Starring Lizzie Skurnick as herself: Hopkins grad revives young-adult fiction

Former Baltimore resident publishing classic books that are out-of-print

January 10, 2014|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

They were novels discussed in whispers during class, passed around among groups of friends and read by flashlight late into the night.

They explored serious topics — race and class, body image, sex, addiction, divorce. And, says author and critic Lizzie Skurnick, these young-adult novels were real literature that didn't get the respect they deserved.

Now Skurnick, a former Baltimore resident who received her master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, is bringing them back

Her imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books, has republished four classic young-adult novels since its launch in September. A fifth is slated to hit shelves this month, and Skurnick plans to publish at least 56 more novels by authors such as Lois Duncan, M.E. Kerr and Lila Perl.

Skurnick, 40, says the young-adult books she grew up reading had well-constructed, complex plots and richly developed characters. But as booksellers made space for today's blockbuster teen fantasies such as "The Hunger Games" and the "Twilight" trilogy, the many realistic young-adult novels from the 1960s, '70s and '80s went out of print, relegated to the dollar rack of used-book stores.

"This was such a rich period of literature, and nobody knows it exists any more," says Skurnick. "Each work is so multilayered. All of the authors had their own writing style, their own gestalt, their own particular obsessions."

Among the books Skurnick has republished are prolific young-adult author Lois Duncan's first novel, "Debutante Hill," which looks at a wealthy teen's decision to challenge her peers, and Ernest J. Gaine's "A Long Day in November," the story of a young African-American boy in rural Louisiana.

The literary merits of young-adult novels have long been overlooked, Skurnick says.

"I really do think it's totally sexist," Skurnick says. "When people think of teen girls, they think of bubble gum. There is no other school of literature that is this maligned."

Although adolescence, and the quest for identity and independence, have inspired novels for centuries, the start of the modern genre of young-adult fiction is usually traced to the publication of S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" in 1967, says Deborah Taylor, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's coordinator of school and student services.

The Pratt's collection includes well-worn copies of many of the novels that Skurnick chose for her imprint, says Taylor, who started as a librarian in the Pratt's young-adult section 40 years ago this week.

Skurnick "has done a really good job of choosing books that connect back to the emotional issues of growing up," says Taylor. She thinks the republished novels will appeal not only to adult women who have fond memories of checking out stacks of paperbacks, but to their teenage daughters who are interested in understanding the environment in which their mothers grew up.

While many of today's most popular books for teenagers deal with fantasy and science fiction, they explore the same struggles as their predecessors, Taylor says.

"At the emotional core, they're still dealing with the same issues," she says. "We're still having boyfriend-girlfriend issues, even if the boyfriend is a glittering vampire."

Warm and unpretentious, Skurnick seems like the kind of woman every teenage girl would like to have as a big sister. Her remarks are suffused with the easy wit she brings to "That Should Be a Word," the New York Times Magazine column in which she coins humorous new words.

Although Skurnick has lived in Jersey City, N.J., for the past seven years, she traces much of her success to the eight years she spent in Baltimore, which she describes as "such a good place to launch a writing career."

A New Jersey native and Yale graduate, Skurnick moved to Baltimore in 1998 to attend Hopkins. She stuck around until 2006, living in a series of cheap apartments in Charles Village. She ghostwrote novels for the Sweet Valley High series, freelanced for The Baltimore Sun and the City Paper and, along with some fellow adjunct professors, started blogging about literature.

"Teaching is depressing," she says. "I wanted to do something that was interesting again."

Skurnick's blog, "The Old Hag," drew a lot of readers — including an editor at The New York Times, who asked her to start writing reviews for the newspaper. Soon she was writing for the Times, The Washington Post and NPR while also working for Baltimore-based Girls' Life magazine.

Then Skurnick had a second big break. A friend of hers introduced her to Anna Holmes, who was starting a Gawker-affiliated site for women called Jezebel.

Over brunch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Skurnick asked Holmes if she could write a column on "the books we all read."

"We'd all reached this age where we all went around quoting Lois Duncan," says Skurnick. "Half the facts I knew were from [Judy Blume's] 'Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.' "

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