Today's guest post comes from Anita Liberty, performance poet, filmmaker, novelist and lover of small dogs. For the uninitiated, Anita Liberty is a woman who, when she discovered that her ex-boyfriend Mitchell was dating someone named HEATHER, dedicated her art to embarassing him in public, with hysterical poems like "Not Thinking About You" and "Still Not Thinking About You." Anita's first book How to Heal the Hurt by Hating, dealt with the aftermath of her breakup and the discovery of the aforementioned Heather. In her second book, How to Stay Bitter Through the Happiest Times of Your Life, Anita met a man, fell in love, got married and had a beautiful baby, but was still, well, bitter. Her most recent book sent her back to her teenage years, to perhaps the point from which all her angst comes, and is called The Center of the Universe (Yep,That Would Be Me). Once she delved into the Young Adult genre, and knowing that she was a reader from a very young age, I thought she'd be a natural to review Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick of Jezebel's Fine Lines fame. And a natural she is. Read on for her thoughts. Then browse inside Shelf Discovery to see for yourself. And learn more about Anita Liberty here.
When my friend, Book Club Girl, asked me if I’d like to write a guest blog for her, of course I said yes. Why wouldn’t I? I’d been angling for a guest blog from BCG for a while. I thought it would be like house-sitting or cat sitting or a one-night stand – I could get all the benefits without any of the commitment. Book Club Girl is popular. She’s so popular. You know this if you’re reading this right now. She’s got a lot of disciples, fans, followers. You don’t say no to someone like that. She’s got power. At first, I felt a little performance anxiety about having to come up with a worthy book-related topic for the blog. But fortunately Book Club Girl asked if I’d like to review the newly-published book, SHELF DISCOVERY: THE TEEN CLASSICS WE NEVER STOPPED READING by Lizzie Skurnick. That sounded fantastic. I was happy to be relieved of having to generate my own clever topic and I felt fully-qualified to review this particular title, seeing as I am an author of a sure-to-be-classic Young Adult book (THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE (YEP, THAT WOULD BE ME)).
As soon as I got SHELF DISCOVERY in the mail from BCG, I sat down and started reading (I procrastinate about reading way less than I procrastinate about writing). This book of short essays came out of Lizzie Skurnick’s Fine Lines column for Jezebel.com, in which she took a nostalgic and purely-subjective look at the books that inspired her to become the avid reader she is today. When I heard about SHELF DISCOVERY from Book Club Girl, I thought for sure that I would be able to match Skurnick’s breadth of knowledge about YA literature from the sixties and seventies. I, too, was a ravenous reader when I was a nubile and impressionable teenager. So I flipped open Skurnick’s book to the Table of Contents, where she lists the titles of all the books that are covered in SHELF DISCOVERY and put checkmarks next to the ones I’d read. Turns out I’m not as well-read in this genre as I’ve always thought. Damn you, Skurnick. I hate having my inadequacies exposed. But exposed they were and I had to admit that there was a lot of unexplored territory in my teenage literary journey.
Skurnick groups her essays into ten categories (and I paraphrase): the best YA heroines, puberty, crime/mystery, tearjerkers, teens with big drama, nature girls, supernatural, romance, period (time, not menstrual) and the taboo. Guess where I had the most checkmarks of books I’d read? In the taboo section. Yep. I was drawn to the forbidden. That much is clear. I may not have read Harriet the Spy, The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, but I was all over Wifey, Clan of the Cave Bear and Flowers in the Attic. Do I remember anything about them? No. Except that they had naughty passages. Then again, I have terrible reading retention and that was part of why it was so much fun reading Skurnick’s book. Not only does she seem to remember everything she reads, but she’s a re-reader, so she keeps her memory refreshed and impressions sharp. I really enjoyed reading Skurnick’s essays about the books I had read (Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, the Little House on the Prairie series, A Wrinkle in Time, Deenie, Go Ask Alice, The Summer of My German Soldier, Island of the Blue Dolphins and more…. I can’t stop typing titles ‘cause even typing the titles evokes the warm feelings I still have towards my favorite teen titles.), but I also enjoyed reading the essays about the books I hadn’t. I’ve always been a fan of the shortcut and Skurnick is great at capturing the essence of a particular book and provoking in the reader the same nostalgia she feels about it. Even if it’s not a book one has actually read. She writes intimately and, while reading her, I just sort of kept mentally nodding my head and thinking, “Yeah. Me, too, Lizzie. See? See how much we have in common?”
Skurnick’s list of books is distinctly personal. I’m sure everyone who reads SHELF DISCOVERY will come up with books she feels Skurnick has egregiously omitted. But the point of Skurnick’s book is that it is unapologetically specific to her experience as a teenage reader (with the exception of the handful of essays by various current YA authors and then their essays are unapologetically specific to them). The sub-subtitle of SHELF DISCOVERY is “A Reading Memoir.” These aren’t reviews, they’re reflections. In each essay (what Skurnick calls “Book Reports”) she pulls juicy, evocative passages from the books, puts the books in social and literary contexts and, most effectively, examines and conveys her emotional response to the stories and characters. SHELF DISCOVERY certainly made me want to go to the library and find the books I somehow missed when I was a teenager, as well as go back and re-read some of the titles I remember loving as a kid (Forever, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase).
If I were in a book club (which I’m not, but would happily collect invitations from any and all Los Angeles-based book clubs and then make a decision based on who serves the tastiest treats – get Book Club Girl’s brownie recipe and I am so THERE) I’d suggest this as one month’s pick. This book almost wants to be read and discussed as a group. I certainly wanted to share it with all of my friends, find out which books they’d read, which they hadn’t, what they remember about their young reading selves, etc. I think it would be great to read it for a book club and go through the list of titles and choose a couple of books to either read or re-read and discuss as well. For the most part, I find that most YA books from my YA life don’t hold up to my adult standards. They’re evocative of a certain time, but most feel dated and are more poorly-written than I remember. But the conversation provoked by some of these titles could easily veer into self-confessional and titillating. That would be my hope anyway. Along with the brownies.
On a side note, while I was reading Skurnick’s book, I saw a thread on Twitter between two teenagers discussing my YA book and there was a cryptic mention of a librarian at their school who was considering refusing the donation of the book on account of its language and sexual content. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I felt the same way as I did about a decade ago when I performed my poem, A Visit to the Gynecologist, for a Spoken Word special on MTV. I got a call at the last minute, shortly before airdate, informing me that MTV’s Standards and Practices weren’t comfortable with the language or content of my poem. I wasn’t mad. I was glad. I wore censorship like a badge of honor. And the idea that my book might be “banned” from some Midwestern public school library by some uptight, stodgy, ill-equipped, unsophisticated, everyday’s-a-bad-hair-day librarian fills me with pride. One of my favorite moments from Skurnick’s books is in the chapter titled Panty Lines: I Can’t Believe They Let us Read This. Skurnick writes: “In general I’m against book banning, but in the case of filthy literature, I’m all for it. How else would we find out which are the best ones?” I think having my book banned would be the most solid endorsement that I had written something worth reading. And then maybe someday I’d end up in someone else’s “reading memoir. “ (A YA author can dream, can’t she?)