Ok, so after saying that reading challenges leave me all anxious and stressed, I stumbled across a reading challenge of sorts at Girl Detective and knew it was the perfect fit for me. The challenge (which is really more of a project) is to read a chapter a week from Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick and a book that is mentioned in that chapter each week.
Shelf Discovery is all about re-reading, and specifically re-reading young adult fiction. The list of books (which you can see in its entirety at Girl Detective) is somewhat embarrassingly familiar to me. I was a promiscuous reader in my middle school and teen years. (Ok, and in my adult years too.) I read some good stuff and a fair amount of books that were the equivalent of junk food. I’ll admit to spending several entire summers reading and then re-reading the entire Trixie Belden series. Sometimes I look at the long list of classic literature I haven’t read and wish I’d spent all that time a little more wisely. However, as Laura Lippman says in the introduction to Shelf Discovery:
By the time we realize the profound influences of our youthful reading lists, it’s too late to undo them. Yes, if I knew then what I know now, I would have read more seriously and critically during those crucial years that my brain was a big, porous sponge. But I didn’t and my hunch is that you, dear reader, didn’t either.
I don’t mean to imply that Shelf Discovery is in any way apologetic about the books we read in our youth. It’s more of a celebration of those books we loved and an examination of why we loved certain books then and even more why we still love those books.
The first chapter is entitled “Still Checked Out: YA Heroines We’ll Never Return”.
Just as there are certain books we drag with us to bed year after year like a beloved, worn blanket, there are certain heroines we find continually in circulation, like especially festive members of a slumber-party circuit.
The four main books discussed in this chapter were all books I’d read as a child: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. There are also “extra-credit” books at the end of each chapter that are not discussed in as much depth. Of those (Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, Ludell by Brenda Wilkinson and The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald) I’ve only read Farmer Boy. You’ll notice that Skurnick is not exclusive in her definition of YA (I’d argue that some of these are more middle-grade books but that’s quibbling and perhaps less of a distinction when most of these were published) or in having “heroine” be necessarily a girl. There are heroes here too.
I happen to be reading Farmer Boy with the boys at lunchtime now and my take on it this time through is similar to Skurnick’s and to every other re-reading of this book I’ve done. Wow, there is a lot of food. A whole lot of food. Several times John has gotten up and gotten seconds at lunch because he says it makes him hungry to listen.
Of the other books, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler was one of my favorite books as a child. I never really wanted to run away but I did really want to live in a museum. I’ve re-read this one several times as an adult, the most recent a few years ago before a trip to New York with the boys. They had a great time at the Metropolitan Museum seeing if we could spot Jamie’s violin case hidden away somewhere. I have it downstairs and was tempted to read it again for this challenge but instead I decided to read A Wrinkle in Time.
A Wrinkle in Time was never a favorite of mine. I know I read it at some point but I remember thinking it was weird and that I didn’t get it. I think I read it when I was too young. (I’m also reading On Re-reading by Patricia Meyer Spacks and one thing I’ve learned is that there are definitely the right books for the right time. And maybe for the right person.) I read the entire Wrinkle in Time quintet about 10 years ago and liked it better then but I think there is something about experiencing a book as a youth rather than as an adult that makes it more intense. I enjoyed them but it wasn’t like I identified with Meg or wanted to be her when I read these as an adult, the way I think a lot of bookish, smart, slightly prickly teens felt like they were Meg. I decided to read this one with John as his bedtime read-aloud so I didn’t actually finish this week. If this was a challenge that might make me feel stressed but hey,it’s a PROJECT so it’s all good.
As for the other two books, reading Shelf Discovery brought back great memories of spending time with Sally J. and Harriet. I always liked Harriet the Spy but never fully understood why since she’s such an awful person (another widely inclusive definition of heroine). Skurnick helped me to understand why I liked her, she’s awful but like any great character she evolves. She manages to learn empathy while still staying true to herself.
I thought about what heroines I’d include that Skurnick didn’t. The main two that come to mind are Anne and Betsy (especially the Betsy of the later books). This week I also re-read another favorite of mine from childhood, Stand in the Wind by Jean Little. (I was reminded of Stand in the Wind when I played a game of summer book tag at Semicolon.) Stand in the Wind is about two sets of sisters who are thrown together for a week alone in a beach cottage. It’s a great book about being yourself, growing up, figuring out who you are, and relationships. I think any of the four girls in the book would fit in perfectly with the others from this chapter.
Next week: “Girls on the Verge”, all about puberty. I haven’t decided what to read yet as I’m trying to limit myself to books I have at home or can get at the library. There are a lot of great ones to choose from though.
It’s not too late! Join in at Girl Detective and spend the summer with old friends.