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Lizzie Skurnick aims at reviving classic teen fiction

Lizzie Skurnick wants to nudge several new titles into the literary canon.

On the shelf not too far from "A Separate Peace," by John Knowles, she'd place Brenda Scott Wilkinson's "Ludell." In sight of John Steinbeck's "The Red Pony," perhaps she'd slot Lila Perl's "Me and Fat Glenda."


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


The author of "Shelf Discovery," meditations on the teen novels of the 1960s to the 1980s, and an online column on the same subject, Skurnick has dreamed of correcting what she says is a huge blind spot in our view of literature.

Then she received an email from Robert Lasner and Elizabeth Clementson, the husband-and-wife team behind the small-but-successful Ig Publishing. They proposed she be part of an effort to reissue classic teen fiction.

"It was like getting the perfect email out of the blue," Skurnick says. "It was like, do you want that house in Bali and a million dollars a year?"

Next month the New York company will introduce its new imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books, with the publication of "Debutante Hill," by Lois Duncan. The publisher plans to issue an average of one book a month, and it says it has four or five years worth of books, some 65 titles, already signed for release. The new Lizzie Skurnick imprint will nearly triple the publisher's usual annual output of six to eight books. Ig is also offering readers a subscription to all books in the series.

Lasner, who says the idea of republishing young adult fiction just "popped into his mind," has been stunned by the response these not-yet-published novels are generating.

"I didn't read these books," he says. "A lot of these authors didn't mean anything to me. … Then I saw the reaction."

During BookExpo America, the publisher put up a poster promoting Debutante Hill. "It was like Paul McCartney. They were like, 'Oh my God! It's Lois!'"

Skurnick and company expect women who grew up reading Judy Blume novels and the work of hundreds of lesser-trumpeted authors to be their readers, but they say this is no exercise in sentimentality.

"It's totally not a nostalgia series," Skurnick says. "I do think that's always the assumption. I think it's the assumption because — it seems sort of staggering to say — there was an enormous period of literature written by women. A lot of it is really good. It's really literature. You just didn't read it."

Young adult fiction, in addition to being dismissed because its readers were often teenage girls, was also handicapped by the general status of women writers.

"Any book men write — and you should take this with maybe 1 millimeter of salt — is considered universal," she says. "And people particularly love books about teens to be universal. Publish a book by John Knowles about suicide in a boarding school, and that book will be reprinted. 'Oh this is a very important issue.'" Yet "this is not any more universal than 'Ludell,' a trilogy we're publishing. Ludell is this wonderful, striking character. She takes on segregation. She's a bookworm. She goes to New York."

How can that be less universal than boys in a boarding school? she asks.

Skurnick recalls a boss from her years in book development at Book of the Month Club who told her there were no good female authors. Thinking he just didn't know, she typed up a list of women authors she admired and submitted it. "He almost fired me!" she said. He was "apoplectic with rage."

"That was the publishing industry," she says. "That was not even 20 years ago."

"If I could do anything, it would be to remove the stigma of young adult literature as 'fluffy,'" Skurnick says.

The themes are anything but. The authors take on race, sexual abuse and sexual orientation as well as family, friendship and acceptance. The first book, "Debutante Hill," deals with issues of class when a town decides to hold its first debutante ball.

Lois Duncan, the author of "Debutante Hill," says she had to go back and reread the book she wrote as a 20-year-old after Skurnick contacted her. It was Duncan's first novel, published in 1957, and she worried that the writing would embarrass her.

"I was surprised to see it was a good book," she says. But it's nothing like her current work. "It was like reading something written by somebody else," she says. She's better known today for her young adult suspense, which makes up the lion's share of the 50-plus books to her name.

"Now what will happen with the current generation who knows me as an author of mystery and suspense novels, that are an entirely different genre, I don't know whether they'll be shocked, or wonder if it's a new writer using Lois Duncan's name," Duncan says. "I have absolutely no idea how it will be received by them."

"Debutante Hill" is set in vanished era, Duncan says. "It's going back in time, to a time that was quite lovely, a time that, when a boy held your hand, that was exciting. There is a real sweetness about it."

She wonders if that innocence alone will prove an attraction to a new generation of readers. The success of the Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series — at least the first book — suggests it could be, she says. The chaste romance of the vampire boy for a high school girl was every bit as innocent.

"He wouldn't even kiss her," Duncan says. "There was all this longing and unrequited physical stuff, and the girls were just lapping it up." (Fickle Fish Films, the film production company that Meyer started, has optioned the rights to Duncan's thriller, "Down A Dark Hall.")

The publishers think Lizzie Skurnick Books may eventually hook younger readers. "We hope as the books gain popularity that younger audiences would become attracted to them," says Ig co-founder Clementson, who grew up reading these books. "We hope mothers, book clubs, and librarians help younger generations rediscover these authors. They really do address timeless issues."

Skurnick is less certain today's young adults will pick up these books. She's not sure a recommendation from Mom will help them take root. Her own mother, an English professor, let her shift for herself when it came to reading.

"She really understood that a reading life is really private, and my reading life was not her business," she says.

"We were allowed to thrive as readers under this lack of scrutiny This generation of literature thrived under the lack of scrutiny. It's the same thing that happens in any ghetto of any kind, which is that, on one hand, it's under-appreciated and forgotten, and on the other hand, it's not under public scrutiny, so it can develop into its own rich world."

Jenni Laidman is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.

Coming releases

"Debutante Hill," Lois Duncan, 1957 (release date Sept. 2)

"To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie," Ellen Conford, 1982 (release date Oct. 1)

"A Long Day in November," Ernest J. Gaines, 1971 (release date: Nov. 1)

"Me and Fat Glenda," Lila Perl, 1987 (release date Dec. 3)

"Happy Endings Are All Alike," Sandra Scoppettone, 1978 (release date Jan. 1)

"Secret Lives," Berthe Amoss, 1981 (release date Feb. 4)

"I'll Love You When You're More Like Me," M.E. Kerr, 1977 (release date March 4)

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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