Judy Blume and the Embarrassment Factor

When I got to college there was no author, except Shakespeare, whom more of my peers had read. We had learned about puberty from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (nearing the 30th anniversary of its publication) and from Then Again, Maybe I Won’t; about sex from Forever; about divorce from It’s Not the End of the World.

Sometimes, as children and adolescents, we knew about these books only through word of mouth, for feckless children’s librarians often kept them out of reach, afraid of the legion of censors who for years have kept Blume’s work on the American Library Association’s annual list of most challenged books. (In 1989, when authors gathered at the Atlanta Fulton Public Library to support Salman Rushdie by reading aloud from The Satanic Verses, they also read excerpts of Judy Blume’s works.)

It’s quite easy to understand why teachers don’t assign Blume to schoolchildren. What teacher wants to risk being the first adult to discuss masturbation with a room of 11 year olds? Worse yet, what if a teacher had to handle the subject of an obese girl (as in Blubber) and the cruelty to which her classmates subject her in a class that most likely includes a similar situation? Adult or critical acclaim for Blume has been intermittent and has never resembled the adoration heaped on her by young people. Some of the disparity stems from the Puritan strain extant even in the literary precincts of our culture. (Although, as one female friend pointed out to me, for every parent trying to keep Are You There, God? out of her daughter’s hands, another is relieved just to hand her the book and avoid the “menstruation talk.” Published in the same year as Women and Their Bodies, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s original version of Our Bodies, Ourselves, Blume’s Are You There, God? may have done more to educate more women about their reproductive systems.)

Blume’s novels are—like those of J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee and S.E. Hinton—that rarest of species, realism for young people. The strength of Blume’s realism is not her use of language, which could be more vivid, or her plotting, which is never surprising. Her works offer the reader catharsis, in the Greek sense, which seems to have fallen from favor as a literary motive.

What is remarkable about the catharsis offered, though, is Blume’s range of subjects and the aplomb with which she handles them. Sex is the least of her concerns. In Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, Blume draws a portrait of the arriviste, striving suburban family so incisive that it can be fully appreciated only by an adult.

In Are You There, God? Margaret feels left out because all her friends belong to either a church or a synagogue (Margaret is half Jewish); she tries to find a religion for herself, visiting as many houses of worship as possible in a year. No other popular book for children credits them with thinking seriously about organized religion. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which Blume has called her most autobiographical novel, traces a year in the life of a young Jewish girl in Miami Beach. The year is 1947, and the Holocaust lurks palpably, if subtly, in the plot.

Judy Blume’s willingness to recognize children’s serious thoughts about sex, religion and class made her a figure of controversy 25 years ago, but it looks as if the shock has worn off. In 1996, the American Library Association gave her its Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement; in 1997, CBS began Broadcasting “Fudge,” a Saturday morning sitcom, originally on ABC, about her most famous character.

In 1975, when the heroine of Forever decided to go on the pill, the book was daring. Now it is quaint. But it is precisely that quaintness that allows us to recognize Judy Blume properly. 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.

Mark Oppenheimer studies American religious history at Yale. A longer version of this essay appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Copyright © 1997. Reprinted with permission.

In Places I Never Meant To Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers (Simon & Schuster, 1999), edited by Judy Blume, readers are encouraged to support the struggle against censorship through one of these organizations:

National Coalition Against Censorship
275 Seventh Ave.
New York, NY 10001
(212) 807-6222; fax (212) 807-6245
ncac@netcom.com; www.ncac.org

Officer for Intellectual Freedom
American Library Association
50 E. Huron St., Chicago, IL 60611
(800) 545-2433 x4222
fax (312) 280-4227;
jkrug@ala.org; www.ala.org/oif.html

People for the American Way
2000 M St. NW #400
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 467-4999; fax (202) 293-2672