The Heyday of YA: An Interview with Lizzie Skurnick

Marisa Atkinson

Staff Writer

Marisa Atkinson is a publicist at Graywolf Press in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter: @totesmarisa

Like many readers, I was psyched to hear that Lizzie Skurnick (who you may know from her blog The Old Hag, from her “Fine Lines” column on Jezebel, or from her book Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading) was launching an eponymous publishing imprint with Ig Publishing, Lizzie Skurnick Books, where the mission is to celebrate and reissue young adult literature favorites from the 1930s to the 1980s. I was delighted to have the chance to chat with Lizzie about the imprint’s launch, the current young adult fiction landscape, and why young adult classics are more relevant now than ever. 

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Marisa Atkinson: Can you tell us a little bit about how Lizzie Skurnick Books came to be? Was launching a publishing imprint that reissues young adult literature classics always a part of your grand plan, or was this a surprising development?

Lizzie Skurnick: It was both planned and unplanned. The planned part: Writing “Fine Lines” for Jezebel, and then collecting those essays in Shelf Discovery, allowed me to amass and organize all the books I loved into what was essentially a functioning library. But being approached to create one in reality was rather a surprise—a very nice one!

I’d always thought that the publishers themselves, seeing the response to readers in the “Fine Lines” comments, might reissue the books. But reissues are a very small part of mainstream publishing—though, since we’ve started asking for the books, some publishers have countered and reissued them. Obviously, I’d rather have them in MY collection. But I’m just glad they’re back at all.

MA: What does the young adult literature of the past (or from “the heyday of YA” as you put it) have to offer—be it in message, subject matter, characters—that’s missing from the current young adult landscape?

LS: YA has always taken on the big theme of adolescence—change, and how one adjusts to its inevitability. The big difference is that YA now seems to handle it on a larger, more cinematic spread. In YA from the 1970s, a family would divorce, or a girl would be excluded from her friends, or a parent would lose their job, and that was shattering enough to power a book-long narrative. That’s actually closer to how life functions—you don’t need to put kids in an arena and have them kill each other when you already have school. Then again, how fun is dystopia and fantasy and metaphor? I wouldn’t want to do without it. In The Hunger Games, when someone’s a loser, it’s literally pasted across the sky, with their name and the day they lost. In life, we rarely get the acclaim along with the humiliation.

One of the things I love about both periods of YA is that they embrace all genres—domestic dramas, comedy, fantasy, thrillers, horror, plays, even poetry. They also mash them up like crazy. So it’s not a surprise that you find so many of the best writing and stories in YA, because that’s where the authors who bravely embrace storytelling without prejudice go.

MA: There is such a wealth of outstanding YA literature from the past that deserves to be reissued for contemporary audiences. How do you go about selecting the books you’ll publish as part of the series?

Lizzie Skurnick Books logoLS: Well, I am mostly driven by panic—that the authors will sign contracts elsewhere, that I’ll forget an author for a few months, that I’ll begin to deal with an estate so late it will take years to get the rights. Since Shelf Discovery, I’ve had a good 100 books sloshing around in my brain, which doesn’t even count the ones I didn’t get to cover in the book. The publishers of Ig have been great about letting me pursue and publish large lists of books aggressively. Sometimes there’s 12 books by the author that fit into our list—sometimes half the books are truly middle-grade, or were a bit too pulpy, or were really genuinely for adults. (Though I’d like to add that to the imprint too, particularly Rona Jaffe and Lisa Alther! Hint.) I just feel lucky we were able to get so many of my favorites just in our first pass, and I have about 40 books to my left I’ve got to decide on as well, to say nothing of scribbled lists and what I order from every week.

Readers also let me know when books are going out of print—for instance, I’d always kept an eye on the All-of-a-Kind Family books, and earlier books by Francine Prose and Paula Danziger, to make sure they didn’t get lost, but I never would have known they had just silently slipped out of print if it weren’t for some alert readers. And I was watching them! But it’s not like a house sends out an announcement when it closes up shop on a title.

MA: Can you talk a bit about the design process for the books themselves? Are you incorporating any elements from the books’ original cover design?

LS: I simply gave our cover designer, Eric Gordon, a Facebook gallery of about 700 images (some mine, some submitted by readers), a few visual elements from library books, and some totally conflicting directions, and sent him on his way. It is a testament to his patience and talent that he was able to come up with that design nonetheless. Our goal was to nod to the tropes of YA design from the 30s through the 80s without either deliberately aping them or looking as if we’d thrown a bunch of garbage at the wall and hoped for the best. Also, of course, we needed the look itself to be singular. I was so happy that the readers and authors are happy, because crappily designed reissues are so disrespectful to the authors and the readers. There’s literally a set of Shakespeare done up like the Twilight books to appeal to teenagers. I mean, for a cultural critic, that’s the funniest thing ever, but it’s not particularly nice to poor old Twelfth Night.

MA: You launched Lizzie Skurnick Books with seven titles this fall. I realize this is an impossible question, but do you have a favorite book of the initial seven?

[At the time of this writing] I am seven months pregnant. Yesterday, my preggo brain was so bad that, several times in a row, I had to think hard about which was my right and which was my left side. Which is to say, I’m just happy I can remember my own name, to say nothing of which book is my favorite. (Then again, my name is handily printed on the books, so I shouldn’t even count that.) I love them all, whatever side they’re on.

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Be sure to check out all of the books now available from Lizzie Skurnick Books, sign up for the newsletter, and read Lizzie’s blog over on the Lizzie Skurnick Books website. You can also follow Lizzie and Lizzie Skurnick Books throughout the social mediasphere on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads! Finally, if you want to be sure you don’t miss adding a single LSB book to your shelf, take advantage of their awesome subscription service!

Skunick Books sample


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