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BookThink's Author Profiles

An Interview with Lizzie Skurnick

by Catherine Petruccione

#137 7 September 2009

"Now, suddenly, I was the kind of girl who felt true physical pain when asked to put down a book at the dinner table, who asked friends over and ignored them to finish Island of the Blue Dolphins for the fifth time."

From Shelf Discovery

Lizzie Skurnick's recently published book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, evolved from a regular column by the author featured on the women's website Jezebel.

Skurnick realized she was not alone in collecting and re-reading books that she cherished when she was a youngster, and when the opportunity presented itself, she found Jezebel to be the perfect venue to share this appreciation of young adult literature with other readers. The happy result is this book published by Avon/Harper-Collins in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-06-175635-1). With contributions by Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Cecily von Ziegesar, and Jennifer Weiner, memories of favorite stories come alive from the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeleine L'Engle, Louis Fitzhugh, Judy Blume, and other superb authors.

Ms. Skurnick is a Yale graduate, a free-lance writer and book reviewer who was an editor for Girl's Life Magazine and has written for the New York Times Book Review, Times Sunday Styles, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Her blog, Old Hag was a Forbes "Best of the Web" pick. She was born in The Bronx and currently resides in Jersey City.

BOOKTHINK: What inspired you to write this book?

SKURNICK: The book came out of a series of columns that I do for the website Jezebel. It was just a funny circumstance that inspired me to do the columns. A friend told me that they were starting a women's website. The Gawker sites are very successful, and I somehow knew in my head that however good or bad the website was going to be, it would probably be a mighty center for women 25 to 45 years old - this swath of my generation. And I thought it would be a great place for a regular column about these books which had meant so much to that age group of women as they were growing up.

I knew I saved all my favorite books, and my friends all saved them , but it wasn't like I walked around consciously thinking, "One day I can write a column about them." It had never occurred to me before. But suddenly there was a circumstance that could support it. And I thought, "Why don't I try to do this on Jezebel?" There was really no other place this column could live - it couldn't live in a print publication; it certainly could have lived on my personal blog with no trouble, and maybe eventually by word-of-mouth it would have caught on, and it might have developed a significant readership. But you can't compete with the big general interest internet sites. For all the power of the web and blogging, there is so much out there, and if you want to do a column of any kind, it really serves your interests to be someplace where people can find it.

What I love about Jezebel is that it really does function like a traditional women's magazine, and something that's always found in a traditional women's magazine is books coverage. I just had a feeling they would want it. So I met with Anna Holmes, who is the Editor in Chief, and she was actually going to ask me to do just that. By the way, I think someone else might have started doing this if I had not - if you look right now, suddenly, the New Yorker has clearly been asking its female reporters to write about female writers that mean something to them ... you had Lauren Collins on Nora Roberts, you just had Judith Thurman on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Megan O'Rourke did something on Nancy Drew ... it seems it is a well they are trying to draw from. There are a few people I know who are doing books about this period, about authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I think you essentially have a generation of voracious bookworms coming of age; quite a few of us are writers, so what else are you going to get? Just like for a long time there were all those books about Woodstock and the sixties, it may be sort of a similar trend.

BOOKTHINK: How did you decide which books to include? Were they personal favorites, best-sellers, longest in print?

SKURNICK: It was really difficult. When I was doing the column, I would try to basically switch between something that I thought was a heavy hitter with something that was my secret favorite. But I almost stopped doing that, because it turned out that the books I would have thought were really popular weren't always. I'm so surprised that a book like A Gift of Magic, which is one of my favorite books ever, was one of my lowest drawing columns. It's Lois Duncan, and it's like the seminal ESP book. Finally I figured out that the whole point of the column is to have fun, so I should just have fun and do what's fun for me that week and not over-think it because everyone has their own reading history and their own reading favorite. I just kind of let it go. There's a few writers who are very special to me that I haven't yet done a column on ... you know what it's like when you're writing back a letter to someone you like it sometimes takes longer to answer their letter because it's so important to you to write a good letter.

I didn't do The Long Winter until my book was published - I did finally do a column on it for Jezebel and it is one of my favorite columns that I ever wrote.

BOOKTHINK: Have you ever read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith? I was hoping that would be included in your book.

