Sunday, September 27, 2009

Old school teen reading obsessions

Every once in a while when I go out to do workshops on YA lit for teachers or for college students in teacher education classes--usually lugging more books than I could possibly introduce in the allotted 45 minute time slot--someone will ask, "Have you actually read all these books?"

And the answer, of course, is yes. It seems so obvious and so natural, but maybe that's because I've been reading voraciously my whole life. Plowing through series books like B is for Betsy, Little House on the Prairie, The Black Stallion, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Sitting back in stunned shock at the end of Searching for Shona. Wanting to know if tesseracts were real after reading A Wrinkle in Time. Sobbing over Bridge to Terabithia. Being riveted by Blubber. Yearning to swim with the dolphins like Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light. And hiding the ratty copies of Forever and Wifey that made the rounds during sixth grade until I could read them in private.

Being this kind of reader may be great preparation for a career as an English educator, but even now, as an adult talking to other adults about reading, I still occasionally feel the same twinges of self-consciousness about my lifelong book obsession that I felt as a 15-year-old. Only now they combine with defensiveness. Yes, I've read all these books, I want to say. And your point is?

So when I heard about Lizzie Skurnick's new collection of essays, Shelf Discovery: Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, it sounded like a book I should check out. And what I found was -- a kindred spirit. Lizzie's essays chronicle her life as a chronic re-reader of books for girls and teens with wit, snark, and unabashed love. Her choice of books is broad and undiscriminating: both Newbery winners and skeezy 70s paperbacks appear here. Title by title, Lizzie recalls not just what these books were about, but how and why they resonated.

What a pleasure it is to encounter a fellow reader who grew up reading the same books as me but who now reminds me of things I might have otherwise forgotten, like the radicalism of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, the class-consciousness of Then Again, Maybe I Won't, and the family drama of Tiger Eyes. Not to mention the gross titillation of The Grounding of Group Six, the porn-like lure of Flowers in the Attic, and the feminist subtext of Clan of the Cave Bear. And how affirming to hear that the very same things I loved in a particular childhood favorite (Claudia and Jamie bathing in the fountain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and paying for food with coins they found there in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!) were the very things Lizzie loved, too.

For those in the know, these essays will bring back memories and inspire re-readings. For those who have always wondered what the fuss is all about, these essays will shed some serious light on what YA books have always had to offer and why they keep speaking to their devoted readers years, even decades later.

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