Shelf Discovery

The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading

by Lizzie Skurnick

Paperback, 424 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $14.99 | purchase

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Title
Shelf Discovery
Subtitle
The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading
Author
Lizzie Skurnick

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Book Summary

An analysis of the literary genre that focused on adolescent girls and evolved between the 1960s and 1980s considers the achievements of such authors as Beverly Cleary, Lois Duncan, and Judy Blume, in a collection of essays in which contributing writers remember the ways in which favorite books changed their lives.

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Excerpt: Shelf Discovery

Shelf Discovery

The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading


Avon

Copyright © 2009 Lizzie Skurnick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-175635-1

Chapter One

Still Checked Out YA Heroines We'll Never Return

Mom ... Can Sally J. Sleep Over?

If you ask me, it is truly a symbol of the great injustice of life as we know it today that the only girl heroine's name that can truly be said to have entered the vernacular is "Pollyanna." (I mean, have you even read Pollyanna? I may have made it through about 10 minutes of the movie-that is, if I'm not confusing it with Heidi.) It's an even greater injustice that the appellative, of course, is a pejorative. It's not only that, out of the 9,000 exciting heroines you could mention, our language reflects only one. It's that the one character elected for immortality, the linguistic ambassador for young women in the world, is a prating goody-goody who spreads her good cheer with the relentless force of a Caterpillar.

If I had my way, we would add some other options to the mix. What, for example, about being a Ramona? (Inquisitive, inspired, unaccountably amusing.) A Meg? (Stubborn, brainy, admirably self-questioning.) A Claudia! (Exquisitely tasteful, stylized, demanding-the Michael Kors of the under-12 set.) A Wifey! (Sorry, wrong chapter.) A Margaret! (Still Chapter Two.)

But you get my point. Just as there are certain books we drag with us to bed year after year like a beloved, worn blanket, there are certain heroines we find continually in circulation, like especially festive members of a slumber-party circuit. (Ramona! Are you putting toothpaste in the sink again?)

And why do they continue to receive our coveted Saturday-night invitations? Well, first, they are marvelously fun to be around. (See above: Toothpaste.) They also teach us new things, like what an Automat is, or what's a charming, off-the-beaten-track place you might want to consider when you next run away. (Here's a hint: Admission is only what you can give!) They remind us of ourselves-Meg's glumness over her awkward stage comes to mind-even as they perform galactic feats of travel that challenge our 8-year-old grasp of algebra. (You had me at "square the square.") They have annoying brothers, worried mothers, and affectionate fathers-even doting bubehs-and while they see themselves in the mirror, we can see ourselves in their Margaret O'Brien coronet.

And they challenge us, like the best of friends, in general-not only to be ourselves, but to be more interesting, inspired versions of ourselves, girls unafraid to squeeze toothpaste, sleep on a Louis XIV bed or keep important tabs on all the neighbors, even if they're not afraid they're Hitler. (Yes, Sally-but you didn't think I'd forget Harriet, did you?) In search of their constant company, I'm sure the nerdier among us will be happy to cop to the occasional commemorative costume, poem, or diorama or website. This is nonsense; we owe our best friends a durable immortality. Next stop: Let's get them into the lexicon.

A Wrinkle in Time By Madeleine L'Engle 1962 The Great Brain It was a dark and stormy night.

If I had my way, none of us would have to read this essay at all. Instead, we'd join hands, hear a great thunderclap, and be whisked off to a rambling house in the country, where we'd view odd things bubbling in a lab with a stone floor, consume hot cocoa, jam on bread, and liverwurst-and-cream-cheese sandwiches at the kitchen table while swinging our legs, and then sidestep for a moment onto a planet inhabited by gentle gray creatures with dents for eyes. We would be inserted into some mitochondria, battle for the soul of Madoc/Maddox, and eat crayfish with our lesbian kind-of aunt who insisted on calling us our full name (Polyhymnia). We'd hop on a freighter and solve a mystery, then go to boarding school in Switzerland. We would make a brief detour on the Upper West Side and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine by way of Portugal, and be concerned with cell regeneration in starfish. We'd be smacked on the ass by a dolphin. We'd try to answer the questions of God, sex, and the galaxy, and if the principal ever tried to get us to come back to school, why, we'd drag him along with us, too.

God, how much it kills me that we can't do those things! (Especially the dolphin part.) But, as A Wrinkle in Time's opaque Mrs. Who would have us recall, Dante said, Come t'e picciol fallow amaro morso. ("What grievous pain a little fault doth give thee!") Alas, it will have to be enough for us to spend a bit of time in the company of a most short-fused, half-cocked, bespectacled literary heroine-Meg Murry, the first heroine to endear herself to the reader by way of atom rearrangement.

Meg Murry-brilliant at math, poor at geography, eschewing rumination for action-is the first in a line of L'Engle heroines who flit across the boundaries of space and time, even more flummoxed by adolescence than they are by being whipsawed across the universe. (Which they are, generally, just to complicate things, in the process of saving.) In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg, joined by her neighbor Calvin O'Keefe and her quietly remarkable younger brother Charles Wallace, hop-stops her way through a number of only occasionally hospitable galaxies, searching for her father in the shadow of the Dark Thing, the shadow of evil threatening to overtake Earth, and all of creation.

And that's it for those of you who haven't read the book. (Just stab me in the eye; it's less painful.) For the rest, first off, I am embarrassed to say that, swooning over memories of red-tinged Sloppy Joe brains and calm, fragrant creatures with dents for eyes (Aunt Beast!), I had entirely forgotten that, when we first come across the studious, brilliant Murry family, they-and Meg in particular-are in somewhat of a crisis. Their father has been missing for some months, a fact that the town's citizens are only too happy to snidely snicker over. Long scorned for their elite, egghead predilections (Dr. Murry, a physicist, is an advisor to the president) the Murry family is finally in a position where the town can feel superior to them.

(Continues...)