Lizzie Skurnick's SHELF DISCOVERY is a collection of essays about re-reading her favorite young adult books. The book grew out of her "Fine Lines" column on Jezebel.com and a life-long passion for young adult literature. It is divided into chapters organized by subject matter with topics ranging from self-sufficiency to the supernatural, and includes essays by other popular authors on books that influenced their adolescent lives.
The teen years are incredibly important for most young readers and writers. A period of rapid physical and emotional growth mixed with a natural curiosity about the world makes for an explosive combination. Reading offers a window into other worlds otherwise inaccessible to young readers, expanding a capacity for empathy and imagination. Books are often the beginning of an education on what it means to be human.
The best essays in SHELF DISCOVERY reflect this passionate engagement with literature both on the page and out in the world. Skurnick writes about her first experiences with her favorite books and about what she has learned from them subsequently as an adult reader. Readers will find many of their favorite titles and authors here, including multiple works by Madeleine L'Engle, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Lois Duncan.
The book provides an inclusive sample of literature read by young people, ranging from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE to THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. Most of the titles that appear here were published prior to 1990. Each essay is accompanied by a vintage picture of the book's cover, an overview of the book and its themes, and Skurnick's reflections on re-reading the book. While it can serve as a resource guide to books for young readers, it functions primarily as a collection of memoir-like essays about interacting with literature.
SHELF DISCOVERY does not stop short of addressing the more combustible aspects of literature for young people. It includes a chapter on books about puberty, a chapter on teen problem novels --- usually dealing with substance abuse or domestic violence --- and a chapter on sexuality. In her opening to a chapter called "Panty Lines: I Can't Believe They Let Us Read This," Skurnick even wryly defends banning books (a practice to which she is generally opposed). "How else would we find out which are the best ones?" she asks. While some of the titles mentioned were not originally intended for young readers, they are certainly books many people encountered for the first time in their teens.
I suspect the most appealing aspects of SHELF DISCOVERY will vary with the reader. My favorite part was Skurnick's passionate defense of heroines --- even the old-fashioned ones --- and the kind of emotional education they give to female readers. In her chapter titled "She Comes By It Supernaturally," she writes, "If we take the girls' new [supernatural] powers as a metaphor for puberty, we find that these changes...herald new insights about one's self, as well as a host of inviting developments on the horizon for friends, family, and future prospects... They are, in short, good news for the girls." The same could be said about most of the titles here, along with the (non-supernatural) skills and insights each heroine acquires.
It should be noted that almost all the books in SHELF DISCOVERY feature female protagonists. Readers are sure to question the inclusion of some books and the exclusion of others, along with the label of "classic" applied to titles now out-of-print. Some of the essays seem unnecessarily short. I would love to see Skurnick write longer essays covering all the books of a single author, or combine her insights on multiple books that share the same theme.
Reading SHELF DISCOVERY is a reintroduction to many of my favorite books and authors. It also allowed me to rediscover myself as a young reader. But the power of the book is not in the nostalgia factor of revisiting books I know and love. Instead, its strength is the dignity it brings to young adult literature and to the act of reading itself. Reading is often viewed as a solitary act. SHELF DISCOVERY is a reminder that reading connects us to other readers and writers, providing a common frame of reference through which we can share our own lives.
--- Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood