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the Complete Review
the complete review - reading / YA literature

Shelf Discovery

Lizzie Skurnick

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To purchase Shelf Discovery

Title: Shelf Discovery
Author: Lizzie Skurnick
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 428 pages
Availability: Shelf Discovery - US
Shelf Discovery - UK
Shelf Discovery - Canada
Shelf Discovery - India
  • The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading
  • With a Foreword by Laura Lippman
  • With Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Cecily von Ziegesar, Jennifer Weiner, Anna Holmes, Tayari Jones, and Margo Rabb

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining tour through YA lit (and a bit more) mainly of the 1960s and 70s

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 28/7/2009 Christina Amoroso
The LA Times . 6/8/2009 Susan Carpenter
Salon . 28/7/2009 Joy Press
Time . 3/8/2009 Mary Pols

  From the Reviews:
  • "Guest essays from the likes of Jennifer Weiner (who writes about Blubber), Meg Cabot, and Cecily von Ziegesar add to this fast, fun trip down memory lane." - Christina Amoroso, Entertainment Weekly

  • "A nostalgia trip for thirty- and fortysomething bookworms, Shelf Discovery starts with all the heavy-hitters from the Gen-X YA canon (.....) Like a Cliffs Notes commentary, the summaries amount to a matter of paragraphs or pages, which is usually enough for readers to remember what they read decades ago or, if they didn't read it, to at least get what Skurnick's talking about. That isn't always the case, however. Sometimes Skurnick's explanations are too loaded with extraneous detail or slowed by efforts at cleverness. Sometimes her writing is just too breathless, sort of like she's a modern tween who just spotted a Jonas Brother. That said, her enthusiasm is undeniable." - Susan Carpenter, The Los Angeles Times

  • "I'm sure Skurnick read plenty of books growing up, from Tolkien to Salinger; yet itís great to look back and see this girl-centric canon, waiting to be reread by the grown women who loved them and a new generation of "monsters in training bras."" - Joy Press, Salon

  • "Shelf Discovery is a dizzyingly crowded, joyful hodgepodge of book reports (.....) There are loving -- and less reverent -- remembrances of books by Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Madeleine L'Engle, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Katherine Paterson, among many others, all illustrated with the original (or era-correct) cover art. This is potent nostalgia for girlhoods past; the strawberry scent of Bonne Bell Lip Smackers practically wafts off the pages. (...) But reading them in book form, one longs for more intellectual heft -- Skurnick is certainly capable of it -- and fewer of the cheery colloquialisms that were apparently needed to hold the fleeting attention of the average Web surfer." - Mary Pols, Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Based on her column at Jezebel.com, Shelf Discovery collects Lizzie Skurnick's (re)readings of the teen classics -- and not-so-classics -- she devoured in her childhood (with a little help from some friends, as there are also contributions by a few other writers). Some seventy books are covered, in 'Book Reports' -- longer pieces --, as well as a few briefer 'Extra Credit' and 'Overdue' discussions, and while Skurnick does summarize some of the plots, she goes beyond that in suggesting what's special (and/or bizarre) about these books and how they affected her (and, presumably, other readers).
       The ten chapters group the books by general topic or themes, from 'Girls on the Verge' to those with supernatural powers to those whose stories could just as easily have been the subject of 'Very Afterschool Specials'. A lot of them deal with sex and maturing, generally, including many varieties of being or attaining some measure of independence. And the books are largely of a particular era: beside some old classics -- Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden -- for the most part, these are the books readers growing up in the 1970s (give or take a bit) would have lost themselves in. No Harry Potter. No vampires.
       Oh, yes: and these are books that were (and are) predominantly consumed (and populated) by girls. A few more ... masculine texts slip in -- a Roald Dahl (Danny, Champion of the World) gets a page, or Robert Cormier's I am the Cheese -- but on the whole this is all very girlish territory: Judy Blume (Are you there God ? It's me Margaret-Blume, and Forever-Blume, and (dear god) Wifey-Blume) and Beverly Cleary's Fifteen and the like. Even the more adventure-filled texts are girl-centered, such as Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphin.
       Skurnick barely wonders about the male perspective, either in the books themselves (though she notes that: "When I started my grand reading tour of the teen shelf, there were only a few boys to be found there") or from readers. Boys don't read, apparently. Perhaps it's true that they're unlikely to read many of these titles, but at least a bit of a male perspective would certainly have been of interest here.
       [A devourer of most anything in print, this male reviewer of approximately the same generation encountered most of the books found here in his childhood and probably read about half of them. Not Forever, I'm afraid, -- or V.C.Andrews, I'm relieved to say --, but from Harriet the Spy to A Wrinkle in Time to The Secret Garden ... okay, there are probably a few I'd rather not admit to. Still, while it was probably preferable not to be seen reading many of these at tween age (by the time I got to teen-age I was well into the Harold Robbins oeuvre and worse), it certainly seemed sensible to read them, as they (so the hope) offered insight into the mysterious and oh so intriguing opposite sex. I was certainly more curious about those changes the girls were going through than any I might be -- while Skurnick et al. seem particularly drawn to the characters one could identify with, i.e. girls going through variations (sometimes very wild ones -- supernatural powers !) of what they were going through, or showing them the way for what lay ahead.]
       Skurnick doesn't overly romanticize these texts, acknowledging the sheer awfulness of some of this stuff, but she also conveys her genuine affection for much of it, and shows how, read at the right time, these stories can have a deep and (generally) positive effect. She pegs most of the books and authors well, too, from Paul Zindel ("avatar of a certain stretch of miserable adolescence") to favorites Madeleine L'Engle (even Dragons in the Waters) and Judy Blume -- admiring everything from her extraordinary range to:

the unflinching verisimilitude with which Blume describes what preteen girls are really like (monsters in training bras).
       There's a bit of irritating hyperbole -- "I've only read The Witch of Blackbird Pond something like 34 times"; "I must have read this autobiography of a girl being sent to the Gulag by Stalin 100 times"; or Little House on the Prairie hailed as "The Most Important Work of Our Time" without quite enough of an explanation to convince of that -- but occasionally the tone and words seem appropriate, as when Go Ask Alice is dismissed as: "TRULY THE WORST-WRITTEN BOOK IN THE WORLD".
       It's also fun to learn about some of the books one might have missed and/or forgotten, including the truly horrifying-sounding The Grounding of Group Six, its premise that parents of these kids have shoved them off to a boarding school to be: "poisoned and thrown into deep crevasses, never to be heard from again".
       The poignant readings are quite good -- Bridge to Terabithia, for example -- but the real fun, of course, comes with the bizarre and awful, preferably all rolled up in one book. V.C.Andrew's Flowers in the Attic is an appropriate high- (or very, very low-) point (in the final chapter, appropriately subtitled: 'I Can't Believe They Let us Read This'). But it's also interesting to learn of the unexpected memorable reading experiences, such as Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, the one book that is discussed in two separate pieces, one by Skurnick, one by Cecily von Ziegesar.
       Even those unfamiliar with these books can enjoy this collection, but it's most fun as a stroll down memory lane, and works surprisingly well as that. It might also serve parents well, guiding them to some books that might appeal to their young daughters (and warning them of one or two titles they might want to keep their kids away from).

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 July 2009

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Shelf Discovery: Reviews: Lizzie Skurnick: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Lizzie Skurnick has written numerous teen books.

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