Essays reflect on teen author Judy Blume
By Katrina Onstad, CBC News
August 10, 2007
If you were a bookish girl who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, the novels of Judy Blume were probably a kind of psychic balm for your youthful trauma (breasts, boys, bullies). From the more skeptical regions of adulthood, it’s possible now to dismiss her hugely popular novels about white suburban girls bemoaning their bra size (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret) and their tumultuous friendships (Just as Long as We’re Together) as whiny indulgence, and Blume herself — raised in suburban New Jersey — as a slave to the trivial concerns of the middle class.
But that would be soulless and just plain wrong, you old cynic. Her first book, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo (a typically silly Blume-ian title), was published in 1969. Since then, her books have sold 75 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages, according to Blume’s website. Her writings work the gut first, which is how she makes her young audiences into voracious readers. Through direct, emotional stories, she brings them over to the word.
A new anthology entitled Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, edited by Jennifer O’Connell, consists of 24 personal essays about Blume’s significance, penned by a range of mostly commercial women authors, many of whom now write for young adults themselves. Meg Cabot tells the story of a bully who wreaked havoc in her fifth grade classroom in Bloomington, Ind. (the exotic mean girl came “all the way from Canada”), drawing parallels with Blubber, Blume’s book on adolescent emotional terrorism — a.k.a. teasing.
For Melissa Senate, treating Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (in which a teenage boy’s family suddenly gets rich) as scripture provided solace after her own welfare family suddenly rose to prosperity. And writer after writer mediates on Blume’s seminal romance, Forever, the story of a pair of high-school seniors who are both loving and sexually active, two concepts generally at odds in the often punitive, moralistic world of juvenile fiction. Since its publication in 1975, Forever has sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide. For many pre-internet girls, the novel was a first encounter with graphic representations of sex and the male body, and also, the mortifying prospect that boys give names to certain of their body parts.
But for all the giggles and sighs around her writing, Blume is one of the most banned authors in the United States. Several of her books, including Deenie and Tiger Eyes, consistently appear on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books (usually teachers and parents file challenges with libraries, asking for a ban, and the ALA fights it). At the same time, Blume was the winner of a National Book Foundation 2004 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Still writing at 69, she has called women in their thirties her “first readers,” telling Bust magazine: “I love your generation… You’re my most loyal readers… These young women come up to me and they look at me and I look at them and then we start to cry.”
Recently, this almost happened to O’Connell, author of Insider Dating and Bachelorette #1, as well as several non-fiction books and a series of upcoming teen novels. The over-achiever still works full-time in advertising in Boston and is the mother of two children. Via phone, I reached O’Connell at her vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts where, in a high-pitched, and appropriately teen-ish voice, the 39-year-old talked about Judy Blume moments, what’s not necessarily wrong with today’s books for girls, and — she’s still hyperventilating — finally meeting her hero.
Author and editor Jennifer O’Connell. (Simon & Schuster)
Q: In the book, you identify something called a “Judy Blume moment.” What is that exactly?
A: The ordinary moments that become the extraordinary moments. When I graduated from high school, I sort of remember the cap and gown, and being at the podium and doing my speech, but what I really remember was that night when my best friend and I went to a graduation party and I was saying goodbye to her in the driveway. That was sort of like the moment where we said: It’s ending. We’re going our separate ways and everything is going to be new and different. That’s a Judy Blume moment, versus the idea of the pomp and circumstance. It’s the little things we remember.
Q: That kind of emotional marginalia feels so monumental when you’re young.
A: Yeah, it’s the way we remember feeling versus the things we remember happening to us.
Q: What was the spark for the collection?
A: As I was going from adult writing to teen writing, I realized that all my adult characters were like grown-up characters from Judy Blume novels — how I imagined these girls would have been when they grew up. I was sitting in my office and this line just popped into my head: ‘Everything I needed to know about being a girl I learned from Judy Blume.’ I stopped writing, and I e-mailed my agent. She said: ‘I love the line but what does it look like?’ I decided non-fiction essays would be interesting. I e-mailed a lot of female writers, and all of them were like: ‘Absolutely.’ They immediately rallied around the project.
