Lizzie Skurnick knows YA. She wrote about books like The Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved for Jezebel, and those columns turned into Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. She’s talked about young adult books on NPR, and she’s actually written for Sweet Valley High. Sweet Valley High!
Last year, Skurnick took her YA game to a new level with the launch of Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint devoted to reissuing classic fiction from authors like Lois Duncan, M.E. Kerr, and Sandra Scoppetone.
While some readers maybe be drawn back to books they remember reading as kids, Skurnick doesn’t regard these works as mere artifacts of nostalgia. As she explains in this interview, these books have stayed in her imagination—they’ve shaped her imagination—because they have something interesting and vital to say to readers of any age and any generation.
JESSICA JERNIGAN: Here’s a thought that I had, just now: Is YA kind of a girl thing?
LIZZIE SKURNICK: Well, you know, it's interesting. Yes. It is a girl thing. Which is why the whole genre, for ages, has been kind of maligned. Seriously, people used to come up to me at parties and when I said I wrote teen books, and you could watch them assuming that it was about romance and girls, who are of course intrinsically stupid. I used to say to them sometimes, "I hope you don't have a daughter. Because you seem to have a really low opinion of what teenage girls like." And what's fascinating about the genre that I republish is that it is actually quite hard to find a book that does have a standard romance. You sometimes have a sexual relationship. But you know, I would be hard-pressed to find books from this era that are about a girl and a boy. You certainly have books like The Pigman, but they don't date, they're friends. That was part of my resistance to John Green's books. Because it's, like, can't we talk about cancer without these two kids being in love? Very unlikely they're actually going to be in love. But it doesn't mean they wouldn't have a deep and interesting relationship.
When I wrote Shelf Discovery, which was my book of essays about these books, every single male reviewer complained and said, "We read these books, too." And it was, like, well who said you didn't? A book doesn't say, "Only for girls." The collection actually reviews plenty of books by men.
But it's just that those books stay in print. I have tried to get some of the male authors who are going out of print now, as well. I'm trying to keep them in print.
But it's, like, why are we even talking about men? Like, I can't even talk about a genre of literature that was ghettoized because it was by women without also talking about men, too. It drives me insane.
I'm going to jump in here and say, when I said "kind of a girl thing," I did not mean romance.
I know, you didn't. What I thought of when you said, "it's kind of a girl thing,” is that girls are the primary readers of YA. But we're not necessarily the primary characters.
Yes. And when I think about the books that have stuck with me. Of course Judy Blume and Paula Danziger being major ones.
Yes. We're trying to get some Danziger back into print. I am forcing the agent to give it to me. She is just going to give it to me, and I don't know why she resists me.
Is Paula Danziger out of print?
There are a few books—and it's actually funny. I had to tell the agent that they were out of print. Because I check up on books. The Divorce Express went out of print. The Pistachio Prescription went out of print. There's a Bat in Bunk 5 went out of print.
Oh no! Not There’s a Bat in Bunk 5! That book kind of brings me to my next thought: One thing that comes up when talking about YA is nostalgia, but I can't help but notice that the first book you published was from 1958, which of course predates you by decades.
Yeah. It's actually funny. I never was interested in these books from a nostalgia perspective. I feel nostalgia for the original Twinkies with lard and nostalgia for Cheetos, but with these books it was because suddenly it was as if I and a generation of women were suddenly realizing, "Oh, my God," these books were so incredible. It's as if these titles and feelings and these features are imprinted on us. The books themselves have stayed with us so thoroughly that we remember those details as if they were our own details.
I also found reporters always did ask that about nostalgia, and I feel like the books stand on their won without nostalgia. What's strange about them is most of us re-read and re-read our favorite ones anyway or we're always thinking about them on some subconscious level.
Nancy Drew. You do read Nancy Drew for nostalgia, but you actually don't read Little House on the Prairie for nostalgia, and if you do, you will immediately be shocked at all of the adult things you suddenly understand, and you'll say, "Oh my God, Ma said, 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian,' and Pa is totally manic, and that's why he's always dragging this family every where. He's actually kind of a frightening guy." I really think I learned most of my history—up until, let's say, the age of 18 or 19—from YA books—or from the other random books my parents had on their shelves like An Anthology of Black Women's Writing or whatever—but YA was the main source.
I learned about belted maxi-pads from Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret.
Do you know they changed that in the new editions?
Oh, yes. Because they thought girls wouldn’t be able to relate to it. Lois Duncan has updated her editions of all her scary books for a recent reprinting of them. It was strange. Obviously, she's a writer, so for a writer that's always a fun project, actually, like, "Oh, how do I figure out this plot?" But for a reader, it's sort of depressing because you think, "Oh, my God. So, like, a person can't understand a book in which there's not a cell phone?" Also, to update most of these books, the existence of Google would just obviate all of the plots. Like, The Westing Game, if you just Google the words, you have no plot.
I think it's unfortunate that something has to be set in 1892 in order to be safe from updating. When I first got my period, maxi-pads no longer had belts, but I survived the reading. I understood it.
Jessica Jernigan is an occasional contributor to Bitch and The Women’s Review of Books. She has a Tumblr—because, seriously, who doesn’t?—and sometimes she writes things and posts them on Medium. Things like this thing about Stevie Nicks.
Related Listening — Three YA authors and the Bitch staff discuss the power of YA on our We Love YA podcast: