Why we love… Judy Blume
Writers from Sarah Bannan to Sarah Webb, on how the writing of Judy Blume has influnced their lives
Introduction and compliation by Sarah Bannan, author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)
I was eleven or twelve when I read Judy Blume’s Deenie. It’s a story about beauty, labels, stigma, disability, difference, and - perhpas most famously - early sexual exploration. It’s hard, almost impossible, to express how revelatory this reading experience was for me. Up until that point, the books in my life were safe, sanitized, simplistic in their depictions of young adult life. Suddenly, though, I was in the hands of a writer who dealt with teenage life frankly, honestly, and with humanity. Blume had a voice imbued with grace and humour and genuine understanding.
When I was in twenty-two, and I returned home for Christmas, I did what I always do: I studied and revisited my childhood book collection. And I came across Deenie again. I re-read it, and appreciated it not just for its subject-matter, and for its truthfulness, but for its writing. God, Judy Blume can really, really write: there wasn’t a word wasted, no extraneous adverbs, sentences clear and crisp, a narrative as compelling as they come. And, then, I looked at the copyright page and discovered, for the first time, that Deenie was published in 1973. I read it first when it was 16 or 17 years old, and it was fresh and current and, in many ways, shocking. In my twenties (and now my thirties!), the feeling is the same.
Judy Blume is a ground-breaker: she has pushed - and eliminated - so many of our literary limits. She has given us tremendous novels for an age-group that was too frequently dismissed, not taken seriously. She has inspired countless readers to become writers themselves.
When I learned, over Facebook, that Judy Blume would be speaking in Dun Laoghaire as part of the library’s DLR Voices series on 19 July, I posted a yelp of excitement that was liked more times than the announcement of the birth of my daughter. Judy Blume has just published her first book for adults in over 17 years - In the Unlikely Event - and it is a stunning, page-turning work of art. Any new Judy Blume book is an event, because this is a writer who has inspired and moved us, and, to mark this, I’ve asked a handful of writers to tell me what Judy Blume means to them…hint: she means a great deal.
Anna Carey’s most recent novel, Rebecca is Always Right, is published by the O’Brien Press.
When I was about nine years old, Judy Blume’s books were forbidden fruit, and to me they just as tantalising as that sounds. My sister Lisa is three years older than I am, so copies of Deenie, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Starring Sally J Freedman as herself and the other Piccolo paperbacks with the pencil-drawing covers were already in the house. I was never explicitly forbidden to read the books, but I knew they were somehow mysteriously grown up - at least, more grown up than my usual fare. I was also led to believe by my sister that I wouldn’t “understand” them yet.
And in a way she was right, because if I hadn’t found out about periods before I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret a year or two later, I would have been very confused. As it was, that frank and humane book utterly transfixed me. It made growing up seem both confusing but also less frightening. And it showed me that no matter how old I got, books would always emerge to show me that I wasn’t alone.
Sarah Crossan’s most recent novel, Apple and Rain, is published by Bloomsbury. Her new novel, One, will be published in August.
Judy Blume was like air to me when I was growing up. I went to a convent school and remember asking a teacher, at twelve, what exactly was meant by the “birds and the bees”. She blinked, blushed, and told me to ask her again when I was older. I was twelve. Was she waiting until I graduated? My parents were likewise terrified of salty conversations and that’s where books came in.
I used novels as guides to teenage life and Judy Blume was, without doubt, my most loved. Every issue that I, as a teen girl, experienced, was explored in her novels in a way that felt totally real but also very safe. Her books do not shy away from the harsh realities of growing up, nor are they terrifying teenage dystopias à la Virginia Andrews that made it impossible to shut my eyes at night. In fact, Judy Blume’s books helped me to sleep by healing the wounds of growing up.
Even now, when I dip into Judy Blume, I find myself feeling relieved to know that I am not alone - that everyone else is having a tough time too. She validates readers. She’s says, “It’s going to be ok, you know.”
And if I had to pick a favourite, I think it would have to be Blubber for the way it explores bullying - both the physical and psychological - which, even now, and despite the absence of technology in the novel, feels completely relevant and true.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor, and creative writing teacher and her most recent novel, Seeds of Liberty: Three Battles for Independence, is published by Poolbeg.
Judy Blume has always been the writer who was honest with you when other adults weren’t, a theme she’s come back to over and over in her work, including her latest novel. The writer that talked about periods (even if Margaret and her friends were far too excited about that particular hellish treat of adolescence), wet dreams (who knew boys felt weird about their bodies, too?) and masturbation (please raise your hand if you wondered where exactly Deenie’s special place was). Much as the ‘dirty bits’ get attention (there are generations of women who cannot take men named Ralph seriously thanks to Forever), they’re only part of a much bigger tapestry - one that is about growing up (a process that doesn’t end with puberty, as her adult novels explore). Blume - and I’m tempted to type ‘Judy’ instead, the way so many of her readers always have - gets the nuances of identities shifting, of the secrets we keep, of the frustrations and anxieties we feel. Her characters - from the accidental bully Jill in Blubber and the angry grieving Davey in Tiger Eyes to the maddeningly compelling Caitlin and her family in Summer Sisters - are people we know. My absolute favourite is Rachel Robinson, who first appears in Just As Long As We’re Together and then narrates its sequel, Here’s To You, Rachel Robinson. “It’s true that Rachel is not every girl,” Blume notes on her website, but Rachel was precisely the girl I wanted to see in fiction: an anxious overachiever who took on too much, who was smart and friendly but also angry and romantic, who worried about whether her best friends liked each other more than her, who got carsick on long journeys. Whenever I reread it - or any of Blume’s titles, if I’m honest - I keep thinking: Judy Blume just gets it.
