‘Discovery’ revisits young adult literature of ’60s, ’70s

  • By Susan Carpenter Los Angeles Times
  • Friday, August 14, 2009 1:58pm
  • Life

“Twilight,” shmilight. Any self-respecting Gen-Xer will tell you this, with a certain nostalgic twinge: The books we read as kids were better.

Of course, we’re showing our age, but it’s impossible to think of our childhoods without giving a major nod to Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, Robert Cormier and other young-adult novelists of the 1960s and 1970s whose writings brought the world into focus and helped to shape our souls.

It’s these classics that Lizzie Skurnick reminisces about so fondly in “Shelf Discovery” ($14.99), a “reading memoir” in which she waxes philosophic about 73 favorites from an era when Bonne Bell baby powder perfume and lemon Lip Smackers reigned supreme.

For Skurnick, these books marked a turning point in young adult literature for girls, a genre that, in earlier decades, may have featured young women but didn’t really deal with their “issues.” Messy topics like menstruation, self-esteem, sibling rivalry, bullying and divorce were taboo until titles such as “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “I Am the Cheese” came along.

What was different about young adult books from those of the early ’60s until the late ’80s is that they allowed young women to see themselves “in the actual girl,” Skurnick writes. These books “challenged us, like the best of friends … not only to be ourselves, but to be more interesting, inspired versions of ourselves.”

A nostalgia trip for 30- and 40-something bookworms, “Shelf Discovery” starts with all the heavy-hitters from the Gen-X YA canon — beginning with titles that must have been read by 99.9 percent of all prepubescent readers back in the day, such as “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and the sleuthing of Harriet the Spy.

Books are grouped by theme, starting with unforgettable heroines and progressing to matters of body-morphing puberty, eye-opening issues such as rape and, of course, boys. Each essay is accompanied by the original book jacket, which is likely to jog a memory and prime readers for Skurnick’s humorous musings about plots, characters and significance.

Like a Cliffs Notes commentary, the summaries amount to a matter of paragraphs or pages, which is usually enough for readers to remember what they read decades ago or, if they didn’t read it, to at least get what Skurnick’s talking about.

Sometimes Skurnick’s explanations are too loaded with extraneous detail or slowed by efforts at cleverness. Sometimes her writing is just too breathless, sort of like she’s a modern tween who just spotted a Jonas Brother. That said, her enthusiasm is undeniable.

Overall, “Shelf Discovery” is a great little trip down memory lane — a lane we once strolled wearing Hush Puppies and Dittos, but now traipse in heels and Coach handbags because we read these inspiring books.

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