From Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, today’s YA literature is much loved and much read. But readers sometimes forget that the path to these books was laid by a previous generation of writers offering quality work to a huge fan base. Writers like Lois Duncan, Ellen Conford, and Sandra Scoppettone may not be as familiar today, but their names still resonate powerfully with those of a certain age, as Lizzie Skurnick discovered when she first started writing about them as a columnist for Jezebel.com’s Fine Lines. In the first few columns, Skurnick thought she was simply on a nostalgia trip, but as she said in a phone interview from her Jersey City home, “I very quickly realized that these books are rich and connected, and you can write about them as you would John Updike.”
Skurnick also quickly realized that the audience for these books remained robust; she got fulsome thank-you tweets for her column and found some of the titles she discussed going for hundreds of dollars on Amazon and eBay. Armed with that insight and the marketing information readily yielded by her column, she naively believed that publishers would be interested in some large-scale reissuing. “These are niche books,” she argues, “but niche doesn’t mean small, it means specific.” Yet while publishers made promises, the books didn’t appear—or appeared only in unhelpfully small numbers. Grumbles Skurnick, “If you are an author, it seems nice to say, ‘Random is putting my book back into print.’ But it really means that the two people who wanted it on Amazon or eBay could order.”
Then came a wonderful lightning-bolt moment. Robert Lasner, editor-in-chief of Ig Publishing, noticed Skurnick’s hard plowing in the field of classic YA literature—not just her work on the column or the gallery of covers that generated some energetic and “whimsical” discussion, as Skurnick says, but her fieldwork to relocate the authors and her advocacy in 2009’s Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. After conversations with his wife, Ig publisher Elizabeth Clementson, Lasner sent Skurnick an email (they knew each other professionally) asking whether she would be interested in editing a series of topnotch classic YA titles herself. Thus was born Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing. You likely noticed the book bags at BookExpo America with the elegant, hot-coral, Lizzie-like logo, and soon those bags will be full.
The first list, which debuted this fall, ranges from Lois Duncan’s Debutante Hill, a 1958 novel about a wealthy girl who forgoes high society’s coming-out ritual and discovers a wilder side of town, to Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike, a lesbian young adult romance that was a shocker for its time. And if that’s not enough variety for you, there’s Ernest J. Gaines’s A Long Day in November, the National Book Critics Circle award winner’s story of family strife in the 1940s rural South. All the books are beautifully repackaged, with introductions from most of the authors and a crisp cover design from a longtime Skurnick associate that uses archival photographs and aims to “give a nod to the 1930s to the 1980s without mimicking and integrate tropes of those eras without just throwing stuff at the wall to see what works.” In a nice touch, the cover of Debutante Hill features an image by Duncan’s father, famous photographer Joseph Janney Steinmetz.
Herself the author of several YA series, as well as a poet and a critic (we served together on the board of the National Book Critics Circle), Skurnick quickly dismisses any brush-off of her imprint’s titles as mere “problem literature” appealing only to teenagers—and teenagers of yore at that. Not only did these titles hugely influence their readers, who can still quote from them, but they revealed the colors and contours of the time and the tensions that were pulling society taut—they were written, after all, in the era of John Updike and Norman Mailer and often tread the same socially fraught ground, if more lightly. “I learned a lot about America,” says Skurnick of one of her Duncan favorites. “Lois was not thinking, ‘I am talking about feminism and marriage,’ but it has something to do with family or divorce, affection or money without a father, and it’s violent and dark in the ways we intersect.”
Even when Duncan is at her most supernatural or thrillerish—she did, after all, write I Know What You Did Last Summer—Skurnick finds Duncan’s writing “a metaphor for family. Is the teen psycho influencing kids? No, it’s about what we are open for even if our family is doing its best.” Other books in her imprint go in different directions, stylistically or thematically, so that one can’t ask, “What do you get out of this oeuvre?” In fact, you can’t even ask that about individual titles, for as Skurnick smartly notes, “No one says, ‘What would I get out of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding?’ You talk about whether it worked.” It’s her job to explain from the ground up why each book has lasting literary value that takes it beyond retro teen entertainment. She won’t be publishing every past YA title—not for her the Nancy Drews of this world—but she’ll work hard to remind us that before Maggie Stiefvater and Libba Bray there were smart, brave, insightful, stylish YA authors who still have something to say for us today.