No Child Left Behind

1. Here are the teenage classics covered in Lizzie Skurnick’s delightful new reading memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading that I’ve also read:

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwieler by E. L. Konigsburg
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Blubber by Judy Blume
The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume
The Pigman by Paul Zindel
Deenie by Judy Blume
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel
Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.
All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Lizzie Skurnick writes best about the books that excite her most, like From the Mixed-up Files, which she illuminates in surprising ways (I never actually thought about it, but the Michelangelo statue does seem to symbolize Claudia herself) and the two great Louise Fitzhugh novels, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. Skurnick gets extra points for recognizing that The Long Secret is every bit as good as Harriet the Spy, though very different (it also occurs to me, thinking of these books today, that a good friend of mine recently went through an experience very much like the climactic scene in Harriet the Spy).

Lizzie also gets big points from me for paying attention to the wonderful but lesser-known All of a Kind Family, the first book in a series about a family of Jews living in old-time New York City’s Lower East Side that meant a lot to me as a kid (her treatment of the book, though, is cursory). My biggest problem with Shelf Discovery involves its unnecessary gender focus; which Michael Orthofer also recently wrote about. Teenage boys read books too. Why leave half the world out?

I’ve also never heard of many of these titles. Hangin’ Out With Cici by Francine Pascal? Okay … I’ll have to take her word for it. And where is Lisa Bright and Dark by John Neufeld, and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M. E. Kerr, and I Never Loved Your Mind, Paul Zindel’s lesser-known best book? And where on earth is S. E. Hinton?

Still, this is a fun book and I predict it will sell very well (among other things, it’s a good book to give as a gift). And there’s one more nice touch: Shelf Discovery is a paperback original printed on thick creamy paper that looks and feels exactly like many of the teenage-era books described within. Nice, nice.

2. Speaking of children’s literature, I have complaints about some recent High School syllabi. My daughter Abby has to read The King Must Die by Mary Renault for her upcoming 10th grade English class. She hates the book and asked me my opinion; I tried to read it and I hate it too. Can’t they find a book more relevant to the lives of teenagers, and more enjoyable to read?

Meanwhile, a Long Island high school senior recently told me his class studied Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus last year. Titus Andronicus? What the hell? There are 37 better Shakespeare plays to read. I asked him if he’d read Hamlet. “No.” Enough said. Get your act together, teachers.

3. Copyblogger on writing lessons of the Ramones.

4. Andrew Coe’s new Chop Suey looks like a better cultural history of Chinese food than Jennifer 8. Lee’s frothy effort last year.

5. Katharine Weber presents a significant object.

6. Farewell to the great guitarist Les Paul.

7 Responses

  1. Speaking of Shakespeare, I
    Speaking of Shakespeare, I heard that Jude Law is playing Hamlet for a short run on Broadway this fall.

    Save me a seat!

  2. Having taught high school
    Having taught high school English, I can say that unconventional book choices are more often the attempt of a veteran teacher to freshen their curriculum and refresh their own interest. Think about how many times the average English teacher, having taught for ten years or so, has had to lead a class through Hamlet. You can’t blame them for trying something different.

  3. So, first of all, I don’t
    So, first of all, I don’t think the gender focus is wholly unnecessary. As a young teenager, gender is a much bigger part of identity than it is as we get older and I think the reason you hadn’t heard of much of the books she mentioned was largely because they were more girl-focused books. And, since I know you, I know you sometimes read those as a kid. Just as I sometimes read more boy-focused books. But since the book evolved from the “Fine Lines” column on Jezebel, a blog aimed at hip, young, feminist women, the female-focus seems totally legit. I think some of your childhood favorites, like Lisa, Bright and Dark, may’ve unfortunately been out of print when Skurnick was young. None of my friends read that one either!

    And I think Abby’s teacher is trying to get his or her students into mythology in a new way. The book, which I’m sure must be dry if you both hated it, was totally critically acclaimed… at least Abs’ teacher is trying to liven things up a little, even if she’s failing. Knowing what books other people will like is HARD. I tried to read NIGHT with my students, and they hated me for weeks. It’s a crap shoot, and I empathize.

  4. You know, I don’t think
    You know, I don’t think teenage books existed when I was young. By the time I knew about Judy Blume, Robert Cormier and Paul Zindel, I was an adult. I read “Cheaper by the Dozen,” but that clearly was a book, like the other “young adult” books before the 1970s, that was written for adults – at least I think so.

    It seems like we started reading adult books in classes by seventh grade. Was that because there were no books specifically for adolescents? And by the time we were 12 or 13, my friends and I only were reading books that adults read. There were only children’s books and adults’ books.

    So I bet a lot of this is foreign to anyone over 55.

  5. I’m not sure how one is
    I’m not sure how one is supposed to differentiate between children’s books and ‘young-adult’ books. For example, was Francis Solomon Murphy’s much-praised Ready-Made Family (1948) a children’s book or an adolescents’ book? How about Betty Smith’s beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I remember by the time I was attending elementary school in the 1970s, that ‘adult’ classic was being marketed to us as a children’s book.

    By the way, no Betsy Byars on that list? Not even Summer of the Swans or The Pinballs…? Peculiar. And Judy Blume’s often titilating tales are vastly overrated….

  6. Unnecessary gender focus?
    Unnecessary gender focus? Grrr. Why isn’t Lizzie allowed to choose the books she likes best and write about them? Why nitpick about the books not on her list? Instead of bitching about it, get inspired and write your own book. Was her book supposed to be 10,000 pages long? (Wouldn’t have bothered me if it was, but realistically there are limits.) I just get frustrated when people complain about what isn’t there instead of celebrating what is. And since this was such a personal book … how exactly was Lizzie supposed to include the perspective of teenage boys?

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