Summer of “Shelf Discovery” Week 1: Chapter 1

Shelf Discovery
Welcome to the Summer of Shelf Discovery Readalong! The “assignment” is to read a chapter a week of Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery: The Teenage Classics We Never Stopped Reading, plus a book a week from each chapter. (Overview here.)

But really, do what you want. Read Shelf Discovery, or don’t (though I do recommend it.) Read a book a week. Or don’t. Read a related book to that week’s theme. Or don’t. Heck, if you just want to re-read Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, join us next Monday on June 18. Basically, read what you want to, but I hope you’ll join in the discussion of these books about coming of age that were read when we were coming of age.

This week, we’ll “talk” in the comments section about Chapter 1, “Still Checked Out: YA Heroines We’ll Never Return”, and any of these, which are from the chapter:

Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself
by Judy Blume
Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
The Great Brain by John D.Fitzgerald
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Ludell by Brenda Wilkinson

Or comment on a book you enjoyed as a teen that has a memorable heroine, or a modern book that you think belongs in this “canon.” (Katniss? Lisbeth Salander?)

For week 1. I read the Foreward by Laura Lippman, the Introduction by the author, and Chapter 1, “Still Checked Out: YA Heroines We’ll Never Return.”

Skurnick and her guest writers, like Lippman and Anna Holmes (who wrote on Harriet the Spy), all pull something out of the books and reading process that makes we want to nod my head vigorously in agreement.

From Laura Lippman’s Foreward:

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.

From Skurnick’s Introduction:

Some of the lives I read about were very similar to mine…But it wasn’t about finding myself–or not finding myself–in the circumstances of a girl’s life, as much as I might be fascinated by it. It was about seeing myself–and my friends and enemies–in the actual girl.

It might have begun with the covers. Most were either snapshots or looked like soft paintings of snapshots (whither, whither the painted cover?), with girls who were neither good-looking nor not-good-looking

(Aside: as I’ve been combing the clearance shelves of used bookstores in my areas, I’ve been eschewing newer, nicer copies for older ones with painted covers. And imagine my surprise when my mom sent me a copy of Meet the Austins, though it’s not on Skurnick’s list, and I recognized myself on the painted cover. Those who knew me in grade and middle school can agree or not, but I swear, that’s me under the tree on the left, reading a book.)

Meet the Austins

I loved this, from the book report on Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume (which I didn’t know was autobiographical) on not knowing stuff from a book, and using it incorrectly in the world:

I wonder if another reason we swoon for Sally J. is that, as readers, we were very much at the same level of detail comprehension–not only in our real-world lives, but in our reading of the book itself.

And from Jezebel creator Anna Holmes’ essay, which ensures that I’ll not only re-read Harriet the Spy, but must own a copy with the old tomboyish image of Harriet on the cover (who knew Harriet might be based on Scout? Not me!):

In the end, of course, Harriet is both able to hold onto her sense of self (”I LOVE MYSELF’ she writes in her notebook) while adding a new skill to her already formidable repertoire: empathy. And in doing so, she becomes not only one of the most well-rounded female characters in the book, but one of the most well-rounded females characters in children’s literature–less interested in dance classes, attracting boys or playing bridge or mahjong than sating her own appetite for curiosity about the world around her. (36)

So, what did you think about Chapter 1 of Skurnick’s book?

Are there any old-school heroines you think belong (Anne Shirley, Pippi Longstocking, Trixie Belden, someone else?)

Any new-school heroines you think would fit right in?

If you read one of the books, which one, what did you think?

Let me know in the comments (they take a bit to approve). If you wrote about it on your site, link back to that. Thanks for joining us here!

29 Responses to “Summer of “Shelf Discovery” Week 1: Chapter 1”

  1. Alice@Supratentorial Says:

    Love this idea and so far loving the project. Just reading Shelf Discovery brought back such great memories. Part of me wanted to read every single book mentioned in the chapter. I chose to re-read A Wrinkle in Time but with my son so haven’t finished it yet. It wasn’t actually a favorite of mine as a child but I’ve grown to like it more as an adult.

    I also posted about my thoughts.

