Any author who won the affections of Lizzie Skurnick in her girlhood should count her- or himself lucky. Back then, Skurnick wept over books, pressed them on friends and mined them for educational material cultural, social and sexual. Some tempting literary morsels drove her to actual theft. Now in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading (Avon; 424 pages), Skurnick, 35, revisits her favorite young-adult novels to explore why they left such an impression on her and other women of her generation.
Shelf Discovery is a dizzyingly crowded, joyful hodgepodge of book reports, 65 of them written by Skurnick, eight contributed by other writers. There are loving and less reverent remembrances of books by Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Madeleine L'Engle, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Katherine Paterson, among many others, all illustrated with the original (or era-correct) cover art. This is potent nostalgia for girlhoods past; the strawberry scent of Bonne Bell Lip Smackers practically wafts off the pages.
If one of Skurnick's goals is to encourage glorious detours, she succeeds; just a few chapters in, I paused to reworship A Wrinkle in Time. Her enthusiasm can hardly be contained. "It's taking all my strength to not type the book for you in its entirety," she writes of Little House in the Big Woods. Only occasionally does a former treasure disappoint; on revisiting Go Ask Alice, Skurnick dismisses it as "TRULY THE WORST-WRITTEN BOOK IN THE WORLD."
Skurnick has an admitted "HUGE ADDICTION" to all caps, which she blames on a literary heroine who has stood the test of time: Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet Welsch, a.k.a. Harriet the Spy. Homage aside, in conjunction with gushy OMGs and exclamation points, the use of all caps points to the problematic nature of writing for an Internet audience. Many of these essays first appeared under the heading "Fine Lines" on Jezebel.com where the overarching tone is that of the cool babysitter sweetly patronizing, with a not-yet-entirely-earned wisdom. Within that home, the essays seemed penetrating and serious, like a few pages of the New York Review of Books tucked into Marie Claire.
But reading them in book form, one longs for more intellectual heft Skurnick is certainly capable of it and fewer of the cheery colloquialisms that were apparently needed to hold the fleeting attention of the average Web surfer. Many essays feel too slim and too eager to please rather than provoke. And as intimate as its tone is, this "reading memoir" lacks a broader sense of Skurnick herself. A tougher editor would have sharpened Skurnick's focus, and it would have paid off. When she introduces you to, say, Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved, with its depiction of sisterly jealousy as a "painful, enduring state," she convinces you that your 12-year-old self needed that book. And makes you wish you could have palled around with this opinionated, big-hearted fiction lover. Presuming she ever put her book down.