EW's columnist celebrates the well-deserved renaissance of the novelist who gave us ''Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret'' and other essential novels for young women
Judy Blume excels at describing how it feels to be invisible. So how poetic is it that Blume herself is suddenly everywhere? Now 70 years old, the high priestess of girl-positive YA fiction is getting mad props from young fans and grown-up disciples alike. A book of essays titled Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume was published last year. And on Sept. 19 in Los Angeles, ”Blumesday” (a clever play on the Joycean ”Bloomsday” tradition) was celebrated with a night of comedy tributes to Blume. Who knew that a benevolent, instructive mother of three could be this hip? Blume is a generational icon, and rightfully so.
I grew up devouring the Blume canon at our woefully small public library. The covers were hazy illustrations that evoked Playtex bra ads from the ’70s; the pages had been worn pulpy-soft by a thousand juvenile thumbs. But the first book I read of Blume’s was not one of her infamous adolescent sagas. It was a kiddie story called Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which nonetheless seemed so exotic to me it might as well have been a Macedonian travelogue. The story might have been about Peter Hatcher and his incorrigible baby brother, but I was more interested in the setting than the sibling rivalry. They lived in New York City! They played in Central Park! Their building had an elevator operator! Aside from those thrilling details, I related to Peter’s youthful nihilism. At 9 years old, he already identified as the titular “nothing.” He was Alvy Singer in saddle shoes. Every other book written for kids my age was sunny, upbeat, and about as subtle as a bullhorn-wielding camp counselor. Blume’s stuff had an edge; it was grimly hilarious and worthy of my attention.
A couple of years later, I began reading Blume’s more controversial works, addictively squeamish stuff like the devastatingly titled Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. If Picasso had his Blue Period, then Judy Blume had her Period Period. Man, did I learn a lot about menstruation from these books. Margaret was the one that got passed around feverishly in school. Not only did it teach us a (futile) breast enhancement exercise, it introduced us to ”Two Minutes in the Closet,” a game we played at many parties thereafter. But underneath all that hormonally charged madness lurked an affecting story about Margaret choosing between her mother’s Christianity and her father’s Judaism. I lived in a town where ”interfaith marriage” meant a Polish Catholic marrying an Irish Catholic — Blume had widened my horizons yet again.
NEXT PAGE: ”You have to wonder why no one’s made a big-screen adaptation of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. I imagine it’s because these stories belong to young women. Real young women, not singing Disney cheerleaders, hair-flipping pop stars, or cartoonish socialites.”
Then there’s Blubber, a book that seems more relevant than ever in the age of online taunting and MySpace suicides. Seriously, Lars von Trier couldn’t have crafted a more harrowing tale of female suffering. The protagonist, Jill, is an average kid, a picky eater from Pennsylvania who is neither excessively kind nor cruel. Almost accidentally, she joins a ring of bullies who ritually torment a chubby girl named Linda. Instead of making Linda repulsive or saintly, Blume’s victim is as ordinary as the girls who tease her. I didn’t know whom to relate to as I read Blubber; I wanted to believe that I wasn’t like Jill, but at the same time, Linda was infuriatingly weak. The book, unlike others written for girls my age, refused to tell me how to feel. And yet, looking back, it’s rich with revealing symbolism. (In one scene, Linda comes to school dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. Out come the wolves, indeed.)
In fact, all of Blume’s books are full of cinematic details. You have to wonder why no one’s made a big-screen adaptation of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself — a bracingly vivid story of a Jewish girl in postwar Florida — or Forever, an oft-banned tale of love and (virginity) loss. I imagine it’s because these stories belong to young women. Real young women, not singing Disney cheerleaders, hair-flipping pop stars, or cartoonish socialites. ”Judy’s girls” are imperfect and unsure; they tend to vacillate maddeningly between outspokenness and passivity. Even physically beautiful characters (like the protagonist in Deenie) are outcasts somehow, stymied by the expectations of others. It’s definitely not the stuff of Hollywood. But Judy Blume’s bildungsromans are as sweeping and intense as anything we see on screen these days. They’d make great disaster movies, and anyone who’s been a teenager knows that’s not an overstatement.