinitely precocious but lovable boy child (Charles Wallace, who I imagine growing up into some marginally better socialized version of Bones's Zach Addy, minus the *spoiler* tendency to align himself with murderous canibalistic psychopaths because his "arguments are logical", whatever Zach *end spoiler*), the wise teacher who imparts the secrets of the universe (in this case, there are three: Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit who are, for lack of a better word, aliens), the terrible crisis (beloved father imprisoned by evil interdimensional monster on a faraway planet--way less cheesy than it sounds!), and, OF COURSE and necessarily, the love interest, although that seems like an unfairly bland term for Calvin O'Keefe, better to call him Meg's perfect soulmate. But not in a goopy, cheesy, unbelievable way!

I'm heartened that Lizzie shares my passion for A Wrinkle in Time and has brought so much attention back to the treasure trove of children's literature that I grew up with. Reading Shelf Discovery--and, before it, Fine Lines--has been a true pleasure, and it is a necessary addition to the personal library of anyone who, like me, has a gustatory relish for books.

One question, though: Did we really need two essays about Clan of the Cave Bear? I mean, I loved that dirty, inexplicably fascinating series as a kid, too (totes inapprop, btw, if anyone out there in Bloguland hasn't read Clan and its sequels), but man.

*Oh wait, no, lies: I read Summer Sisters.
**See Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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  1. Blogger chris | 12:34 PM |  

    Ooh there's some good ones in those columns on Jezebel! Books I haven't read but have read journal entries about when I taught middle school: Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade, Homecoming, ooh and The Westing Game, which I did read and love back in the day.

  2. Anonymous OHD | 9:31 AM |  

    The Westing Game is one of my favorites! I was a little disappointed not to see some of my other favorites growing up (The Little White Horse being the most obvious missing book) but I guess you can't include EVERYTHING. The funny thing about Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade is that I wouldn't have recognized it from the title, or told you what it was about, but I know I read it because the cover is burned into my brain. As much as I love YA now, I hope that kids still read these books--they're pretty much trailblazers.

    I also hope that Lizzie Skurnik writes more books.

  3. Blogger Brigitte | 10:15 AM |  

    ohhh, i LOVED nothing's fair in the fifth grade! loved it. i kinda want to read it again now...

  4. Anonymous OHD | 11:00 AM |  

    OMG and The Phantom Tollbooth! For God's sake why isn't that in here? Sigh. Probs b/c it's got a male main character--but no, so does Then Again, Maybe I Won't. Actually, there are many Fine Lines columns missing from Shelf Discovery--Christopher Pike's REMEMBER ME, anyone?!

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