Louise O’Neill is author of Only Ever Yours (Quercus). Her new novel, Asking for It, will be published in September 2015.
When I was a child, my mother would scour the book pages of newspapers and magazines in search of interesting books for my sister and me. One day, in the early nineties, she came across an article about Judy Blume and bought a book: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. As soon as I finished it, I begged her to buy my every single Blume book she could find. The books were funny, the characters felt like people I might know, people I might be friends with, and as I got older and started reading Blume’s YA fiction, her searing honesty and depictions of female sexuality felt nothing short of revolutionary.
I will always love Judy for her sense of humour, her incredible ability to create characters that the reader can identify with, and how truthful her writing is. Commitment to the truth is one of the bravest and most important things any writer can do.
I love so many of her novels but I think my favourite is one of her books for adults, Summer Sisters. I discovered this book when I was 13 and I still think it’s one of the most authentic depictions of female friendship that I’ve read.
Elaina Ryan is the Director of Children’s Books Ireland.
My first encounter with Judy Blume was in the library of a convent primary school. I was ten, had just moved to a new school in a new county, and was the kind of child who’s rather spend lunch with a Sweet Valley High book than attempt to make new friends in the playground. The title character of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was a new girl in town too, body-conscious and inexperienced, right on the brink of adolescence. This book, I thought, was about me, or at least solely for me. The pre-teen preoccupations with bras, periods, kissing and dissecting your own experience of these seemingly competitive milestones was so real, but with added exotic Americanisms that made it somehow better. Margaret was a gateway to whatever the library had - Deenie, Blubber, Tiger Eyes - and eventually, decidedly not from the school library, Forever. Blume has a talent, as the best writers do, for capturing the awkward minutiae of young people’s lives in such a way that makes adult re-readings of her books, which feel so personal to my childhood, both squirm-worthy and utterly absorbing.
I loved pretty much every book I read by Judy Blume, and I read a lot of them, starting well before the age when I had any consciousness of a book having been created by a particular individual known as the author. That feeling Blume’s books gave me as a reader--of being completely engrossed and entertained, of wanting on behalf of the protagonist what the protagonist wants for herself, and cringing when the protagonist cringes--is a feeling of immersion I aspire to create in readers with my own novels.
I recently was joking with someone that 75 per cent of what I knew about males prior to marrying one was from reading fThen Again, Maybe I Won’t. I read it soon after finishing Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t gave me a lot of sympathy for the complications of male puberty. “Margaret” does such a great job showing how girls feel as if they’re at the mercy of their own bodies, but it turns out boys feel exactly the same way.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the bestselling novels Sisterland, American Wife, Prep, and The Man of My Dreams, which have been translated into twenty-five languages. Her most recent novel, Sisterland, is published by Black Swan.
Sarah Webb’s most recent novel for children, Mollie Cinnamon is Not a Cupcake, is published by Walker Books.
There are many books that have left a lasting impression on me but Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Judy herself changed my life.
When I first read it as a teenager I remember thinking is she really writing about bras, and periods, and kissing boys? Can you do that in a book? It’s such an honest and funny novel and I re-read it every year because a/ it’s so wonderful and it makes me laugh out loud and b/ it reminds me what it feels like to be thirteen.
In 1996 when I was a young children’s bookseller in Waterstone’s on Dawson Street, Dublin (a shop that sadly no longer exists) I had the great pleasure of meeting Judy. I arranged a school event for her in the Irish Writers’ Museum (she was brilliant, naturally) and after the event we had lunch together. I was a single mum at the time and finding it hard to juggle work and looking after my toddler son. I told her that one day I’d love to write a book. ‘Write for children,’ she said. ‘They’re the best audience ever. And I think you’d be great at it.’ I still have a thank you letter she wrote to me after her trip, one of my prized possessions.
I took her encouragement to heart. Soon after that my first children’s book, Kids Can Cook was on the bookshelves. Having a book published was the second most exciting thing that had ever happened to me, after having my son, and over twenty years on, I’m still writing. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, I’ve hit some pot holes and speed bumps along the way, but overall it’s a good life, and for a book-lover like me, deeply satisfying.
In 2011 I published a book for young teens called Ask Amy Green: Summer Secrets, about growing up, first love, bra shopping and, yes, getting your period. Here is the dedication: To Judy Blume for a life-changing lunch in 1996 and a lifelong friend in Margaret.
Judy, I salute you. Welcome back to Ireland!
Pádraic Whyte is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the MPhil in Children’s Literature at Trinity College Dublin.
In a small Catholic primary school in rural Ireland in the 1980s, sources of information on sex and sexuality were limited. I remember the day that the girls were taken out of the classroom for a ‘talk’ that I later discovered was about ‘periods’, whatever they were. The boys were left to do arts and crafts. It was around this time that my female friends started passing copies of Judy Blume novels around the back of the classroom: Are you there God, it’s me Margaret and Forever. The boys looked at them too, of course, not necessarily reading the books in their entirety but often turning directly toward the pages with more explicit content. Blume’s children’s books were remarkable in that they functioned as an important informal resource for a whole generation of young readers who were trying to make sense of what was happening to their own bodies.
I returned to Blume’s work later in life, teaching Forever on the Masters programme in Children’s Literature at TCD. The novel holds an important place within the history and development of Young Adult fiction: published in 1975, it challenged the dominant trend of negative representations of first sex. Most significantly, Blume had the courage to engage directly with common youth experiences at a time when many adults deemed it inappropriate for young people to hear - or read - about such experiences.