Author and literary celebrity Judy Blume will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters at the Rutgers University commencement on May 16. Blume, a New Jersey native, spent her childhood in Elizabeth making up stories inside her head, she once said.
I’m too old to have read Blume’s books growing up, but I spent last week reading through the ones that form the basis for this prestigious honor. Like a lot of people who can’t stop eating popcorn, I found it very hard to stop reaching for the next book.
I only read five of the 25 books for young people that Blume has written over the past 40 years. Reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Deenie; Double Fudge; Blubber; and Forever doesn’t exactly made me an authority on her enormous appeal — but it gave me some good ideas about why Blume has millions of fans around the globe.
Blume published her first book in 1969; one year later her first novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was selected as one of the Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. From that moment on, Blume published books at a prodigious rate and raked in the honors, including the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement.Numbers underscore the power of her reach: More than 75 million copies of her books have sold worldwide; her work has been translated into more than 31 different languages; and thousands of readers’ letters arrive in her in-box each month. Blume has also written novels for adults, all three of which — Wifey, Summer Sisters and Smart Women — rose to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list.
Despite all her achievements, Blume’s work has not been without controversy. She is willing to tackle tough subjects that young people find deeply interesting, including bullying, divorce, friendship, racism, religion, and sexuality. And she has drawn the ire of conservative groups, who feel she is a “moral relativist,” because she does not condemn young people’s sexual feelings and behaviors.
Naturally, I read three of her books that feature sexuality to determine if topics once considered controversial in the ’70s continue to be so today. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is the Bible for adolescent girls awaiting the arrival of their first period. Menstruation is the topic of the day for Margaret and her small group of friends. Each wonders if she will be the last to experience this significant milestone on the path to womanhood. Margaret is so concerned that her friends will precede her that she calls on God to help her in the race. There is nothing in this delightful story that could possibly be considered controversial, and its health information is still accurate.
Blume picks up the pace in Deenie, where she brings up masturbation. Deenie, the protagonist, is an eighth grader who has to adjust to a recent diagnosis of scoliosis. One day, she drops an anonymous question in the box of her gym teacher who reads it out loud to a circle of girls during class. “Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep, and is it all right to do that?” Of course, Deenie is asking about herself.
Fortunately, Blume gives Deenie and her classmates a sensible and knowledgeable teacher who not only gives her female students the correct name for this activity, but responds, “First of all, it’s normal and harmless to masturbate. The myths some of you have heard aren’t true…. It’s very common for girls as well as boys, beginning with adolescence.”
Although talking openly about this topic may have been controversial in 1973, when the book was published, it certainly shouldn’t be now, when masturbation is more readily accepted for kids and adolescents. But the topic does often draw the lightening.
It is with Forever that Blume’s critics struck pay dirt. I suppose the words on the back jacket of the book can immediately raise hackles: “Awkward, sweet, passionate, innocent, secretive…Do you remember your first time?” That is just the beginning. The book tells the story of a high school senior’s first love and first sexual experience. Katherine’s relationship with Michael is told thoughtfully and sensitively, and their relationship grows over time until they decide they want to have sex with each other.
Forever may have been controversial in 1975, but it seems surprising that it was banned as recently as 2005 and made it onto the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list. It seems strange to ban this little book, given the fact that kids as young as 13 and 14 are “hooking up” today without knowing each other for very long. (The average age of first intercourse in the U.S. is 16.2 years of age, and the media in our hyper-sexualized society constantly reports on the sexual misdeeds of prominent politicians and sports figures.)
Besides writing honestly about issues vital to kids, Blume’s great appeal is her intuitive understanding of young people. It’s clear that she really likes and respects them, and I’m certain that some of her readers feel that she knows them better than their own parents and teachers. Because she respects them and helps them figure out the world, they have honored her with their trust and loyalty.
Blume’s young characters are memorable, her parents are smart, capable, and loving, and her grandmothers take the cake. In years past, when I read the books to my youngest daughter, I never paid any attention to the grandmothers — but this time I read about them with great interest. Most not only adore and are adored by their grandchildren, but they are hip, funny, sharp, and often sexy. At least two of them, widows at the beginnings of the book, find new love by the books’ end. In Forever, Katherine’s grandmother — who after meeting Michael assumes her granddaughter is going to have sex-cautions her to be careful about pregnancy and disease. These grandmothers are my new role models.
Cheers, then, and lots of them, to Judy Blume for her enduring talents. She made up stories in her head and then wrote them down forever touching the lives of millions of children and young people. I know that someday my great, great, grandchildren will be enjoying her stories and that gives me a wonderful feeling of touching the future.