Friday, March 19, 2010

Author Interview: Lizzie Skurnick, Author of Shelf Discovery

As many of you know, I am currently hosting the Shelf Discovery Challenge. I have been absolutely thrilled with the response to this challenge, and I'm having a wonderful time reading (and re-reading) so many terrific middle grade and young adult books. I don't know what I've enjoyed more -- reading my childhood favorites or discovering a wonderful book for the first time. So you can imagine my excitement when Lizzie Skurnick, author of SHELF DISCOVERY: THE TEEN CLASSICS WE NEVER STOPPED READING agreed to answer a few questions for me about her book. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did!

Booking Mama: It almost feels as if you wrote SHELF DISCOVERY for me? I could so relate to this book. How did you come up with idea for SHELF DISCOVERY?

Lizzie Skurnick: SHELF DISCOVERY was a weird melding of time and opportunity. First, there was the web, which allows you to write obsessively on anything of your choosing. Then, there was Jezebel, where I knew there’d be a critical mass of women who were fans right along with me. A friend fixed me up with Anna Holmes, the EIC of Jezebel, and that was that!

Booking Mama: How long did it take for you to write SHELF DISCOVERY?

Lizzie Skurnick: About half of the book comes from the columns, although I spent a long time editing and organizing them for print. (Not enough time, in some reviewers’ opinions, but that’s another story.) And then I wrote the rest of the book over the summer and into the fall. I wanted to get it out while I was still in the groove. And it was lucky I did, because the older I get, the less attention span I have.

Booking Mama: I just love seeing all of the books from my childhood that you mentioned in SHELF DISCOVERY. In fact, I had totally forgotten about THE GROUNDING OF GROUP SIX (one of my preteen favorites) until I saw it in your book. What was the process for selecting the books that appeared in the book?

Lizzie Skurnick: When I first started the column, there were so many books to choose from I realized that the only reasonable way to get started was to select entirely on whimsy. It also helped that I could never figure out how readers would respond: I thought people would be obsessed with A GIFT OF MAGIC, for instance, and it turned out people had barely read it at all. But when you take on a project like this, the only way you can stick with it is to make sure you’re having fun, so I would just pluck out whatever book appealed to me that week—or that minute!—and sally forth.

Booking Mama: What kind of response have you received from women (or girls) about your book?

Lizzie Skurnick: My most common responses are questions and accusations. The first one is hilarious—reader will name whatever facts they can remember from something they read when they were young (e.g., bean sprout sandwich, rainbow mug, best friend with curly hair and a cute pout who’s attractive but not pretty) and ask if I know it. And I’ll be like, sure, that’s THE DIVORCE EXPRESS.

The second, which I got three of this week, is, “I loved this book but HOW COULD YOU LEAVE [INSERT BOOK] OUT??!”

Booking Mama: For the past month, I have been reading through most of the Judy Blume books you mentioned in SHELF DISCOVERY for the Judy Blume MiniChallenge. I have to say that she is the author whose books I most remember from my childhood. Do you have a specific author (or two) who you absolutely loved as a young girl?

Lizzie Skurnick: I was a real L’Engle, Duncan and Paterson enthusiast. And Conford. And Richard Peck. And Cormier. I really can’t break it down past that. (Hodgson Burnett.)

Booking Mama: I thought SHELF DISCOVERY included so many of the books I loved as a girl, but I’m wondering if there were any books that didn’t make it in the final copy that you wish did?

Lizzie Skurnick: They’re tons! I have a huge IKEA bookcase which is all double-shelved YA books. The two I wish I’d gotten in often are Dahlov Ipcar’s THE QUEEN OF SPELLS and BEAUTY, Robin McKinley’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I don’t think I got in quite enough fantasy/romance.

Booking Mama: Which brings me to my next question -- do you have any thoughts of writing a SHELF DISCOVERY sequel?

Lizzie Skurnick: I switch gears easily, early and often, so not any time soon. But some of the SD books are working their way into another project I’m working on right now. Once you finish writing a book, you always realize that NOW you know how to do what you’re doing, and then if you’re antsy like I am, you move to the next thing. I love my post-SD columns on ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MARGARET and THE LONG WINTER the best of all of my pieces, which means my “Fine Lines” days are at least on a long hiatus.

Booking Mama: Now that I’ve read some of the books as an adult, I’m surprised by how I remembered them from my childhood. Often times, I focused on small scenes rather than the bigger messages. A great example of this for me was ARE YOU THERE GOD?, IT’S ME MARGARET. What book for you was most different from how you remembered it as a girl?

Lizzie Skurnick: The only book that was quite different was BEAT THE TURTLE DRUM. All the other books held up exactly as I remembered, but that really was a book for middle-grade readers, and while I could see that it was wonderful, I couldn’t work my way back into being that young.

Booking Mama: Fast forward 30 years...are there any recent middle grade or young adult books that you could see making it into a future SHELF DISCOVERY?

Lizzie Skurnick: Part of the reason I wanted to write SD was because these books existed in a particular window when no one was looking and the world was changing. Now, everyone is looking, and half the time we do what we do because it’s on TV or in a book, not the other way around. However: I will say that two books I read this year and loved were THE LOST CONSPIRACY and THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY. They could not be more different from each other and from the books in SD, but they could not be more delightful.

I'd like to thank Ms. Skurnick for taking time from her very busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about her terrific book!

Lizzie Skurnick is the columnist for’s Fine Lines and the author of ten teen books in the Sweet Valley High, Love Stories and Alias series. Her literary blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick. She’s on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and has written on books and culture extensively for the New York Times Book Review, Times Sunday Styles, the LA Times,, The Washington Post and many other publications. Her poetry has appeared everywhere from Morning Edition to the Iowa Review to New York magazine online, and she is the recipient of residencies or awards from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the AWP. An expanded edition of her Pushcart Prize-nominated chapbook of poetry, Check-In, was released by Caketrain Books in 2009. She lives in Jersey City.


bermudaonion said...

Wonderful interview! I'm glad to see I'm not the only one with a waning attention span as I get older. It sounds like I need to check out THE LOST CONSPIRACY and THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great interview! I could see her being a resource for all those people who ask those questions - it was a book about a girl who... etc. Thanks for posting this!

Florinda said...

I'm probably going to have to bail on the Shelf Discovery Challenge (unless you decide to extend it past April, Julie - I haven't even started!), but I really enjoyed reading Shelf Discovery last year, and this was a great interview!

Beth F said...

Great interview -- now I have to try to finish up the challenge! I think I'd be forced to put together about 6 editions of this, because of constantly saying to myself, "Oh yeah, I forgot about that book, oh and that one!"

Carin said...

Great interview, though I am so sad to hear that a volume 2 is ulikely of SD. Please Lizzie, please! There are so many more great YA books from the 70s (and thereabouts).