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Lizzie Skurnick interview. The "Shelf Discovery" author on what girls read, and why. Babble.com's Five Minute Time Out.

Lizzie Skurnick

The “Shelf Discovery” author on what girls read, and why.

by Aimee Pohl

August 25, 2009

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It was “the golden age” of young adult fiction; from “we must, we must, we must increase our bust” to running away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a little ESP and dimension jumping along the way. We grew up on these books, reading them over and over, even as we got older. Lizzie Skurnick, a poet, book critic, blogger and young adult author (she has written ten of the Sweet Valley High books) revisits some of the most popular girl-centric must-reads in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Babble spoke to her about Twilight, why scary books are better than scary sitcoms, and how to encourage your children to read. – Aimee Pohl

What makes a book “young adult” rather than for children or for adults? Books like the Little House on the Prairie series are difficult to categorize.

In my world, young adult is really about the work for those truly between childhood and adulthood, those in flux, and those books can include Little House or Clan of the Cave Bear. For my book I realized very early that I had to dispense with whatever official categories a book fell in, because this was a story of the books girls read, not what people call the books that the girls read.

Part of why these books were fascinating to us as children was that they dealt with the older girls who we wondered about: the girls who got their period and went on dates.

Exactly. The girls we were going to be, not the girls we were. There are a lot of authors that you could argue were not specifically writing for YA but were packaged that way. It’s like “mystery”: some people think it’s an insult, some only want to be considered a mystery writer! Many authors would like to be considered serious literary fiction writers. YA is only recently starting to be considered serious.

Speaking of intended audiences, have you followed the controversy in Britain over “age banding” of children’s books? A number of authors, including Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling, have come out very strongly against the plan to put age suggestions on books. What do you think?

Most children ignore them. The real worry is that children have access to books and are given room to make choices, in my view. The rest is just for adults to organize, index and sell, and there’s nothing wrong with that, we just shouldn’t confuse it with reading. I think what they reflect is the new preoccupation our culture has with children and what they’re doing. My mother and father had no idea what I was reading and I don’t know that they would have thought it was their business or concerned themselves with it and I think that was terrific. I think nowadays there is a lot of evidence that we curate and monitor our children and, like all kinds of attention, that has benefits and drawbacks.

Are there any books you regret reading at a young age? I read a book when I was nine or so about a girl who is molested by her orthodontist. When I started going to the orthodontist I expected that I would get molested!

I never was scared by books, because they seemed to handle it all in a thoughtful way. It did scare me, and I talk about this in my Are You in the House Alone? review, how in the early ’80s they raped all the female characters on sitcoms with these “issue” episodes. They raped Deedee, they molested Tootie, Kimberly was kidnapped. That was horrible. I was sure that was coming up for me in a future episode and you could tell it was simply for the dramatic punch, and not a real attempt to tell a story. I was never scared when it was a story because I knew it had meaning.

Lizzie Skurnick

The “Shelf Discovery” author on what girls read, and why.

by Aimee Pohl

August 25, 2009

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2

Not to give away all the important analysis you do in the book, but what did we gain from reading and rereading these books?

I think what they gave us was the idea that you are at the center of your own life, not as the star but as the person who has to observe the world and make decisions. I think girls are often taught to make people happy or to make things all right or to solve problems or to load the dishwasher. And it was really wonderful to see girls as the members of a narrative with full rights.

As you’ve been doing publicity for this book, I’ve noticed that you have gotten a lot of questions that boil down to “What about boys?” Why is that?

“This terror over Twilight is just a reflection of how stupid we think girls are.” Some of it is very natural – I talk about girls, what might I say about boys? But I am very confused by how resentful the tone in some of it is, like there’s something wrong with writing about girls’ literature, or literature read quite a bit by girls or the fact that this was a hidden canon that was mostly read by girls. Male literature gets plenty of attention. They’re just not used to being left out and are outraged! I actually loved all the “boys'” books, and I’d happily write about them. I just don’t like being told I should have. Write your own damn reviews, man! Also I think a lot of men genuinely loved these books and they want that known, which is very sweet, actually

You have written a number of books in the Sweet Valley High series. Would you recommend that series for young girls?

Well, I certainly had fun reading it as a girl. I think sometimes series like that are useful to let you know your culture’s preoccupations, as long as you don’t completely absorb them and feel like you have to walk around being a size six and wearing a gold Laveliere necklace. They’re like Cliffs Notes for the subconscious of your particular society and I think kids pick up on how true and untrue they are way more than you would think. I think a lot of this terror over Twilight is just a reflection of how stupid we think girls are, like, “Girls are very stupid. God knows what will happen if they read something stupid!” It’s like they’re all dangling on the precipice of idiocy, or something. But they get it. They have fun with trash, just like we do.

What kind of recommendations do you have for parents to encourage reading?

I think there are three ways, plus a codicil.

1) Always read to them when they are little

2) Have a lot of books around.

3) Be a good example! They’re not going to read if you never crack a spine, and it’s not fair to expect them to.

And my last thing: don’t make them feel bad about not reading. People really come to reading at different times and for different reasons. You can’t push someone to appreciate a book or understand what’s great about reading before they’re ready. Of course, if you are a manipulative parent, you can just not allow them to read. That’ll do it.

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