Here’s the short version of Lizzie Skurnick and her sassy-and-smart new book Shelf Discovery: She’s a popular book critic and lit blogger who started a column called “Fine Lines” for Jezebel.com that made you feel like you and your girlfriends were huddled beneath a zip-up sleeping bag with a mini-flashlight reading between the lines of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and all the rest of your beloved, well-worn vintage young adult novels to unearth the subtext 30 years later.
The column became an instant hit and Skurnick’s newly released Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading is the book that collects all of Skurnick’s “book reports” with contributions from YA novelists Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Cecily von Ziegesar, Jennifer Weiner, Margo Rabb, and Tayari Jones.
Page Turner chatted with Skurnick about how feminism bleeds through the pages of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, why she’s actually the anti-nostalgia woman, how the YA novels really did make her a teenage feminist, and her mission to create a literary teen canon.
Page Turner: You dedicate Shelf Discovery to your mother, who, you write, “told me I was a writer.” What is the story of how you became a writer and how she influenced you?
Lizzie Skurnick: When I was younger, I always used to hand in my book reports in metered verse, just because I liked to rhyme, and it was funny. This was the seventies. So, it was the days when you were supposed to be artsy-fartsy. But it was really before this whole thing of gifted and talented, so it’s not like my mother had some personal investment in me being a writer.
I had been writing this story and I left it out. I used to use her typewriter, so I must have been seven. The story must have been called “The Chronicle” or something; it was like a sci-fi story. She saw it, and my mother’s very dramatic and she said [in a deep voice], “Lizzie, you are a writer.” Although it was dramatic, she meant it. She never wavered from that.
She used to just say I was a writer how you would say someone had blonde hair. And that was very helpful to me, because there was a way in which she wasn’t just encouraging me. She was just saying what she thought was. I think the two or three people who have done that to me in my life have made much more of a difference to me than the people who’ve said, “You’re a good writer.”
PT: What was it about the factual nature of what they said to you that made the difference?
LS: I guess because when you tell someone you’re a good writer, it’s kind of like a philosophical difference in how you think about things. I think writers are really just writers—and some are good and some are bad and some are better than others. You can’t make someone who’s not a writer, a writer, and vice versa. And so in a weird way, that was so much more important to me. … It was like then I never worried about doing it for a living, because I didn’t feel like I was making some grand artistic expression and trying to be a creative person. It was just like, “Well, listen, dumb ass. Here’s the thing that you are, so you might as well do it.”
PT: Did you grow up in a feminist household? Was your mom a feminist, and were you a teenage feminist?
LS: I was definitely a teenage feminist. I’m always ringing the bell for feminism, because I feel so sad for these poor girls that are like, “I’m not a feminist, but …” They just bought into this dumb thing of you have to be one of the boys and apologize. God forbid, someone punched you in the face and you ever say “that hurt.” And it’s like they bought into this idea that if you pretend you’re above it, it didn’t happen—which is, of course, something ultimately that doesn’t benefit you. It benefits the other person.
I’ve always seen through that. I’ve always just been like, “No, that’s bullshit. I want to be able to be on this team, too. This is, like, a pile of crap.” That attitude is something I get more from my father, a Bronx Jew.
My mother was a feminist in that she always worked at what she wanted to do. But I feel very sorry for that generation of women, and I also admire them so much. They really had it hard, because—at least in the experience of the group I grew up with—the husbands expected them to work, but they also expected them to take care of them simultaneously. And it wasn’t an act of hostility by the husbands; it wasn’t because men are evil. But it was a real confusion, because they married liberated women, but they also wanted someone like their mom. I think they woke up and they were like, “Wait, my mom used to iron shit for me; what’s going on with that?”
And now, of course, for the most part, we don’t raise boys that way, and at least men know that they’re not supposed to say that. … Things are hard for us, too, but I do feel that we have more of a choice about what we buy into that they really didn’t have. People said that gay people were crazy then; there was quite a lot of gas lighting going on. You would have to be a very strong person to be like, “No, I feel like working, and I’m going to work,” or “No, I feel like not working, and I’m not going to work.”
PT: How did literature affect your being a teenage feminist? Were you reading second-wave feminist literature, or did you find feminism in some of the YA novels you loved?
LS: I found it mostly in the YA novels, but I read whatever was on my parents’ shelves. My mother, although she never read it, had a copy of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, and I read that and it was terrifying. I still get terrified by it.
A lot of it was from the YA novels, just because those girls were smart, and they were dealing with complex issues. You take a book like The Long Secret [the sequel to Harriet the Spy]. It’s about Harriet’s friend Mouse, and she’s bullied by Harriet, she’s bullied by her mother, she’s bullied by friends. And it’s not like she’s abused or anything, but she lets people bully her, and the book is really about her not letting people bully her anymore.
But what I found interesting about these books is that nowadays there always seems to be this victor-victim mentality kind of thing, where I was abused and then I learned to stand up to the bad people in my life. But life isn’t really like that. Sometimes the people who bully you are the people who love you the most, or sometimes the people that do the worst things to you just do it out of their own weaknesses, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with you.
And the books of that era were much clearer about that—that it’s not necessarily that people are your enemy, but you do still have to stand up for yourself. Not because someone is being mean to you because you’re young or mean to you ‘cause you’re a woman—or not that it’s all about men, although it is sometimes about men. But in general, that it’s important to be at the center of one’s life. You shouldn’t be ashamed of making your own choices about what you think about things.