  2. Amy Says:

    I read Harriet the Spy and fell completely in love with it all over again (it was a favorite in childhood). I’d never read A Wrinkle in Time, so I decided to try, but it just never clicked for me. But then, I was never much of a fantasy reader, as a child or an adult. Harry Potter is the rare exception.

  3. Jennifer Reese Says:

    Okay, dissent. I reread Harriet the Spy last week and was appalled. What shocked me was how incredibly cruel the diary entries were. Not just lacking in empathy, but in charity and even true curiosity about what was going on beneath the warty surfaces of friends and neighbors. This is fine — no mealy mouth is Harriet — but I actively disliked her. (Sadly, my memories of the book itself have been replaced by memories of the movie that came out 14 years ago.) Unlike AH (was it AH who wrote that entry? don’t have book in front of me) I thought the “punishment” — the shunning by all her classmates — was absolutely fair. She wrote terrible, crushing things! I couldn’t even see her as a proto-heroine after rereading the book. An interesting character, but almost a hateful one.

  4. Emily Says:

    I tried something from the list that I had not read before, Danny the Champion of the World, and I just could not get into it. But I am really enjoying Shelf Discovery so far and I look forward to re-reading and discovering some new gems!

  5. thalia Says:

    So I haven’t had a chance to reread any of them, so this is based on having read Harriet, Farmer Boy, and Mrs Basil E at least 10 times each. and Wrinkle, and Danny about 3 times each. Btw what are the boys doing in this chapter?

    I was impressed by Claudia’s ability to just do what she wanted to do with little reference to what others wanted her to do. I loved the contrast with her little brother on that basis, and I loved that she was so able to do what I was totally unable to do myself while at the same time empathising with her intellectual quest for the truth. She was sufficiently like me to create a relationship,and sufficiently unlike me to create an admiration of the other.

    Harriet I think is less awful than Jennifer feels. She is unaware of how what she writes might impact others. She treats the diary as an extension of herself, of her inner voice that most children eventually learn to control, not to share, to edit even perhaps to themselves. Harriet has learnt not to share the inner voice actively, but creates a situation where it must eventually become public. So I assume an analyst would say that she needed it to be found. Or, in Jung’s terms, that she drew to herself that which she needed - she needed to learn empathy, so she created the situation where she could learn it. SO I think she was not hateful, she was an opinionated child with no outlet for those opinions, and a child who might otherwise have grown up to be insensitive, but learnt her lesson. I just hope she kept her opinions as well, even if softened by empathy.

    margaret I never bonded with in the same way. Yes she was ugly and a bit bullied, but also so soppy. Hence fewer re reads.

    Btw I’ve never heard of the other books on the list. Must be an american thing.

  6. crystal Says:

    I haven’t picked up “Shelf Discovery” yet but was able to read both Danny Champion of the World and (part of but yet to finish) Wrinkle in Time -also I watched this movie with my girls.  Since I did finish Dahl’s book I will comment on it:  Dahl is still and was my all-time favorite children’s author.  Having said that I was not so spellbound with this particular story however the reason behind my love for him is still present.  Dahl gives power to children and confidence of self-worth to go up against the adult world while conquering adult themes.  These books for me allowed an easier transition to the stark reality that being an “adult” does not equal being a good person.  Also just because as a child one does not have as much freedom of choice, one has all the freedom they want within their own imagination.  I always felt like I was getting away with something grand when I read Dahl as a child and it was my secret.  Now reading this particular Dahl I still see the adult themes of bucking the rules of society and making Danny be an equal to his father and even having Danny come up with a greater idea than his father really made him feel like he really was Champion of the World.  

    As for both books I feel both Meg and Danny discover how powerful and full of wisdom they really are even as children and both Madeleine and Roald succeed in making the child reader feel the same.

    As an aside: my favorite character of the two stories is the Happy Medium.  :)  

  7. girldetective Says:

    Oh, I’ve loving the differences in these replies, and Crystal’s explanation of why she loves Dahl while others (including myself) haven’t. I’ll be interested to see what you think of Wrinkle when you finish it. I”m hearing grumbles about Meg, and how she mostly just screams “No!” throughout the book.

