Young at Heart: Judy Blume
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JEFFREY BROWN: If you’re between the ages of, say four and 40, chances are you know the books of Judy Blume.
Beginning in the early 1970s with works such as “Are You There, God? It’s me Margaret,” in which an 11-year-old girl worries about puberty and religion; the “Fudge” series, about a fourth grader and his baby brother; and books that address teen sexuality head-on, Blume has written about the real lives of young people.
And young people have responded, with more than 75 million of her books sold. Blume, 66, began writing as a wife and mother living in the New Jersey suburbs.
Now, she’s been honored by the National Book Foundation for her “distinguished contribution to American letters,” the first author of young people’s literature ever to win that award.
We spoke the morning after the ceremony in the children’s section of a New York bookstore.
Judy Blume, welcome and congratulations to you.
JUDY BLUME: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: You said in your speech that when you were young, you loved to read literature for children, but you didn’t find there the reality that you knew, that you experienced as a child.
JUDY BLUME: I loved to read, and I think any child who loves to read will read anything, including the back of the cereal box, which I did every morning.
But I longed to find in books children like me with… thinking what I was thinking about — families like my family which wasn’t perfect; it was a loving family, but it wasn’t perfect. And I knew, you know, there were secrets within families. I never read anything like that when I was growing up.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you decided, “I’m going to do it myself?”
JUDY BLUME: (Laughs) I didn’t decide it at nine or ten. I decided it much later. And when I did, that was the only thing I knew. I wanted to write what I remembered to be true.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that strikes me in reading your books is that it’s sort of a reminder that young people, as much as they want to be special, mostly they want to be normal.
JUDY BLUME: Yeah. I don’t know about all children, but I was certainly like that. And I gather from the letters that I get, a lot of children are like that. We do feel that surely we’re alone, we’re the only ones.
And for me, I kept that inside. I wasn’t going to tell anybody, “Guess what I’m really like? What I’m really thinking about?” You keep that inside, you keep that very private. And you pretend to the world that you are normal.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you remember being ten, thirteen, fifteen?
JUDY BLUME: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, yes?
JUDY BLUME: Oh, yes, especially ten. I mean, 12 and under is, is very vivid still. It never occurred to me, when I started to write to write for any other group.
The voice in my head was the voice of a child, and the voice that came out spontaneously on paper was the voice of a child. And also I think, because at 27, when I really started to write, I felt that life was over for me. I had made my…
JEFFREY BROWN: Over for you?
JUDY BLUME: Over. I had made my choices. I married very young. I had my children, as we did then. And this was going to be it. I didn’t know that there were any opportunities around the corner. You know, I mean, it…
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, you felt trapped.
JUDY BLUME: Well, yes, I guess I did feel trapped. But I thought… looking back, that was the life that interested me, the child that I was when it seemed that everything was still possible, everything was new and exciting, everything was a first.
JEFFREY BROWN: And then writing became a way to a new life?
JUDY BLUME: It certainly did. What I remember when I started to write was how I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to get to my characters.
And I just went from book to book to book because it… it gave me my life, again. It gave me my inner life, that connection that I had lost. It’s all much, much harder for me now.
JEFFREY BROWN: Much harder?
JUDY BLUME: Much harder. You know, nobody knew who I was. I just sat there. I had little kids. I worked… I was very focused. I worked when they were at school. I’ve lost that focus because my life is very exciting and there’s a lot going on all the time and there are a lot of projects, and I love that.
I love the excitement of that. But for writing, it isn’t good. It isn’t good. I have to lock myself up and say, “I am going to start writing a book.”
JEFFREY BROWN: You read a very funny letter at the book awards. Someone asked you to send… what was it, the facts of life?
JUDY BLUME: “Please send me the facts of life, in number order.”
JEFFREY BROWN: In number order.
JUDY BLUME: (Laughs) Yeah, I love that. Yes. I’m still trying to figure that out. What is the number order?
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you feel some special responsibility? I mean, if kids are asking you to send them the facts of life, they’re looking to you for some things that maybe they aren’t getting elsewhere.
JUDY BLUME: I feel totally responsible to them when they write to me. When I’m writing a book, you can’t think about your audience. You’re going to be in big trouble if you think about it. You’re got to write from deep inside. You’ve got to write, I think, as truthfully, as honestly as you can. I mean, that was always my feeling.
JEFFREY BROWN: For some, Judy Blume has gone too far. Her books have faced restrictions or outright bans in some school districts after complaints from parents. The American Library Association says Blume is the second most censored author of the past 15 years.
JUDY BLUME: Well, I think there are parents who don’t feel comfortable talking to their kids about puberty or sexuality, anything to do with sexuality. I used to get letters that said, “You told my son about puberty, and I wanted to be the one to tell him.”
Well, his son was 12. What was he waiting for? You know, you can’t wait for that moment. You have to be able to talk to them and answer their questions.
I mean, I certainly think that children have a right to read widely, and that to restrict the books that they have access to is ridiculous because you’re sending the kids a message: There’s something in these books we don’t want you to know about, there’s something in these books we don’t want to talk to you about.
JEFFREY BROWN: I’ll bet when you go to book signings now, you have mothers along with their children, and the mothers have read your books.
JUDY BLUME: Yes, I do. And I tell those mothers, “Don’t tell them you read these books because then they won’t want to. Let them find them on their own.”
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a letter you read at the Book Foundation award from one of your readers that sort of expresses some of this relationship that you have with them. Could you read that for us?
JUDY BLUME: Yes, I love that letter, yes. “Dear Judy, my mom never talks about the things young girls think most about. She doesn’t know how I feel. I don’t know where I stand in the world. I don’t know who I am. That’s why I read, to find myself. Elizabeth, age 13.” And Elizabeth is the reason that I keep writing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Judy Blume, again congratulations and thank you.
JUDY BLUME: Thank you so much for having me here. Thank you.