SKURNICK: No, and a lot of people have asked for it. I have it on my shelf, and I will get to it. I sometimes try to find a guest reviewer to do a column if I haven't read the book. It's not that I can't write an interesting column about the book if I didn't read it as a child, because I can; but part of the column, in order to write about it the right way, I need to have read it as a child. I guess because the books I've read as a child I automatically file or index them into this general world of literature I experienced and I know the connections and interconnections. I pick up something like A Summer to Die, and I don't remember what was bracketing the shelf around that book, and I can't figure out why that book was important anymore than I can tell you why a new book you handed me right now is important.

BOOKTHINK: I actually read I Capture the Castle as an adult, maybe five years ago. It was the very first line that reeled me in. So if you open that book sometime, just read the first line and I think you'll understand what I mean. Some of these books are so well written, they are totally enjoyable as an adult reader and I think they can take you back to a different time in your life and revive some of those feelings you had as a young adult.

SKURNICK: Oh yes, totally - and this idea of a world that doesn't exist anymore. Not just the world of the novel, but also the world that existed when I was reading the novel. You do feel books differently at that age; they take up your whole psyche and become part of you. I'm always trying to chart when it became a lot harder for a book to become a part of me. I think it began after college.

BOOKTHINK: Uh-oh, is that what college does to us?

SKURNICK: Maybe there were some books that still could do that for me in my early twenties. While you are forming as a person, they can still kind of sneak in there.

BOOKTHINK: I'd like to believe we are always forming as a person.

SKURNICK: We're always forming, but we're not always as open. As much as people in college don't want to be children, you are still pretty much a child while you are in college. Once that went away, then how I read books became different also.

BOOKTHINK: People say "We are what we eat." I say, "We are what we read." I think authors often become our mentors, especially when we're young.

SKURNICK: Yes, I think that's totally true. It's very difficult to distinguish at that age between what you've just read and what your real life is. It's funny because there's always this idea that children read to escape; and certainly, when you are sitting at the dinner table reading you are escaping.

BOOKTHINK: I still do!

SKURNICK: I do too. But actually you are not reading to escape yourself. When you are younger, the books you read are becoming part of you. Now when I read, it really is to take a break. I'm not saying I didn't have fun with the books when I was younger, but I was reading to look at the world. And now that's totally not the case. I want a good story that can hold my attention and I'll be happy.

BOOKTHINK: How have books for young adults changed over the years, and in what ways, if any, have they stayed the same?

SKURNICK: They have changed - and I may or may not be correct - but I think the reason they've changed is not because writers have changed, but because we now have this idea of what a teenager is. We now examine teenagers and we think about it as a state. We have special librarians for it and special publications for it, and once that wasn't true. Once it was sort of like, "You're sixteen, go away until your twenty-two and we'll talk to you then." That was fine too, because teenagers got a lot of privacy that way. But I think that has changed the literature both for good and for ill. There's this idea that when you write a book it might become something that's part of the teenage culture. We used to not have this teen culture. Now Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers are on TV, on the nightly news. And we all read Harry Potter books. It's a different world. In some ways, it's probably great, because we share a lot more as a culture across all age groups. But when my book came out my publisher wanted to market it as a mother-daughter book club thing. I was very resistant to that idea. Why can't these books just exist for the young readers we were? Why does everything have to be about one's role as a mom, or sharing? Why can't they just be books that we like?

BOOKTHINK: That really breaks the "secret club" idea, doesn't it? That would ruin it.

SKURNICK: It would ruin it! Let girls now have their own books - give them some privacy. I have noticed that some mothers, and a couple of my friends have even done this, they go out and buy the book for themselves and even send it to their friends who are moms. Let the girls of today read their books, and we'll leave them alone with them, and we'll have our books, from our era.

BOOKTHINK: Do you think young adults are still reading books, and why?

SKURNICK: I don't know, because I'm not a statistician or a representative of the publishing industry. But they clearly seem to be reading, and they are publishing a lot of books for them and those books sell. I know they read the genre books, like the thrillers and science fiction books. What I don't see is a group of books that are about ordinary girls for ordinary girls. Our books were often so much about family and school. Any one of these girls could have been us; then on the other hand they were very different and you were always learning something new about their lives. But it's not like they were Cyborgs or anything, or that they were in an exclusive boarding school.

BOOKTHINK: Some of them were pretty weird, like Pippi Longstocking.

SKURNICK: Oh yes, or they were different, some of them were a little whacko!