  8. girldetective Says:

    Thalia, I think the boys were included as a nod to equality, and that The Great Brain piggybacked on Farmer Boy since they both focused on food. FB is the 3rd in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series and read by most girls in the US. Skurnick notes about FB that Wilder had to have great affection for her husband to write so lovingly and in such detail about his childhood. (I believe most people think that Wilder’s daughter actually wrote the books for her.) Danny Champion of the World is Dahl, though and isn’t he read in England, as he was Welsh? Starring Sally J was in that first bunch of Judy Blume books along with Margaret and Deenie. Do/did girls in the UK read Blume. But Ludell is an obscure one; I hadn’t heard of it, though my public library does have a copy.

  9. girldetective Says:

    I am definitely going to have to read Harriet again, and definitely want to re-read The Long Secret. It was AH who wrote that entry.

  10. Kate Says:

    Meg is bullheaded. I loved that part of the essay–she did scream “no” a lot, and she bellowed and pissed people off and didn’t listen and ran head first into things. She was full of doubts and anxieties and saved her brother anyway. She was awesome. It is entirely possible that I completely identify with her bullheadedness and “belief that she is probably right.”

    (and yes, GD, I thought Where You Find Me was very thin.)

    So because someone asked about Farmer Boy a while back, the essay I was thinking was in the book The Wilder Life, which I really, really enjoyed–if you are a Little House fan, I highly recommend it. The thesis about FB there is that she didn’t so much love Almanzo as love all the FOOD he grew up with. Read this next to the Long Winter (my favorite of all the books–twisting hay, a fake wall to hold wheat, waking up covered in snow, the damn train, etc.), and you realize what privation she had compared to Manly. She was often starving, and I can just imagine her discussing all of his favorite foods as a child. I also see the description of the pantry in The First Four Years in a similar light. I recommend Wilder Life as a start of the discussion about just who wrote what–and I don’t believe Rose wrote the books for her (nor do I think that’s generally accepted in the academy [there are books on either side of the debate]), though I do believe it was a much more of a collaboration and fictionalization than we usually understand as young readers.

    There is a lot of food in the Great Brain, and oh, I love those books. We just finished reading the first three with my nearly 8 year old and he loved them. I remember The Great Brain in the Academy more clearly as a kid because of the way The Great Brain figured out how to sneak candy into his boarding school (maybe it IS all about food!). They also deal with bullying, loyalty to family, and finishing what you start.

    I was always ambivalent about Harriet because I thought she was mean, and then felt bad FOR her when she was ostracized. I didn’t reread for this. I have Ludell to read, though.

  11. shannon Says:

    i choose to re-read Sally J Freedman and i was shocked at some of the language and plot points (like when she plays concentration camp with her friends!) i must have only vaguely been aware of WWII when i read the book - i remembered the part about her thinking hitler lived in her building but i just knew him as a war criminal - nothing more specific. and when the part about jews being turned into lampshades came up, my younger self thought this couldn’t possibily be true - it must be another misunderstanding like her confusion about trenchmouth, and ‘love and other indoor sports’. so as a child, it was sally herself that fascinated me. as an adult, i can see this is a great book about obsessing over imagined fears while not seeing the real dangers before you. (like douglas confessing he was chased by the crazy man (pedophile?) back home. and then all the worry from the adults at the start of the book takes on a new meaning)

    i also choose to re-read Harriet but i’m not finished yet

  12. shannon Says:

    oh -
    i wanted to add that i hated Farmer Boy as a child because it was not about laura and that’s who i wanted to read. my aunt gave me the boxed set and as it was the first series i owned, i re-read them often. but never Farmer Boy

  13. margie Says:

    i don’t remember identifying or not with Meg, but I loved the idea of time bending, and this book opened up a whole new genre for me as a kid. re-reading it now, i was disappointed with the boy/girl thing, and wondering about that as a device. meg does plenty of growing up without this element and this seemed an idle distraction. and also, wondering if charles is on the spectrum, and about other different kids I grew up with and their learning processes.

  14. shannon Says:

    i loved re-reading Harriet - i misremembered her as suffering terribly from the classmates’ revenge but, no, she stayed stubbornly true to herself. and those notebooks were an essential extension of her self. i agree with everything thalia already said.
    Harriet is strong character to pass on to our daughters.

