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

Lizzie Skurnick
(Casey Greenfield)

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.' "

Skurnick originally thought her column, "Fine Lines," would be primarily humorous, but soon realized that books such as Katherine Patterson's "Jacob I Have Loved" or Scott O'Dell's "Island of the Blue Dolphins" could be analyzed like any other work of literary fiction.

"You could write real essays about [the books]," she says. "They all had logic and themes. They are really complete books."

Women in their 30s and 40s were eager to discuss the books they had read decades before. Hundreds would comment on Skurnick's columns, posting covers of old books and sharing tips on how to find copies on eBay.

In 2009, two years after "Fine Lines" launched, HarperCollins published Skurnick's first nonfiction book, "Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading," which features contributions from Baltimore novelist Laura Lippmann, "Princess Diaries" author Meg Cabot and others.

Not long after, the husband-and-wife team behind Ig Publishing, a small press that has brought out many reprints, learned about Skurnick's work and approached her about creating an imprint to bring back young-adult novels that had gone out of print.

"A lot of these books are classics," says Robert Lasner, Ig's editor in chief. "They deserve to be part of a canon of their own."

Skurnick was eager to reissue the books and knew just where to begin.

"I had this extraordinary library of books in my head already classified by themes and classes and schools," she says. "I started calling up authors from the phone book. They are about the same age as my parents, so I figured they'd be in the phone book."

The authors were familiar with Skurnick from her column and book, and they were eager to see their novels back in print.

Skurnick soon signed on 61 titles, including several books by the same authors, such Sidney Taylor and Ellen Conford. She also arranged to publish some books for the first time, such as a collection of stories that Duncan had written during her teen and young-adult years.


Some of the authors had died, and Skurnick negotiated with their descendants or estates to get publishing rights.


Author Lila Perl died suddenly last month at the age of 92, soon after Skurnick reissued her classic novel, "Me and Fat Glenda." Perl also granted Skurnick the right to publish a novel she completed shortly before her death.

Skurnick plans to publish a book a month over the next five years, and hopes to continue to print more. She has "300 or 400 books on my radiator stacked to read" to consider reprinting in the future, she says.

Fans of the books can purchase them individually or get the entire series through a subscription service. The books are available in some bookstores, although Lasner says the reactions of booksellers have been mixed.

"Some didn't understand the books and some would be like, 'This is the greatest idea ever,' " Lasner says

The covers, which are designed by Eric Gordon, should add to their shelf appeal. Gordon uses retro fonts and vintage photographs, including some from the authors' personal collections and the Skurnick family. The cover of "Debutante Hill" shows a teenage Duncan pouting in a blue convertible. Berthe Amoss' "Secret Lives" depicts the author as a young girl on the deck of a ship bound for Honduras.

Skurnick hopes the reissued books will reintroduce women to the stories on which they structured their lives' narratives while introducing the stories to a new generation.

The books "were actually the bedrock for us learning a lot of things about politics and class and family in a powerful and complex way," she says.

Starting the imprint also inspired a transformation for Skurnick herself. She decided to become a single mother at the age of 40. She gave birth to her son about two months ago.

"I had been thinking about having a baby, but it was partly the joy of doing Lizzie Skurnick Books that encouraged me to want to have a baby," she said.

Since she did much of the work on the imprint while pregnant, she feels like her son is the co-creator of the series.

"I really feel like I do associate it with us, with me and my son," she said. "I feel like Javier and I did this together."