Forever in touch with the 11-year-old within, celebrated author Judy Blume, who turns 79 this Sunday, taught us it was ok to be curious about the weird, the unknown and the taboo.
Judy Blume is about to turn 79. While eyebrow-raising, that number shouldn’t come as much of a shock. After all, the novel that really put her on the map, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, came out 47 years ago. Besides, to countless readers – more than 80 million, according to some recent figures, and that’s just the number of books sold – she permanently occupies a space as master of all that bedevils an anxious adolescent.
From the beginning of that breakout novel, Blume displays a comfort with the interior monologue of an 11-year-old, like she’d never evicted hers:
“Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.”
This might inspire a chuckle from the “grown-up” version of ourselves, but it doesn’t take much digging to recall the dread of the unknown, the fear of the embarrassment of being outed as an imposter, generating a stain that will be apparent to all forever more.
In Blume’s novels, someone is always trying to fit in. Both Margret and Tony, of Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, have moved to new neighborhoods. Jill is trying to stay on the good side of the cruel clique of Blubber. And the titular heroine of Deenie, under pressure from her mom to fit a standard of beauty, is overly conscious of the back brace she has to wear and tries to keep hidden from boys. Almost everyone else, even friends, seem to have a better understanding of how to gain approval from the popular kids.
More than anything, it’s the terrors – and the agonizing anticipation – of the changing of our bodies that Blume honed in on and clung to. In Are You There God?, Margaret and her friends try to fill out their bras (“I must increase my bust!”) and anxiously await the arrival of their periods. While Blume could speak from experience in those areas, she had a bead on the physical issues that plagued adolescent boys as well, like the uninvited erections that accompany Tony to the classroom blackboard.
And sex? Yep, she dove right in. Deenie tells us about the nice feeling she got from touching her “special place.” And that was just a prelude to the full-blown activities of “Forever. . .,” with Katherine and Michael discovering the messy and sometimes anticlimactic details of the actual deed. Which, in this case, involves a penis named Ralph.
It wasn’t pornography, of course – although some censors treated it as such, and although many of us enjoyed the thrill of reading certain passages in secret. It was just part of the overall puzzle of adolescence. Besides her new school and body issues, Margaret of Are You There God? wonders about the differing religions of her parents and where she fits in. Karen of It’s Not the End of the World faces the impending divorce of her parents. Even in her books for younger audiences, like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Blume prods sensitive areas through issues like mom and dad’s seeming preference for a younger sibling.
Blume showed us it was normal to think about all of these things, from the squeamish to the taboo to the weird. Furthermore, there weren’t any overriding lessons of morality pressed upon us, like some ABC after-school special. Katherine presumably moved on to her hunky tennis crush Theo, the concept of “forever” exposed as a teenage fantasy. No punishment was levied on Wendy and the mob of Blubber. Lessons are learned, but a happy ending isn’t served up on a platter. On to the next problem, the next grade.
Before there were online communities to help us figure out that we’re not the only ones feeling a certain way, with our bodies doing something that couldn’t be right, there were outdated instructional film clips, distracted adults telling us it’s not a big deal, and Judy Blume saying that it’s all good.
With copies of her classics still being sold – albeit with flashy covers of contemporary teens instead of the familiar drawings of kids with feathered hair and bellbottoms – it seems her words still hold power over the 11 year olds who keep coming down the pike, searching for clues on how to fit into a confusing world.