In her “Fine Lines” column on Jezebel, Lizzie Skurnick revisits the heroines of her adolescence. The column gave way to a book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, and trust us when we say it’s guaranteed to incite mad giggling fits in any woman born after 1970. We caught up with Skurnick to ask her what she would say if she ever met Judy Blume, how she managed to write Sweet Valley High books and live to tell about it, and what to do to track down that book you loved in 6th grade but totally can’t remember the title of.
Flavorpill: How did you first come to write the “Fine Lines” column?
Lizzie Skurnick: I’ve been reviewing books for many, many years. Obviously I have a huge teen fiction collection and these books are very important to me, but I really hadn’t thought about them very carefully in a very long time. Then when I heard Jezebel was starting up, the idea just came to me because I just thought there’s no other place but the internet where you could do a column like this, and this is a website really built for women this age.
I certainly could have done them on my own blog, but it wouldn’t have had the reach. I think part of what’s so important with these books is actually that they’re a really collective experience that we had. I didn’t want to do these just alone as a reviewer. I really wanted this to be something that I could share with all of the women who loved these books. I think other people would have gotten around to it eventually, it’s just that no one had yet.
FP: Your columns really connect with women in Gen X and Gen Y. Have you been surprised by all the love for vintage YA you’ve encountered?
LS: I wasn’t surprised, but I was glad. I could’ve written the column and everyone could have been like, “Whatever, we’ve forgotten about these books.” It was sort of nice to have it confirmed that these books really were so important, that they really were something that affected all of us that read them and they were something that we wanted to talk about and they were something worth more discussion.
That was something I really discovered writing the column myself. When I first started writing it, I really thought it would just be a sort of nostalgic turn through the memories. I didn’t realize that I had something to say about each book and why it was important. I didn’t realize that the column would wind up being — not a defense of the literature because no one’s been accusing it of anything — but sort of making a case for why this is really important literature and why it was important to us.
FP: I found a lot of the observations you made really insightful, for example what you said about being a few months older than a friend at 11 is a kind of betrayal. Did ideas like that come back to you as you got back into your 11-year-old mindset?
LS: When you’re a reviewer, or at least I find this as a reviewer, really at the end of the day, you just either have something to say about something or you don’t. With these particular books, it was as if I had this book inside of me waiting to come out. It was as if really I had this enormous backlog of opinions that I just never really thought about, but they were there. When I reread the books, that kind of impression and that kind of impression and that kind of realization would just come back to me. It wasn’t even so much that I was thinking anew about it. These books were such an entryway to remember what it’s like to be a girl.
FP: Do you still have all your old books? If yes, why did you decide to keep them?
LS: I have all of them, and I really, really, really treasure them. I just couldn’t give them away. Weirdly, the booksellers on the Upper West Side, those tables, sometimes have them, and I’ll rebuy them. But I’m very annoyed with myself: I did lose two batches. I had one batch, which I know had There’s a Bat in Bunk Five in it, and some other books I loved. I feel like I left it behind in my college dorm room. And then another time I very virtuously gave some away to the girls around the corner, like “Oh, here are my favorite books.” I was just like, “Why did I do that? These girls are not readers. Who cares about them?” I should have just bought them new books. I’m sure they just said “look at these old books” and threw them right away.
I think it’s important for people to own books. I think libraries are wonderful, but I also really think that as a child being able to own a book or several books and have it just be yours, that’s something that I think everybody can understand. We do form an attachment to books just like you might form an attachment to a favorite pair of shoes or a teapot that you had when you were a girl. It’s not just that you want to keep the book around so that you can read it. It’s that the book really symbolizes a certain time in your life and a certain part of you, and to part with it is crazy. It’s like saying you’re never going to talk to your brother again or something.
FP: In Shelf Discovery, a couple of times you mention that phenomenon of forgetting the title or even a lot of details of what you read as a child. Has this led to any really frustrating lingering questions for you?
LS: I get that all the time. I’ve actually posted a few plotfinders myself. There’s one, The Trouble with Thirteen by Betty Miles, I constantly remember that title and I’ve forgotten the book. Secret Lives by Bertha Amos, I forgot that title for years. And when I started looking for it again, it was really in the early days of Google. All the libraries did not have their catalogs fully online. I would sit there and I would Google – these are all references from the book – but I would Google New Orleans, mother, Addie. Honestly, in the days of Amazon tags, I would have been fine. Now that book is probably tagged. It took me months and months to find it. And then I finally found it and I bought like 18 copies.
FP: Are there any books you purposely didn’t touch? Are there any you read for the first time for Shelf Discovery/Fine Lines?
LS: I’ve stayed away, I’ve noticed now from M. E. Kerr, just because I’ve decided I think probably I like her too much. I was worried I would destroy it if I wrote about it. She wrote this book called Me Me Me Me Me, it’s this fantastic book. I was like, “No way! Can’t touch it!” Or The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More I was just not going near, it’s my favorite book.
FP: In the book Julie and Julia, Julie Powell got upset when she found out that Julia Child implied that she didn’t like the project her cooking inspired. What do you think Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle would say about your book? What would you say to them if you met them?
LS: I don’t know what they would think. I met Judy Blume’s son and he asked for the book so he could give it to Judy, and I sent it to him. I know Sandra Scoppettone liked the columns that I wrote about her, and she wrote to tell me so. But I think you really get a mix. Some authors, and I include myself in this, are really just appreciative that anyone cares, and even if they get a review – for instance, I just got a review in Time, which actually says some bad things about the book. But I love the review, because it’s actually a really thoughtful review, it takes the book seriously, and in some ways I think the reviewer is totally right. I think it’s nice that someone is sort of taking the book on.
FP: You’ve written some teen books yourself. How did you end up writing series books, and what did you like and dislike about it?
LS: I used to work for 17th Street Productions. They’re the ones who did Sweet Valley High. Usually after working there for a while, people will write a book or two. Series fiction always needs a writer. I wrote a few and then the publisher started hiring me directly, which they sometimes do.
They’re good training. I think a writer should always be writing whatever they’re writing. And if you’re not writing your own stuff, you should still be writing something. They were nice in that I made some money, and it’s very good practice to be forced to write a book. It almost doesn’t matter what the book is. I have to say, by the end, with my last book, I handed it in two weeks late, it was grueling to write, and the editor was mad at me – she’s now a teen fiction author who’s fairly well-known. She was just like, “What the hell?” That was like my tenth one, and I was like, “not so much with these anymore. I’m clearly done.” But they definitely served a good purpose in my life.