Friday, October 23, 2009

Read This Book: Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading

Remember the books you were so passionate about when you were a teenager, the ones that spoke to you? Think they'd still be talking the talk and walking the walk now if you read them? Me, too, and that's how come I loved

Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick (who also has a great blog).

Why do you think teen novels resonate so deeply with the adults we’ve become? Do you think that just as music catapults us back to a specific time and place in our lives (we might remember our first kiss happened with Blue Oyster Cult raging in the background), so can certain books?

I think that once you reach an age where childhood is firmly in your past, you suddenly start to be able to see what has made you the person you are. It's not surprising to me that most of the women who read Fine Lines and write me about Shelf Discovery are between 25 and 45. It's like we've all suddenly woken up to a part of ourselves we'd completely forgotten, and it's so great to remember how deeply we felt when we were that person.

What I loved so much about the book was how you reflect on how rereading gives new meaning—from a different perspective. Was there any book you loved that you now can’t stand?

You know, it was really terrifying to write this column and this book, because I was always afraid of losing a favorite book in the process, realizing it was kitschy and horrible. But I was relieved at the end to find the only book I lost was one I'd only liked for its lurid factor anyway: 'Go Ask Alice'. To a grownup, it's a clumsy ridiculous read, and so patently made up it's almost funny. There was a detail I loved: that the main characters gives her hair that 70s wave by rolling it around old frozen orange juice cans. But I'm keeping it. It seems credible enough.

What do you think of the state of YA novels now? Any modern day author who springs to mind that you think will affect future generations the way Judy Blume does?

It's so difficult to tell what any generation will choose when you're not part of it. So many of the books I write about have issues related to the rise of feminism and cultural repression in general -- mothers going back to work; sadistic teachers; unchecked bullying; bullying dads; divorce; alcoholism. These are issues we discuss so widely and publicly today that they can't have quite the same explosive power they did for us. Also, a lot of these books were about not being noticed or being noticed only in a negative way by your peers or parents. I don't think schools, parents and peer groups are allowed to be quite so Darwinian today. (Not out in the open, at least.) I find the move of the market to fantasy interesting -- I wonder why the YA books of today have shifted into an allegorical space. Judy Blume, Paula Danziger and Paul Zindel wrote works that took place only entirely in the classroom, making a universe of what happened to five people over a year. Even Meg from 'A Wrinkle in Time' gets in fights at school.

I noticed that most of the titles are geared to girls, though you do have boy titles in your book. Why do you think this is? Were these books just more geared to females?

I think in this period of women, a lot of women writing stories of their own youth for the first time, and obviously they were published with girls on the cover. But I think it's less about marketing -- who marketed anything then? -- than about the types of stories children enjoy at different ages. After all, so many of the writers -- Richard Peck, Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel -- were men, and so many of the books star men. ('Then Again, Maybe I Won't' is still one of my favorites.) It's less that the books were geared toward girls than that, at that age, girls are more interested than boys in these sort of psychological, dramatic narratives.

I have to ask and no one has ever been able to help me on this one. When I was ten, my mother allowed me to read whatever I wanted, no questions asked. She handed me three library books, all set in Paris. All I remember is the characters, Pierre, Elizabeth and Sally. I was shocked when Pierre lustily ripped open the jacket of his girlfriend to reveal her “heaving breasts”, sending the buttons scattering, but even more stunned when Sally grew up to go to New York City and have an abortion. I devoured the books and would love to find them again. Do you have any idea what they might be?

Hmmm...I have no idea! Definitely tell me when you figure it out, though, so I can read them too. They sound excellent.

Is there a sequel in the works, I hope?

I'm definitely going to keep writing Fine Lines! The rest is up to the publishing gods.

You talk about the pleasure of the covers of these books, and I have to agree. Although many now look old fashioned, there is still something in them that makes you feel you are eavesdropping on a life and you want to come closer. What else is it about these covers that made them so important to all of us back then—and maybe now, too?

I think it's that the girls are actually facing us, and they're normal girls, surrounded by all of the objects in their lives. We can see them as clearly as we would walking into a friend's room. Now, books rarely show a girl in any context at all. Usually, it's the chop-shop style: a foot, half a face, even sometimes just a fluttering dress in the wind. Some of Judy Blume's books have been put out without any images on the covers at all. Even my book suffers from this syndrome: I don't like that the girls are lying down, and that we can't see their faces. All of the girls on these old covers are face-front and in the center of the action, and that also reflects the spirit of these books.

What question should I be mortified that I did not ask you?

I would never want you to be mortified! But you didn't ask me my favorite book. Luckily for you, I mention it in every other print and radio interview.

1 comment:

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

loved this anthology. A really great interview, Caroline, too.