  15. Kate Says:

    More on Little House, food, Wilder Life, the relevant New Yorker article, and a link to Debbie Reese’s blog on issues with American Indians in children’s books (she’s a fantastic resource):

  16. girldetective Says:

    Margie, I think Charles is a pretty spot on description of someone with Asperger’s (I’ve heard that whole “late talker but when he was four spoke in sentences” bit before) but was amused by how it’s a fantasy book and he’s got ESP to boot, so trying to retroactively diagnose him is even sillier than it might be. I didn’t mind the boy/girl stuff while I read it recently because it was so mild, but it is kind of disappointing that Calvin would be a catalyst for Meg to claim her power.

  17. girldetective Says:

    Shannon, Is Sally J the book where she buys huarache shoes? I remember the “squeak squeak” scene, but can’t figure out exactly which book it was in. I don’t think I remember scenes from modern books I read as vividly as I remember ones from childhood, and I think it must be from the repeat impressions from re-reading.

  18. Jennifer Reese Says:

    How are Harriet’s unkind comments — often about how people look, written publicly and ostentatiously in her notebook — in any way admirable? I know she’s a beloved heroine, and I didn’t reread the book expecting to feel this way, but I really disliked her and found her behavior objectionable. It wasn’t like she was writing interesting analyses of her classmates. She was scribbling the most shallow, blunt, mean thoughts about them. She seemed to have no clue that other people had easily bruised feelings at all and I didn’t really see that change over the course of the book. I don’t get it. I don’t get her as a heroine.

  19. carolyn Says:

    hey, no time to fully reply yet but I agree with Jennifer — I started rereading Harriet on the bus ride home the other night (after teaching all day) and had to put it down because I really had not remembered how truly awful her commentary on other people is. She supposed loves Ole Golly but is brutal towards her as well. Her comments often feel quite vicious to me on this reread although I really had NOT remembered it that way in my mind.

  20. Cyndi Says:

    Harriet was my choice for this week, and my experience was similar to Jennifer’s. I honestly wish I hadn’t renewed my acquaintance with Harriet, as I found I now actively dislike her. I’ve been trying to figure out why I would have remembered her fondly, and I’m afraid it may have been something as superficial as discovering someone who carried around a notebook and wrote all the time. At least now I hope that was it, because I can’t imagine even my childhood self finding anything appealing about her actual character. I wanted to find the self assurance and curiosity that others have mentioned, but I just didn’t. To be completely fair I should probably read the book again, but think I’ll just leave her be. I was also disturbed by her parents (who I’m sure I didn’t give a second thought to as a girl). I’m not sure that her “toughness” in the face of her social exclusion is enough to make her a role model. Even this “standing her ground” was less than admirable as she plotted and carried out revenge acts. I do think we need heroines/strong characters to pass on to our daughters (and sons), but think there are much better examples than Harriet!

  21. thalia Says:

    GD - I did say I’d read Danny a lot. Yes, Dahl is one of our top authors read by children (in the top 5 I’d say). There are only the 2 I hadn’t heard of, I have heard of the sally J book but it was not one of the blume books I read, think I’m slightly older than some of you and this one was published when I was too old for it? I read AYTGIMM about a million times and since it wasn’t published in the UK for a while (because it talked about PERIODS shock horror) my copy got all dog eared from friends borrowing it. More of that on Monday, right?

    I really think people are misjudging harriet. She felt genuinely awful about how she wrote about her friend, and understood why he was so angry. And she saw them in a new light when she visited them towards the end of the book. She is flawed, of course, but not without merit.

  22. Lori Says:

    I started trying to read Danny the Champion, but just could not get into it. I then switched to Harriet (which I don’t recall ever reading) and was immediately enchanted by her. I think at first she represented the freedom you have a a child to have (and in Harriet’s case write down) completely uncensored thoughts. As she was found out and and then shunned so overtly, again, as only children can, I felt very sorry for her. As I parent myself, I recognized that Harriet needed a parent, and the closest thing, Ole Golly, just left. I waited for the moment for Ole Golly to return and set Harriet straight, clue her in on life and friendships. When the letter came, and Ole Golly’s advice boils down to apologize and lie, well that is when the book lost it for me. Harriet struggled with the apparent dichotomy between what Ole Golly says and does with Harriet and how she changes in front of her boyfriend. Harriet refuses to do this and doesn’t understand why she should. So while I understand Harriet is championed for “staying true to herself” while Ole Golly falls to the weak feminine ideal of “nice”, remember that she is still nine. And staying true to her “nine year old self” just makes her a mean girl when she is twelve.

