Blume, Judy (1938—)

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Blume, Judy (1938—)

Before Judy Blume's adolescent novels appeared, no author had ever realistically addressed the fears and concerns of kids, especially in regard to puberty and interest in the opposite sex. Beginning in 1970 with the perennially popular Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Blume's fiction honestly depicted the insecurities of changing bodies, peer-group conflicts, and family dynamics. Often Blume has been faulted for constraining her characters to a white, middle-class suburban milieu, but has received far more criticism from the educational establishment for her deadpan prose, and even worse vilification from religious conservatives for what is construed as the titillating nature of her work. Many of the 21 titles she has written consistently appear on the American Library Association's list of "most-challenged" books across the country, but have sold a record 65 million copies in the three decades of her career.

Born in 1938, Blume grew up in a Jewish household in New Jersey that was partly the inspiration for her 1977 book Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. A New York University graduate, Blume was married to an attorney and had two children when she took a writing course in which an assignment became her first book, Iggie's House. Published by Bradbury Press in 1970, the young-adult story dealt with a black family moving into an all-white neighborhood, a timely topic at the time when civil rights laws had eliminated many of the legal barriers segregating communities in America, yet ingrained prejudices remained.

But it was another book of Blume's published that same year, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, that caused a greater stir. It begins with 11 year-old Margaret's recent move from Manhattan to New Jersey—perhaps her parents' strategy to woo her from her doting grandmother, Sylvia, who is appalled that her son and daughter-in-law, an interfaith marriage, are "allowing" Margaret to choose her own religion. Margaret immediately makes a group of sixth-grade girlfriends at her new school, suffers embarrassment because she has no religious affiliation, buys her first bra and worries when her friends begin menstruating before she does, and prays to God to help her deal with all of this. Only a 1965 novel by Louise Fitzhugh, The Long Secret, had dared broach this last concern, and had been met with criticism by the literary establishment for what was termed "unsuitable" subject matter for juvenile fiction. Feminist historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg wrote in her 1997 treatise, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, that as a professor she discovered Blume's book was cited as the favorite novel from their adolescence by young women who had come of age in the 1980s. "My students realized that this was not sophisticated literature," Brumberg wrote, "but they were more than willing to suspend that kind of aesthetic judgment because the subject—how a girl adjusts to her sexually maturing body—was treated so realistically and hit so close to home."

Other works with similar themes followed. Then Again, Maybe I Won't followed the various life crises of Tony, who feels out of sorts when his Italian-American family moves to a ritzier New Jersey suburb. He fantasizes about the older teen girl next door, is shocked and fearful when he experiences his first nocturnal emission, and makes his way through the social rituals of the new community. Tony discovers that class differences do not always place the more affluent on a higher moral ground. Blume's third young-adult work, It's Not the End of the World, opens with the kind of dinner-table debacle that convinces most older children that their parents are headed for divorce court. In sixth-grader Karen's case, her worst fears come true, and the 1972 novel does not flinch from portraying the nasty side of adult breakups. As in many of Blume's other works, parents—even the caring, educated ones of Are You There God?, Forever, and Blubber —are a source of continual embarrassment.

Blume's 1973 novel Deenie is a recommended book for discussion groups about disabilities and diversity. The attractive, slightly egotistical seventh-grader of the title learns she has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and overnight becomes almost a disabled person when she is fitted with a drastic, cage-like brace to correct it. Like all of Blume's young-adult works, it also deals with emerging feelings for the opposite sex and tentative explorations into physical pleasure, both solo and participatory. But Blume's 1975 novel Forever, written for older teenagers, gave every maturing Blume fan what they had longed for: a work that wrote honestly about losing one's virginity. Forever, Blume admitted, was written after a suggestion from her 14 year-old daughter, Randy. There was a great deal of teen fiction, beginning in the late 1960s, that discussed premarital sex and pregnancy, but the boy was usually depicted as irresponsible, and the female character had made her choices for all the wrong reasons—everything but love—then was punished for it in the end.

In Forever, high-schooler Katherine meets Michael at a party, and their dating leads to heavy petting and eventually Katherine's decision to "go all the way." She assumes responsibility for birth control by visiting a doctor and getting a prescription for birth-control pills. Forever became the most controversial of all Blume's books, the target of numerous challenges to have it removed from school and public libraries by parents and religious groups, according to the American Library Association, which tracks such attempts to censor reading materials. In some cases the threats have led to free speech protests by students. Blume noted in a 1998 interview on the Cable News Network that controversy surrounding her books has intensified rather than abated over the years.

Aside from her racy themes, as an author Blume has been criticized for her matter-of-fact prose, written in the first person and infused with the sardonic wit of the jaded adolescent. Yet Blume felt that it was important that her writing ring true to actual teen speech; anything less would be utterly unconvincing to her readers. Because her works seem to touch such a nerve among kids, many have written to her over the years, at one point to the tune of 2,000 letters per month. The painful confessions, and admissions that Blume's characters and their dilemmas had made such an impact upon their lives, led to the publication of her 1986 non-fiction book, Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You. Blume has also written novels for adults—Wifey (1978) and Summer Sisters (1998).

Though her books have been updated for the 1990s, the dilemmas of her characters are timeless. Ellen Barry, writing in the Boston Phoenix, termed Forever "the book that made high school sex seem normal." A later edition of the novel, published in the 1990s, included a foreword by the author that urged readers to practice safe sex. Two academics at Cambridge University collected female rite-of-passage stories for their 1997 book Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation, and as Kathleen O'Grady told Barry, she and co-author Paula Wansbrough found that women who came of age after 1970 had a much less traumatic menarcheal experience. Naomi Decter, in a 1980 essay for Commentary, theorized that "there is, indeed, scarcely a literate girl of novel-reading age who has not read one or more Blume books."

The Boston Phoenix's Barry deemed Blume's books "fourth-grade samizdat: the homes were suburban, the moms swore, kids were sometimes mean, there was frequently no moral to the story, and sex was something that people talked about all the time." Barry noted, "Much of that information has seen us safely into adulthood. We all have different parents, and we all had different social-studies teachers, but there was only one sex-ed teacher, and that was Judy Blume." Postmodern feminist magazines such as Bust, Ben Is Dead have run articles on the impact of Blume and her books on a generation of women. Chicago's Annoyance Theater, which gained fame with its re-creations of Brady Bunch episodes in the early 1990s, staged What Every Girl Should Know … An Ode to Judy Blume in its 1998 season. Mark Oppenheimer, writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1997, noted that though the academic establishment has largely ignored the impact of Blume's books, "when I got to college, there was no author, except Shakespeare, whom more of my peers had read." Oppenheimer concluded his essay by reflecting upon the immense social changes that have taken place since Blume's books first attracted notoriety in the 1970s, and that "in this age of 'Heather Has Two Mommies,' we clearly live after the flood … We might pause to thank the author who opened the gates."

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Barry, Ellen. "Judy Blume for President." Boston Phoenix. May26, 1998.

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York, Random House, 1997.

Decter, Naomi. "Judy Blume's Children." Commentary. March,1980, pp. 65-67.

"Judy Blume." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 30. Detroit, Gale Research, 1984.

Oppenheimer, Mark. "Why Judy Blume Endures." New York Times Book Review. November 16, 1997, p. 44.

Weidt, Maryann N. "Judy Blume." Writers for Young Adults, edited by Ted Hipple. Vol. 1. New York, Scribner's, 1997, pp. 121-131.