Shelf Discovery: the Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading: a Reading Memoir

Skurnick, Lizzie

Comprised of Skurnick and a few other writers’ Fine Lines columns from Jezebel, Shelf Discovery really brings a book-junkie adult back to her book-junkie youth.

I read a few of the review/essays online via RSS, but I got more out of them on the printed page--go figure. However, they also lose something in the format change. I like a casual writing style and pop culture references, but reading 400+ pages of blog posts in a week reveals the genre’s flaws that doing so online over the course of a year (?) doesn’t. Just like how if I was writing this for print, I’d take the time to check when the column started, but because this is a blog review, I won’t bother, Shelf Discovery suffers from a few errors that more careful writing and editing would have rooted out.

Before I go any further, let me say that I enjoyed this book and recommend it. My reviews tend to be critical, even of works that I like. Skurnick’s writing is accessible, charming, appropriately snarky, enthusiastic, and she read the shit out of the books she reviews. She is a serious authority in her genre, and I love getting to hear from a hardcore expert in a non-academic voice. She is non-judgmental, but not uncritical.

My main wish for this book is that it had been more memoir, as the title suggests that it could have been. Skurnick groups her columns by themes, with a little introduction for each section. The intros seem tacked on and aren’t as successful as they could have been. They’re there to impose order, but they don’t. They just add pages to a book that’s already a little long. (Sorry!) I would have loved a chronological telling, though that might have been impossible to achieve, especially since clearly Skurnick probably read each of the books a minimum of five times over a 20-25 year period. So maybe fewer books reviewed, no group introduction, and some personal stories that related to each or some of them would have done a better job of turning the column into a book from my perspective.

Some notes:

  • I love that Skurnick doesn’t know how to pronounce Ole Golly either! But I vacillate between it being like “old” as she does and rhymes with “Golly,” rather than sounding like olé.
  • “Can you pinpoint the day when you looked at your family and realized soon, strangely soon, all of this would end.” Well, not the day, but that kind of thing was on my mind throughout high school, college, and even now.
  • Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers--I didn’t remember it by its title, but I totally remember Hildy and her poor vision and her playing volleyball. I’m going to have to track this one down for a re-read. Weirdly, I have it conflated with The Last of Eden.
  • Skurnick’s take on A Little Princess soothed my soul. It was my favorite book for a time...until my mother ruined it for me. I asked her to read the book because I loved it so much. She obliged and then reported that she thought Sara was too perfect. Skurnick is kinder to Sara, seeing how hard she works to maintain her imagination, her kindness to her less gifted friends, and her steely resolve to be a good person.
  • Must make sure we’ve acquired for Barnard’s new LGBTQ-YA collection: Happy Endings Are All Alike. (Already on order!)

I distinctly remember reading about half of the 74 books profiled, but it could be more. Like Skurnick, I was (and am) an avid reader and re-reader. If I’d written this book, some of my subjects would have been
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (This book doesn't really belong on a YA fiction list, but I read it for the first time when I was nine, and as you might imagine, it had an effect on my psyche)
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether
The Diary of Anne Frank
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou by Kristin Hunter
Probably a bunch more, but that’s what comes from the top of my head.

CATS: Here and there, but not central


At 17, I was learning that fiction was the primary way I’d understand and find meaning in life, that there were feelings I’d felt and experiences I’d had that I couldn’t comprehend until I read about them in books. That some kinds of love have many meanings, and the meanings change over time, the way a book changes each time you reread it. p.328 TRUE THAT.

re: mother’s library school project
Using knitting needles and index cards, she and a classmate created what can only be described as a non-computerized search engine. They notched the cards with a series of holes, some open at the top. The open holes corresponded to key search criteria--author, reading level, subject matter. With the help of a numeric code, you inserted the needles into the cards and lifted; the cards that fell out were the ones that matched your criteria. p. 352 For the love of dog, READERS ADVISORY BY KNITTING NEEDLE. I don’t know what could be more 21st century cool for teen librarians than that unless you could auto-tweet the results to a cross-stitch design generator.

Jun 5 2011


#1 Torie

Oh my god, Jenna, WORD to Ballet Shoes! So much of that book has become a reference in my everyday life in weird ways, i love it so much. I'll tell you all about it in my next letter. Did you ever read Theatre Shoes or any of the other Streatfield "sequels" about the Fossil children?

#2 jenna

I read Theatre Shoes and I think Skating Shoes(?), but there were FOSSIL SEQUELS?!? How did I not know that? I need to read them immediately!

#3 Katya

Maybe no direct Fossil sequels, but Posy and Pauline (and Nana) definitely show up in Movie Shoes...

#4 jenna

I found the following on an Australian Noel Streatfeild site:

Connections to Other Books

Ballet Shoes has a number of connections to other Noel Streatfeild books and short stories.

"What Happened to Pauline, Petrova and Posy" is a short story in which we are told "a little about the way things turned out for the three girls".

Another short story, "Coralie", features Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes, and has Pauline in a peripheral role.

In Curtain Up, Pauline, Petrova and Posy arrange for three children to have scholarships to The Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. Although the three Fossils do not appear in person, they do write letters to the scholarship holders. Madame Fidolia and Miss Jay appear at the school, as does Pauline's friend Winifred, who is now a teacher.

In The Painted Garden, one of the characters has been a student at the Children's Academy, and meets Pauline and Posy in America.

One of the characters in Apple Bough trains under Madame Fidolia at the Children's Academy.

Aside from this, Ballet Shoes has no connections to the other "shoes" books.


I ILLed the collection the follow up story is in and will try to track down the others and Movie Shoes. Or should I? Will I just be disappointed?

#5 Katya

Movie Shoes is good--it's probably not the best of the bunch, though. In fact, judging by context, it's the same book as 'The Painted Garden,' 'Curtain Up' is Theater Shoes, and 'Apple Bough' is actually 'Traveling Shoes.' My hometown library also used to have 'Skating Shoes,' which I've never seen anywhere else.

I am a mortal dork. I love Noel Streatfeild. (Wikipedia confirms my suspicions).

#6 jenna

Thanks for matching those titles. I was surprised not to find them anywhere, but it could be because of the title variations.

#7 jenna

I forgot--one thing that pissed me off about this book that I won't apologize for being annoyed at: no author or title indexes, let alone subject. wtf?

#8 laura

I cannot tell you how many times I read some of the Noel Streatfield books. Cannot tell you. Or how much I cried in the otherwise awful You've Got Mail when Meg Ryan's character starts talking about them at the horrible chain bookstore.

I also loved Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers.

My essays on this subject would also include the works of Madeleine L'Engle and Robin McKinley, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond -- oh, and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. And lots more.

#9 jenna

She writes about L'Engle like mad and also The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Fire and Hemlock might have been in there, too. I already gave the book away, so I can't check.

#10 jenna

I'm still thinking of others. How about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?!?

Also sports novels by John R. Tunis and dance books by Karen Strickler Dean.

Why did we all love and reread Ballet Shoes so many times?