I do think clearly teens are still reading, and I say this only because the publishing industry is still publishing for teens, and they wouldn't be if there wasn't money in it. It may be that they are still publishing now because they think there is money in it ... some books make money for awhile, but then they kind of saturate the market. It may be that right now because you have a few really high profile teen authors; the publishers are betting on it.

Something I've noticed that teen authors do nowadays that's different from when I was growing up is that they really have an independent relationship with their readers that occurs online and through the blogs that they keep. John Green has, I think, 5,000 Facebook friends. I have about 1600 Facebook friends. So as a writer, I don't need only my publisher to publicize myself anymore, because I have a blog and I have other ways of talking to my readers that don't need to be mediated through a marketing machine. This is something publishers are really happy about. They are always telling writers to start a blog or something similar. I think teen authors, sci-fi authors and genre authors have really led the charge on that. Literary fiction authors are more reluctant to do this. That has changed a lot, because readers can get in touch with their favorite authors. The contact between people is so much more rapid and happens in such a different way. In the realm of bookselling, it has changed everything. And though I mention this about teens particularly, it has changed across the board. You go to any teen author, they have a website, they keep a blog, they talk to their readers. It changes things a lot to have that constant contact with your audience.

BOOKTHINK: Yes it does. And maybe it's something that writers of adult literature can learn too.

SKURNICK: They don't want to. It's funny, but I see this more and more as I get older. It's the fringe element. All the authors of literary fiction who probably thought they were doing wonderful with the martini lunches and the big book contracts actually have now realized that this is not how books are sold anymore. And they'll be kind of out in the cold if they don't change. Whereas the kind of nerdy more isolated groups who have always had a presence online, who have gone to conferences, always done events that are not necessarily getting an award ...

BOOKTHINK: Mixing with the common people?

SKURNICK: Yes, the common people. These common writers, all these sci-fi writers, like Corey Doctorow - you know what? When he released his novel, 700,000 people downloaded it. I don't think even someone like Philip Roth can compete with that. I'm not an expert on that aspect of the industry, and I'm not a Young Adult writer. But it is something I've noticed, and I think it is a fascinating trend. It indicates to me that kids do still read, because my friends who are Young Adult authors indicate that they really have a close relationship and a lot of contact with their readership - sometimes an almost overwhelming demand. One or two people a day or more write to me online, if not more, so I can't imagine what the contact must be like for a really successful YA writer. I think that will change young adult literature; the fact that we have this new group of teenagers who are growing up online, and to them it's not an amazing thing to be able to talk with anybody, to get an e-mail from the President.

BOOKTHINK: It sounds like they are still reading, but they want more than just the book. They want some contact with the person who actually created it.

SKURNICK: Exactly. In our day, there were just two ways you could do that. You could go see the author at a place, which people did, whatever rare time they were making an appearance. Or you could write them a longhand letter, which people certainly also did. It's interesting to think, for instance, if Crescent Dragonwagon had been able to be on Facebook twenty years ago, I wonder what would have happened with her books?

BOOKTHINK: It's a fast-changing world, and a constant challenge to keep on top of everything - Facebook, MySpace, Twitter ...

SKURNICK: Don't even get me started. I just figured out how to work it so if I put up one post on my blog,it automatically goes to Twitter, to two different Facebook accounts, to a blog on Amazon, and it also goes to Good Reads. And there's a woman who runs the Writer's I've Read Room, and she posts them by hand. Thank God it's automated, because I could never keep up with it. It goes to six different big places, and that's astonishing. In the old days, you wouldn't have had to do any of this, not even five years ago.

BOOKTHINK: It's a little frightening, that all of a sudden, you are broadcasting.

SKURNICK: You really are. And there have been a few times when I have put something in the wrong box, and it can happen that something could go to seven different places from which I could never retrieve it. Thousands of people could see the random thing that was on my mind for one second. There is something very unpleasant about being one click away from baring your soul. It makes sending an email to the entire office by accident seem like small potatoes. That's just the office; this is the whole world.

BOOKTHINK: Author Judy Blume seems to be the clear winner in your book. What is it about her writing that is so attractive to young people?

SKURNICK: She's partly the clear winner because my contributors wrote about her. I think practically every contributor chose a Judy. I covered a few Judy Blume books, but I did the less recognized ones like Wifey.

She is just a good writer. She doesn't really get enough credit for that. People often talk about the concept of a book, not necessarily about the writing. She is a really good writer. That's a very large part of it. The same goes for Stephen King; it's not that his plots are so great; it's because he's a good freaking horror writer. I also think she was ahead of her time in writing about things that people really weren't talking about that were genuinely traumatic. Now some authors deliberately try to do "issue" books, but we didn't have such a thing at one time. She's really good at writing about things that are actually traumatic but not necessarily agreed upon. Take her book, Then Again, Maybe I Won't. What's happening to the main character? All that's happened is he's moved to a new town and he's started to have wet dreams. Both of those issues are huge things when you are young, but it's not like your teacher is going to walk up and compare those problems to the Revolutionary War. Or you have something like classroom peer pressure in school because someone is fat. That can be the entirety of a child's world for a year. Or divorce. She wrote It's Not the End of the World. I remember when divorce was an extraordinarily taboo topic. I remember the first girl in my class whose parents got divorced; it was in first grade. She was so ashamed, she could barely come to school. We were all obsessed with it. And I don't think she talked for six months to a year. The divorce was traumatic, sure. But our culture had not learned how to deal with things like that.

I think what Judy Blume wrote about were things the culture didn't have a coping mechanism for. Wifey was about a woman who was bored at home, who was trying to figure out how to be a good mother, and trying to deal with the fact that she didn't have an intimate relationship with her husband, and she wanted a good sex life - trying to figure out what she was supposed to do. Guess what? Thirty years ago, people didn't talk about this stuff. Her skill was writing about things that everybody was thinking about but were too embarrassed to talk about. What she did was very brave. There are lots of authors trying to be ground-breaking, but it feels like they are trying. She did it very well. She wasn't salacious; she was honest in writing about it. That's why she endures.

It's very interesting to me to think, what would girls today think about a book like It's Not the End of the World? Now, I'm not saying divorce is great, but you know a lot of people with post-divorce families that are healthy; they may not have an amicable divorce, but the family recovers in not too long a time. And certainly you wouldn't necessarily be ashamed nowadays that your parents got divorced. Most kids, if you start talking about this novel as a great tragedy, would wonder what you were talking about.

BOOKTHINK: It's the great thing about books, they open up worlds and thought and help people understand that everybody has problems.

SKURNICK: That's really true, and where else would you learn that? You would say from TV, but TV is built to entertain. I'm not saying that we don't get some things from television, but I think the idea that everybody has an internal life and everybody has problems is something that you'll find much more in literature and that you'll find much more in the literature of this period.

BOOKTHINK: On TV or film, it can't be conveyed to the viewer what the person is thinking. In a book, you learn what the person is thinking. It's a BIG difference. When they try to convert a book to film they have to change things because you can't show the audience what someone is thinking.

SKURNICK: And that was even a problem in literature; before Flaubert, there was no internal consciousness in books. Then of course, along came James Joyce. Open any work of literary fiction today, and it's rare to find one where the people aren't having sex within the first few pages. And these are, by the way, not dirty books. You have an older book like Vanity Fair, there are babies born, but no one had sex in that book. I think this period of teen literature was singular, and I talk about this a little bit in my introduction, but it was the first time you were able to listen to the internal consciousness of a teenage girl. Before that, all we did was tell stories about girls.

Beverly Cleary is another writer that gets no credit. If you look at a book like Sister of the Bride, or Fifteen, here is a constant narrative of what the girls are thinking and how they are adjusting to the things around them, and the sort of emotional minutia of the passing minutes. You can learn so much about the era just from listening to Barbara's internal narrative in Sister of the Bride. You could not make a movie of that book.

BOOKTHINK: That's why I hope the next generation keeps reading, because there is so much they will miss if they think they don't need books. It is such a big piece of how we learn and grow.

SKURNICK: I will tell you this, I have a lot of friends who are teen authors, and they have tons of readers. I do think there is a problem, though, in that books are so expensive nowadays. And I think if there are sectors of teenagers who aren't reading, it's because there is not enough of an effort made to make books available. People say, "Read to your kids." Well it's a lot easier to read if there are books in your house, if someone is buying you books. The question is not really "Are teenagers reading?", but "Are books available to children across this country?" And until we can answer that question in the affirmative, we shouldn't even be asking the second question.

BOOKTHINK: That's a very good point, and one we should be paying attention to.

Thank you, Lizzie, for sharing your thoughts, and for writing this book which brings together, in one volume, knowledgeable and sensitive descriptions of so many fine young adult fiction classics. Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading can be purchased on Lizzie Skurnick's website.

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