  23. crystal Says:

    I finally finished A Wrinkle in Time and I see how whiney Meg came across more towards the end but I guess I wasn’t as annoyed. I thunk her flaws make her character more believeable and lively. Really loved this book and I don’t think I read it as a child but will definitely encourage my children to do so. This book actually emulates alot of what I feel about spirituality today. I do recommend seeing the 2003 movie adaptation. If any of you loved The Neverending Story you will like watching this with or without your kids. Speaking of The Neverending Story, that would definitely be one that I would include in the list of greats from back-in-the-day. :)

  24. shannon Says:

    GD, the squeak-squeak scene is not coming back to me… Sally J did wear red sneakers to class her first day (she threw the sox in the garbage to fit in) and then insisted her mother buy her sandals, like all the other girls.
    (later she got a foot fungus from - what her mother said - walking barefoot on the carpet, but Sally J had started to question her mother by then and disagreed)

    as for Harriet, i’m still gonna stick up for her. kids (heck adults!) think quick, uncharitable, judgemental thoughts all the time. her only crime is writing them down. and her loving ole golly has nothing to do with noticing she has a big nose, etc - this is the contradiction of relationship: seeing flaws but loving past them
    (and when ole golly writes to Harriet and tells her to apologize and lie, ole golly is demonstrating how well she knows stubborn Harriet. ole golly shows her the way to ‘make nice’ for society, but doesn’t tell her she has a character flaw and/or needs to change. THAT is real love: seeing the flaw and loving past it)

  25. girldetective Says:

    OK, fellow readers, which YA book has the scene where a girl begs her family to use war coupons to buy huarache shoes, then she goes to school and another girl already has them? Blubber? Anne Frank? Something else?

    I am SO going to have to read Harriet. I was going to try to live by the “I’ll read however many of that week’s books in that week that I can” rule, but I think the wide disagreement on Harriet is “forcing” my hand!

  26. Jennifer Reese Says:

    I have thought a lot about Harriet in the last week after reading the comments here. I was so disgusted with her after finishing the book that I intentionally left my copy in the seat back of a plane so I can’t revisit, which I’m sorry about. Harriet is an interesting character, and the more I think about it, the more I respect Louise Fitzhugh for making her so staunchly herself and imperfect. Harriet’s parents are terrible (the way they send away Ole Golly?) and at home she’s both spoiled and lonely and if I think about it, I feel sorry for her. As Shannon says, it’s true, we all think uncharitable thoughts and I see the merit in depicting a little girl who shamelessly does just that. But how interesting or brave is she in her uncharitable honesty? Much, much younger than Harriet most people learn to temper those thoughts. Moreover, they learn how shallow and dull such blunt observations are. I’m thinking about my niece, who is 6, and her observations are already so much more nuanced and charitable and interesting than Harriet’s “ballsy” broadsides. And I think even at 6 she would know better than to go around writing mean things about people in a journal that she carries to school. I’ve come around to thinking that Harriet is an interesting, troubled character, but I would still argue that she’s NOT an interesting thinker, not an interesting writer, not a heroine, not a role model.

  27. carolyn Says:

    Jennifer, I agree - she’s an interesting character but not an interesting thinker or role model. And, along the lines of your comments about your niece, I would say that the thing that bugs me about Harriet on this re-read IS that I know children much younger who show a more nuanced approach. So the fact that she’s STILL this uncharitable even toward her friends is part of why I think she’s not a heroine — a heroine of her age would be beyond that uncharitableness.

  28. margie Says:

    no idea on your huarache question, but it feels familiar to me. definitely not Anne Frank, or was that a joke?

  29. girldetective Says:

    Margie, the Anne Frank wasn’t a joke–I remember whoever it was had to cajole her family into using war coupons to buy them, and that would fit with Anne, both in time, detail, and personality. Maybe they even had to borrow some coupons from an aunt?