I don’t think these books were ever explicitly making that point. …Often the lesson of the books is that, “Yes, life is very complicated. At the end of the day, probably the only thing that’s going to make your life not a disaster is if you can try to figure out what you’re feeling and do what makes you feel you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning.”
PT: What are you revisiting within yourself in particular when you go back and reread the books? Not everyone would do that, not everyone would want to do it, and sometimes I think we feel a lot of nostalgia and are missing that kind of era and time in our lives when we do go back. What was it that you were revisiting in yourself when you wrote the columns?
LS: It’s actually interesting, because I’m not a particularly nostalgic person. I’m very now. There’s some movie in the eighties, I think it is Maid to Order with Ally Sheedy. She becomes a maid and she discovers that the other maid used to be this famous pop singer, like Paula Abdul. [Ally’s character] is coming up to her and showing her all of the clips, and she’s like, “This is so great!” And then the maid is like, “Yesterday doesn’t matter; there is only today.” She doesn’t say it quite like that, but just literally meaning, “No one ever gives a shit about what happened before.”
I have always felt like that, too, and in some ways I think that is really true. I don’t like a lot of the kitschy nostalgia that people do now. I generally think it’s a regressive thing, like why are you going to a bar to play tic-tac-toe? That’s weird. You’re almost 40 years old. So, I’m not a nostalgia junky, and I don’t even remember that much about what I was like then.
It is what the women around me that I talk to about these books are feeling—that you look up and someone says, “Jacob Have I Loved” or whatever your particular book is, and the reaction is really to scream,”Oh, my god! I love it!” It’s odd to experience that, because then you’re suddenly like, “Wait, what was it about those books? Why don’t we read those books anymore? Those books were so important to us. What was happening in those books?”
When I started the column I thought I might just be doing a nostalgia trip, and if that had wound up being all I had to say or all I was capable of doing, I know I wouldn’t have been able to do the column for very long.
PT: You talk about the feminist movement’s “looming presence” in the Paula Danzinger novel The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. Did you find it looming in many of the vintage YA novels?
LS: Oh, yes. There’s all this stuff in Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade. When I reread it, I realized the crisis and the fights they’re having occurred because the dad hates it that the mother has gone off to work and leaves the girls alone. That also happens in Daughters of Eve. It happens in Are You in the House Alone, when the mother and father want to deal with the rape differently. … These things have really changed over time… but it is rare for them to be written in a moment when the culture is figuring this stuff out.
In [Beverly Cleary’s] Sister of the Bride, there is the [happy-housewife group] the Amys versus the new faculty wives, and really the decisions that Barbara and her sister make about themselves are very heavily influenced by [the feminist movement]. Barbara has this real turning point where they make fun of the Amys and they think they’re boring, and then she realizes later that, no, the Amys are really competent: they can sew this fucking dress, one of them has a garden, and one of them has a masters in art history, and she’s really been selling these women short just because they’re wives. She wants to be a wife; she just doesn’t want to become an Amy when she’s a wife.
And that has not gone away. It’s not gone away so much that it’s the most fucking boring argument ever. You open a paper, and there’s Katie Roiphe saying, “Don’t put your kid’s picture in front of yours on Facebook.” That’s actually what I get frustrated with. It’s not the argument; it’s the reinventing the wheel of the argument. I can’t stand it when one side stands stridently. It’s like you know people have been talking about this for a hundred years. We can continue to talk about it, but I cannot tolerate it if you act like you don’t know that Beverly Cleary was talking about this 60 years ago, and she managed to have a sense of humor about it and be complex, and you can’t with all the resources in the world.
PT: Have you talked with any of the authors from Shelf Discovery?
LS: Yes, it’s actually wonderful. I’ve decided that it’s my unofficial campaign contribution to YA literature to bring back into print Secret Lives, by Berthe Amoss. I didn’t know if she was still alive, and I didn’t know anything about her. I never try to contact an author. I’m not trying to become their best friend; I’m just trying to show respect for their work. … I’m findable if they want to write me about it. So, I talked with Sandra Scoppettone, and she loves my column about her book, and Berthe just wrote me after she heard me talk about her on Talk of the Nation and Bob Edwards.
So many of these books are totally out of print, and in a way it may be dated for girls nowadays. But I would love to have them reissued just like a canon, even some of the silly ones.
PT: I want to ask you the question that YA novelist Meg Cabot asks in a chapter in your book, which is, how can the universal appeal of Judy Blume be explained?
LS: I don’t 100-percent know. Meg talks about Judy Blume’s characters feeling all alone in the world. I actually don’t see that in her characters. It’s just much more that she’s great at capturing teenagers in flux. Most of the books start with the teenager moving or someone else moving in, and it’s about that introduction of an unknown element that sets your little petri dish of a culture awry. And it’s about how things get mixed up; Judy Blume always writes about that situation so well.
She’s able to really succinctly depict those complex thoughts and feelings that children have that adults don’t know they’re having. Often kids interact nowadays, but in our day, you really did sometimes see a kid looking silently at you about a situation, and there was no way for them to really ever express what they were thinking. Judy Blume was always writing about the child in that state, really at the mercy of an adult world—and it’s not like an adult world that’s horrible or anything. …
None of her girls are independent or striking out. Her girls are trying to figure out what to do in their world, the change that happens to them. Judy Blume really accurately represents how important and how wrenching those changes are, too—the changes that your parents wouldn’t notice and don’t even want to hear about. So, how scary is the first day of school. The first day of school is so much scarier than going up on the Apollo 13. It’s terrifying. No one around you will really talk about it, but Judy Blume is talking about it.