Q: Was there a recurring theme that united the pieces?
A: Well, in Stephanie Lessing’s essay, she summarizes at the end that Judy Blume took a girl who didn’t feel normal, and made her feel normal. Judy Blume was writing about girls who were concerned about their bodies, concerned about their relationships, concerned about parents and siblings. If these girls were going through it, then she couldn’t be the only person in the world who felt the way she did.
Q: Laura M. Zeises writes that she learned about masturbation by reading Deenie, and several authors talk about how obsessed they were with the sex scenes in Forever. It seems like these books functioned as a kind of female erotica for girls, who are maybe less inclined to look at pornography, or less able to admit they want to.
A: I didn’t read Forever growing up because I was a good girl. If someone saw me reading it, I’d be a dirty girl. I went back and read all [Blume’s] books, and what’s funny is that Forever is actually so tame. But so many of the writers talked about how it would pass between them and their friends — the dog-eared pages, the ‘good parts’ all underlined. It was the ultimate coming of age story for girls, a little bible. You wondered: What’s the next stage in life? Well, that is.
Q: Even though Blume is still writing, for most of the women in this book, her oeuvre stops in the mid-1980s. How do the books translate in contemporary terms?
A: In some of her books, details have been updated for reissues, like a record player became a CD player. But the way the characters spoke, the situations they were in, stayed the same. The things she talks about are sort of timeless. In order to write for teenagers or children, it’s not about being trendy and writing about instant messaging, or cellphones, it’s about writing about the same things that kids were going through years ago. Parents still get divorced, girls hate their bodies. She wrote about real things and feelings that to this day still exist.
Q: A couple of years ago, Naomi Wolf wrote an essay condemning much of contemporary young adult literature aimed at girls, like the Gossip Girl series. Whether that’s fair or not, she seemed to be getting at something when she talked about the rampant materialism in these books, which appear like miniature Sex in the Citys — kids pretending to be adults, whereas Blume was all about taking real kids seriously. What’s going on?
A: I read Gossip Girl, all of them, and I was expecting something a lot different than what I got. I thought they would be more advanced, but I didn’t feel that the characters were all that mature, except that they were in a mature setting, the Upper East Side of New York City. Judy Blume books can be set anywhere, whereas a lot of books today are so scene-specific and kind of piggyback off whether a kid’s placed in Hollywood, Manhattan, South Beach. You need to have that glitz factor to attract readers, but I don’t think that’s enough to sustain a book. Judy can sustain a book based on characterization alone, on human emotion alone. In her books, there’s human drama but no real external drama. Maybe today with the internet and television kids need that constant stimulation.
Q: Do you think that’s true?
A: I really hope not.
Author Judy Blume. (Simon & Schuster)
Q: Have you had any response from Judy Blume about the book?
A: I actually met her for the first time on Sunday. I was up here at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival on the podium. I spoke for about 45 minutes, talking about the essays: Blah blah blah. There was this woman in the back row with a gentleman, and she was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. At the end, I was like: ‘Okay, any more questions?’ A hand goes up and I’m like: ‘Yes?’ She stands up, takes off her baseball hat, takes off her glasses. She said: ‘I thought you had to be dead before they wrote a tribute like this.’ Very lighthearted, very funny, but it completely freaked me out! I knew she had a house on the Vineyard. I had asked her to go [to the reading] through her agent and she’d declined because she’s busy. She’s got four new books coming out. I was completely floored. I said: ‘Everybody, that’s Judy Blume!’ Talk about feeling like an adolescent. Thank God I had my camera. I had to get a picture to prove this happened. But we talked for a few minutes, she was really lovely and she just e-mailed me to ask if we wanted to go to her house for dinner this week.
Q: Are you going?
A: Oh, yeah. Me and my new best friend, Judy Blume. I e-mailed my agent: ‘My BFF Judy.’ I’m taking my kids. They’re excited to meet her.
Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume is published by Simon and Schuster and is available in stores.
Katrina Onstad writes for CBCNews.ca Arts.