By Rebecca Steinitz for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on October 26, 2009


Lit blogger Lizzie Skurnick’s new book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, brought me back to the eighteen months I recently spent as editor of Teen Voices, a magazine by, for, and about teen girls. Since Teen Voices regularly publishes book reviews, the latest YA offerings overflowed my mailbox. At first, I’d eagerly take my letter opener to the enticing manila envelopes, but soon the literary parade of bitchy rich girls, vampires, fairies, and designer labels started to wear me down.

Shelf Discovery’s short essays (most written by Skurnick, but a few by guest authors) relive the halcyon days before Gossip Girl, Twilight, and their imitators colonized our bookstores and libraries. Based on "Fine Lines," Skurnick’s regular book feature at the blog Jezebel, where her rereadings of childhood and teen classics generate scores of comments (hundreds when it comes to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), Shelf Discovery features over 70 favorites, including Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Madeleine L’Engle, Beverly Cleary, and Paula Danziger, along with Go Ask Alice, Flowers in the Attic, and even a few old school numbers like Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Secret Garden.

But Skurnick is most interested in “the early 60s to the late 80s,” she writes, when “we started to see an entirely new animal—books that dealt with the lives and dramas of adolescent girls on their own terms, in their own worlds,” books which “treated us as adults, capable of understanding complex issues, of appreciating complex plots, of getting sophisticated jokes—of being funny and smart, ourselves.” Its title evokes consciousness-raising as much as adolescence; Shelf Discovery might thus be called a guide to the kids’ books of feminism’s heyday.

So, are we sunk? Are the lost days of spunky literary girlhood gone forever? Will our daughters become Prada-clad, boy-crazy, blood-sucking fairies, instead of twenty-first-century Harriet the Spies?

Not so fast. When it comes to books and reading, not to mention girls, I find it hard to go along with the prognosticators of utter gloom and doom.

Rising sales have made YA the bright star of publishing. Yes, books that target girls, especially teen girls, are increasingly consumerist, sexualized, and oriented toward fame and celebrity—just like the rest of our culture. But there have always been stupid books. Along with Skurnick’s classics, my own childhood reading involved Harlequins, bodice rippers, scandalous crime sagas, and movie star autobiographies—not exactly Newbery Medal material—and I still grew up to be a feminist literary critic.

And just as I knew I was never going to swoon for the Regency cad next door or decapitate my entire family, most girls today know the difference between real life and life as it’s portrayed in trashy teen novels. As one expert teen reader (OK, she’s my daughter) says of such books: “I like them because they have crazy things that could happen, but they don’t actually happen, and they’re never going to happen, so I can imagine them and it makes my life seem good in comparison.”

In fact, when I took a closer look at my Teen Voices mailbox, I discovered lots of great new books. Columbia English professor Jenny Davidson, author of The Explosionist, a YA novel with a wonderful teenage heroine and a feminist alternative history mystery plot (yeah, it really is all that) is far from the only one to call today “the golden age” of YA writing. The daughters of the original Judy Blume fans get to read Laurie Halse Anderson, Meg Cabot (read the books, if you’ve only seen the movies), Justine Larbalestier (OK, she’s got a fairy book, but it’s a good one), E. Lockhart, and Catherine Gilbert Murdock, all of whom create characters as complex and plots as compelling as their predecessors.

Many more books feature girls of color, and avid readers keep a good portion of Skurnick’s bibliography in print—see Meg Cabot’s essay in Shelf Discovery, in which she writes about her discovery that every girl at Oprah’s school in South Africa has read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

While Judy Blume may still be the lodestar, she’s got lots of excellent company.


Rebecca Steinitz writes about books, girls, and other topics for the Women’s Review of Books, the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, Literary Mama, and other places. In a previous life, she was a feminist literary critic who taught nineteenth-century British literature. Find out more at

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