Somehow in my recent Internet wanderings I stumbled on a blog (the link now lost to me) that was devoted to old-school young adult and middle grade books, the kinds of books I found in the small young adult section at the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks at the mall in the early 1980s and the ones featured in the Scholastic book catalog—the books I read when I wasn’t quite a teenager but wildly curious about what being a teenager would be like. Books by Ellen Conford, Lois Duncan, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Willo Davis Roberts in her Sunfire-writing days. From what I remember, these weren’t books that adults typically read, unless they were librarians, teachers, or curious parents. And although I continued to reread this books throughout high school, I too stopped reading these books when I became an adult. I might pick up a highly recommended new YA book by the likes of Maggie Stiefvater or Diane Wynne Jones or an esteemed classic by Susan Cooper but those particular books that got me through my preteen years have remained in my past.
Yet even though I can’t quite cop to the “we never stopped reading” part of the title of this book by Lizzie Skurnick, those books I read over and over at age 11 or so are imprinted in my brain. And seeing those covers again on that blog I’ve already lost track off brought back all those intense preteen feelings. I decided it might be fun to indulge that nostalgia by reading this collection of essays, many of them originally featured in the Fine Lines column at Jezebel.
Skurnick describes her own memory of these books in the introduction:
It might have begun with the covers. Most were either snapshots or looked like soft paintings of snapshots (whither, whither the painted cover?), with girls who were neither good-looking nor not-good-looking, girls in glasses, with braces, standing in front of the mirror or smiling happily in the arms of a boy, glowering in front of a locker, standing with bonnet and hoop skirt on a lonely plane, girls with head, feet, and body miraculously intact. There they were, waiting for the tug on the string that would start them moving and speaking.
In them, I found a window, a scrying glass, into a complex consciousness, a life like my own, but writ large in all of its messy ambiguity. Nothing, as of yet, had happened to me. But there was the world, and everything happening in it, right in the bright row of spines. It was waiting for me to pull out the next chapter, to turn the book over, to open the first page and read.
Skurnick—and a few notable authors like Jennifer Weiner, Meg Cabot, and Tayari Jones—revisit books that meant something to them when they were young. The essays largely look at the books from both the adult and young adult perspective, as Skurnick considers why the book appealed to her back then and what she sees in it now. She gushes about the kinds of things that seemed gushy-worthy to her younger self—roasting a pig’s tail in Little House in the Big Woods—and comments on the mature themes she missed as a child (and the mature content she pored over in wonder). There are exclamation marks and ALL CAPS!!! when the situation warrants, but the book is more than a squee-fest. Skurnick is thoughtful in her approach to these books.
So many of my favorites came up, and I enjoyed the essays on all of them, if only for the pleasing shiver of recognition when Skurnick mentions incidents like Davey’s searching for a rock when she first encounters Wolf in the canyon in Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. (Tiger Eyes was my favorite Judy Blume book.) Blume makes frequent appearances here, and reading Skurnick’s essays helped me remember why I loved her books so much. I needed It’s Not the End of the World, for example, when my parents got divorced. Her books consistently let kids know they’re not alone in their worries and fears, and they take those worries seriously without offering pat answers or pretending that everything will be fine while also sending a clear message that even if life isn’t what you want, you’ll find a way through. It hadn’t even occurred to me until reading this how few of Blume’s book have a proper happy ending—they tend to end with the main characters moving on to a new phase, having found some new strength.
Other beloved books I revisited through Skurnick were Caroline by Willo Davis Roberts, Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (one of the few books Skurnick acknowledges is terrible in hindsight), Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan, and Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These are the books that are seared into my brain. There were lots of others that I remember reading and enjoying: Bridge of Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan.
I thought I had read Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck, My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger, and The Grounding of Group Six by Julian F. Thompson, but those plots didn’t sound even a little bit familiar. And a quote involving six yellow pencils and three stenographic pads convinced me that I read The Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene even though I have no other memory of it. (That image, though! Seared into my brain!)
I enjoyed many of the pieces about books I hadn’t read, many of them well-known classics I should have read (there’s Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett). But a few of the essays were well-nigh incomprehensible. For some reason, the books by Madeleine L’Engle seemed completely nuts. (There are pieces on A Wrinkle in Time, which I’ve read, and The Arm of the Starfish, The Moon by Night, and A Ring of Endless Night, which I have not.) There was something about talking to dolphins in one and a whole bunch of overlapping relationships—I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but it sounded weirdly good.
Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, but I couldn’t resist letting this go without leaving you a collage of some of the covers that I remember so vividly from my preteen and early teen reading. What are some of the books you can’t forget? Do any of these ring a bell?
Incidentally, Lizzie Skurnick has her own imprint now, dedicated to putting classic young adult books back in print. I don’t see any of my particular favorite books there, but I do see some beloved authors. Part of me would really enjoy revisiting some of them to see if they hold up to my adult sensibilities, and another part would rather bask in my memories.