Shelf Discovery-The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick

shelf discovery“We Must, We Must, We Must Increase Our Bust”

In her “Fine Lines” column on the website Jezebel, Lizzie Skurnick re-read many of the novels she loved as a young girl, looking at them through the eyes of an adult. Now many of these (somewhat altered) essays are in book form in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Ms. Skurnick is no stranger to young adult books. Not only is she a reader but she’s also a writer of some of the Sweet Valley High books. She also brings along writers like Meg Cabot, Jennifer Weiner and Cecily von Ziegesar for the ride down memory lane.

Shelf Discovery does not cover the books we had to read for school, books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eyre and Austen. No, this book covers the books that weren’t on any teacher-approved reading list. These are the books that kept us up long after our bed time or the books we hid behind our text books during social studies. These are the books we loaned to our friends only to get them back with tattered covers and dog-eared pages. Well, at least this happened to me when I loaned my copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by uber-goddess Judy Blume to all my friends in Miss Wilson’s fifth grade class.

Not surprisingly, Judy Blume’s books are reviewed in Shelf Discovery as are the Little House books. Skurnick also takes a look back at books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, The Cat Ate My Gym Suit by Paula Danziger and I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. Shelf Discovery covers books that were considered too old for us but we read them anyway like Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and VC Andrew’s My Sweet Audrina. And books that I thought only I had read like To All My Fans With Love, From Sylvie by Ellen Conford and To Take a Dare by Paul Zindel and Crescent Dragonwagon are also covered.

These essays are thoughtful, reflective and funny, and brought back a lot of memories. Not only of reading these books, but also how they made me feel and how they inspired talk among my gaggle of girlfriends. I loved reading the Little House books, feeling some cheesehead pride because Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Wisconsin. And I was quite comforted to know I wasn’t only the one who found Laura’s sister Mary an insufferable prissy-pants though I never went as far as to call her a “fucking bitch” like Skurnick does.

And where would we be without Judy Blume? Sure, some people want to ban her books, but to most of us, we loved Judy Blume because she introduced us to characters we could actually relate to. These were characters who experienced divorce or the death of a parent. They dealt with sexism, favored siblings and peer pressue. They questioned religion. They also dealt with the difficulties of growing up, physically, mentally and emotionally. Blume did not hesitate to make her main characters somewhat unlikable such as the protagonist in Blubber, Jill, who bullies Linda for being fat. And then there was Tony from Then Again, Maybe I Won’t who spied on his friend’s hot sister with his binoculars. What a perv!!!

Long before Gossip Girl, the books covered in Shelf Discovery introduced us to the world of S.E.X! Forever proved a girl could have sex and not get pregnant the first time or become a raving lunatic. It also kept generations of women from naming their male offspring Ralph. Wifey totally had a dirty mind. Flowers in the Attic introduced us the idea of brother/sister sex long before the Jerry Springer Show. And Katy Perry may have thought she was so lesbian chic when she sang, “I Kissed a Girl” but Jaret and Peggy were getting it on thirty years earlier in Sandra Scoppetone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike.

I’m not familiar with all of the books featured in Shelf-Discovery, but many of you might be. And I’m also not a fan of some of the books I did read. I wanted to fling Go Ask Alice across my teen-age bedroom. Even back then I knew it was a load of shite, and Go Ask Alice, which was allegedly based on the real diary of a teen girl messed up on drugs, was debunked several years ago.

I was also amazed to find out that many of the books we enjoyed as kids are now being enjoyed by today’s kids. Sure, kids have their Harry Potter and their Twilight books, but Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret also resonates with them. While visiting Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Meg Cabot sheepishly tells the girls she is re-reading the Judy Blume classic. She expected blank stares from the students, but instead she got thunderous applause and cheers. Even though these girls live half a world away from suburban New Jersey, they totally adore Margaret. I still adore Margaret.

Reading Shelf Discovery reminded me why books always meant so much to me growing up (and still do). How fun was Sally J Freedman? And was I the only one who though Rosemary from Sister of the Bride was way too young to get married? But at least my mom and dad never sent me off to boarding school to die like the awful parents in The Grounding of Group 6. If you’re looking for a literary walk down memory lane and more than “seven minutes in heaven” you can’t go wrong with Shelf Discovery.

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Retro Reviews: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume **UPDATED**

AreYouThereGodWhere would generations of women be without Judy Blume? Sure, some people wanted to ban her books, but I loved Judy Blume because she wrote about characters I could actually relate to. Blume’s characters dealt with divorce, death, family strife, religion, sex, bullying and peer pressure. But most of all Blume’s characters dealt with the difficulties of growing up: physically, emotionally and mentally. Blume didn’t sugar-coat these difficulties nor did she patronize the reader. And that’s why one of my favorite books is her 1970 classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Margaret Simon is the title character. She’s 12 years old and just moved to suburban New Jersey. She’s worried about starting a new school, making friends and other assorted growing pains. She soon befriends three girls: Nancy, Gretchen and Janie. Together they gossip, talk about boys, wonder when they’ll get their periods and practice breast development exercises, chanting, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.”

Margaret has other important things on her mind beyond growing out of a training bra and needing a box of Kotex. Margaret has questions about religion, questions that can’t easily be answered. Her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish. But what is Margaret? According to her friends, she has to pick one of the other so she can join either the YMCA or the Jewish Community Center.

Margaret’s paternal grandmother calls her granddaughter “My Jewish girl” and takes Margaret to synagogue. Margaret’s estranged maternal grandparents are convinced Margaret is Christian. Margaret even tries to go to confession at a Catholic church. But all this leaves Margaret confused, and she gets angry with God. Eventually she begins to accept the messy realities of growing up, though Blume refuses to tie up Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in a tidy little bow.

My mother gave me a copy of the book when I was ten. I was the only girl in my fifth grade class to get my hands on a copy and soon my classmates asked to borrow it. By the time I got it back, the book was pretty much in tatters, widely read and hugely loved.

It’s been ages since I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret but it still resonates with me. To this day I can remember Gretchen was the first of Margaret’s girl tribe to get her period, and all the girls want to mack on Philip Leroy during “7 Minutes in Heaven.” And before “Sex and the City” gave me the term “frenemy” I knew Nancy was kind of a bitch even though she was supposed to be Margaret’s friend. And poor Gretchen (spoiler alert); she was the last of Margaret’s coterie to get her period. The horror!

As for, those breast enhancing exercises where you chant, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” Well, they don’t work. You know I tried, okay!

I hope today’s girls like Margaret like I did. Sure, girls have Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen these days, but I also hope they have a Margaret Simon. Her appeal is enduring and universal, no matter what generation you got slid into.

Are you there, Judy? It’s me, Bookish Jen. Thank you.

**Carole Besharah is a fellow book blogger. In her essay, Playboys, and Periods, and Bras, Oh My!, Carole shares her love of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” with her daughter Teagan.**