Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick
I read about this over at Pandagon, and thought it would be an interesting read. I enjoy books about books, such as Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, and I also like reading book analysis, even if I haven't necessarily read the novels (I had read some but not all the novels discussed in The Madwoman in the Attic). Also, since I grew up in Germany, I was kind of curious to see how many of the plots would remind me of the books I read between 8 and 13. There were quite a few books I read in Germany that I know were translated from English but I don't know what their original titles were so I was hoping this would be a slight memory jog. Unfortunately, I still don't know what some of the books I'm thinking of were (I read one series which I'd always thought might be A Wrinkle in Time when I heard people talk about it but it definitely wasn't - also turns out, I've never read A Wrinkle in Time). I remember reading a lot of Joan Aiken at one point so I was happy to see one of her novels brought up but that wasn't even my favorite one - granted, this book was very much focused on girls and female protagonists and my favorite one was about a young boy.
I expected not to have read many of the novels but I didn't expect to have only read about four or five of them (Laura Ingalls Wilder's two, Joan Aiken, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Go Ask Alice) - I've never even read Judy Blume. However, this wouldn't have been that big of a problem if Skurnick had engaged in more overall analysis. For some of the novels, she definitely raised some very valid points. Many of them, I felt like I was simply reading a synopsis. And based on the summaries, I could definitely see why these stories would appeal to young girls and how they could help them learn to be comfortable with themselves and develop into strong women but I could have used a little bit more of "and this matters because." If I had read the novels, I may have been happy reminiscing about old reads; since I haven't, I needed a deeper reading than she provided.
It did, however, make me start reflecting on what my reading habits were as a child. Some of the books she discusses she obviously read around 8 or so even though they were teen fiction, others she read or reread as a teenager. She mentioned that many of the novels she read had a supernatural angle. I could definitely relate to that from my reading. I remember I had lots of mysteries such as the Alfred Hitchcock series, several collections of ghost and horror stories for young adults and books on mythology. I also had a large collection of books and novels directed at teenagers about the Holocaust (I grew up in Germany after all, knowing about our past was important). I don't feel like I spent much time in the young adult section after ten or eleven, though. As far as mysteries, I moved on to Agatha Christie and I started reading Stephen King, Anne Rice and Ken Follett to name just a few.
Skurnick devoted one chapter to "dirty" books, or the books that young girls read to learn about sex, and honestly, I couldn't really relate. I know some girls read Blume to learn about menstruation. Maybe it was the environment I grew up in but I never felt like sex or menstruation were much of a mystery. As I said, I grew up in Germany. Most of the third and fourth graders I knew read the teen magazine Bravo. We, well I at least, tended to read it for the music and pop culture news as well as some of the other stories. However, there were also several pages each week devoted to sex and love. With pictures and lots of advice in addition to a weekly column entitled "My First Time." So I had access to the answers even if I skipped those pages. For the most part, I was still at that age of "ewww, gross," but obviously I knew the mechanics. And have you ever read Ken Follett? One of the few novels I read that was discussed in this book was The Clan of the Cave Bear (after we'd moved back to the States), and while that one wasn't bad, the other three in the series annoyed me (and yet I read them all because I often feel the need to complete a series if I start it; I like having complete sets) - oh my god, could we have some plot in between all the sex? At least Follett could successfully have both. Maybe I was still in my "ewww gross" stage about sex at that point . . . At the very least, The Children of Earth series and sex scenes made me feel slightly uncomfortable and awkward.
When I found out we were moving to the States, I decided I needed to start reading in English, and the only novels I found in the teen section at the PX were R.L. Stine and The Babysitters Club so I read quite a few of those when I was twelve, thirteen because that's what was available and I didn't want to jump straight into anything too difficult as I started reading in English instead of German. That phase stopped soon after getting to the States, though, and I became too snobby to read young adult novels, kind of like I refused to watch cartoons and animation for a very long time after being around 10 or 11 because I felt like I was too old and mature for that kind of stuff.
Basically, I guess part of me was hoping to be enlightened about American teenage girlhood but it didn't quite work. Some of the novels definitely sounded interesting but not enough for me try to find them or read them. Oh well.