Are you there, God? It’s me, childhood

From "Harriet the Spy" to "A Wrinkle in Time," girl-centric novels of the past come to life in "Shelf Discovery"

Topics: Critics' Picks, Our Picks,

Are you there, God? It's me, childhood

“Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading” by Lizzie Skurnick

I never actually read “Flowers in the Attic” — just the “dirty pages” clearly marked in the well-thumbed copy passed to every single girl at summer camp  — but Lizzie Skurnick did. In fact, she reread it, along with more than 60 other books she had devoured in her youth for a Jezebel column called Fine Lines, collected into this enjoyable book. As Skurnick points out in the intro to “Shelf Discovery,” the 1960s-1980s were a transitional moment for young-adult lit, particularly for girls. Alongside the wholesome, winsome and plucky heroines of yore, an expanding range of female characters appeared in print: nerdy girls, Jewish girls, fat girls, slutty girls, girls with divorced parents, depressed girls and — of course — girls with ESP.

That last category might explain why I chose ESP and other supernatural subjects for my school science fair projects in grades 4, 5 and 6: too much time poring over Lois Duncan books like “A Gift of Magic” or “Stranger With My Face.” Or perhaps it was the wonderful Meg Murry of “A Wrinkle in Time,” the first of Madeleine L’Engle’s protagonists to “flit across the boundaries of space and time,” as Skurnick puts it, “even more flummoxed by adolescence than they are by being whipsawed across the universe.”

While reading these mini-essays (penned mostly by Skurnick, with a few guest appearances by YA novelists such as “Gossip Girl” scribe Cecily von Ziegesar) it occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly quantify how deeply these books had sunk into my own youthful psyche. But it reminded me of the intense connection I felt with “Harriet the Spy”; the original gossip girl, she skulked around New York jotting down scathing observations, inspiring me to buy my own diary (with a lock, since Harriet gets her comeuppance when schoolmates discover the harsh things she’s written about them). I know that I learned about periods from “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?”– but also I gleaned something about religious confusion, since, as Skurnick reminded me, Margaret’s 1970s parents have decided to let her choose her own faith, leaving her adrift in a town just like mine, where everyone went to Sunday school or Hebrew school.

“Shelf Discovery” styles itself as a memoir through books, but revising youthful opinions is encouraged. “Good in Bed” author Jennifer Weiner is slightly horrified to discover that “Blubber” is not “the ne plus ultra of fat-girl lit” but in fact is rather callous about the book’s chubby heroine. And Skurnick’s reading list doesn’t entirely skip boys, giving props to minor classics like Roald Dahl’s “Danny the Champion of the World,” Paul Zindel’s “The Pigman,” and “Farmer Boy” (written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, about her husband’s childhood).

 I’m sure Skurnick read plenty of books growing up, from Tolkien to Salinger; yet it’s great to look back and see this girl-centric canon, waiting to be reread by the grown women who loved them and a new generation of “monsters in training bras.”

Check out previous Critics’ Picks:

“Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading”

“Coraline” in 3-D on DVD

Bowerbirds’ CD “Upper Air”

“Mad Men” second season DVD

Phoenix’s CD “Wolfgang Phoenix Amadeus”


Joy Press is a former culture editor at Salon.

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