The award-winning and controversial author discusses book censorship in the Internet age, how she can continue to connect with children as she grows older and what’s next on her agenda.
Author Judy Blume
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Judy to this program. As a young mother, she began writing books aimed at her own children, surely not knowing, unless she’s clairvoyant or something, that she would one day have those books influence kids all over the world.
This year, believe it or not, marks the 40th anniversary of one of her many classics – “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.” Judy Blume, an absolute delight, an honor to have you on this program.
Judy Blume: Thank you so much.
Tavis: I’m glad you came all the way out from Florida to talk to us.
Blume: I’m happy to be here.
Tavis: I appreciate it. I wrote this down, because I wanted to make sure I got this right, because it was actually hard for me to believe this until our wonderful producer / researcher found this for me. So you have 14 of your books – probably stuff you don’t even know (unintelligible) some of your books (laughter) – 14 of your books are on “Publishers Weekly” all-time best-selling kids’ books.
Four of your books are on the American Library Association top 100 banned books. So 14 greatest of all time, four of your books on the top banned books 100, by the library association. What do you make of that dichotomy?
Blume: I’ll tell you what I make of that – that censors, those who want to censor, they don’t come after books until they know that kids really like them, and once kids like a book, it’s like, “There must be something wrong with this book, because why do the kids like it.” You look at the banned books and you’ll see that they’re popular books with kids.
Tavis: What do you make of the ones that have been censored, though?
Blume: Well –
Tavis: Is there a thread that runs through at least why you think they were censored?
Blume: For mine? For my own?
Tavis: From your perspective.
Blume: Yeah. I started writing in the ’70s. Books were not banned in the ’70s. It was a good time. In the ’80s, when they started to be challenged by – a parent would come in waving it to the school library, “I don’t want my child to read this book.” It was always about puberty, as if puberty is a dirty word, as if if they don’t read about it they won’t know about it, it will never happen to them, and I’ll never have to deal with it and answer their questions.
That’s what it was about for me. It was always about puberty, maybe language, maybe respect for authority. If a child ever questioned an adult – bad.
Tavis: Did you ever wrestle with or question yourself about the stuff that you wrote or have written all these years and wrestled with the idea that it might be age-inappropriate?
Blume: Whew. When you’re writing, I think you can’t write thinking about somebody might challenge this book. What I tell young writers today is you’ve got to go into that room and you’ve got to get rid of the censor on this shoulder and the critic on this shoulder or you’re never going to write anything that matters. So no, I –
Tavis: But I’m asking only because as much wonderful stuff as you’ve written, and girls across the country love you for –
Blume: And boys, boys love those books.
Tavis: Boys as well. That is true, that is true, that is true. (Laughter) I stand corrected. But you’re a mother, and so you have kids, so clearly there are things that you find appropriate and inappropriate as a parent that you would want your kids exposed or not exposed to.
So I’m just trying to get inside your head as a writer to figure out where that line was for you, how you found your own comfort level with whether or not what you were writing, banned or not, was appropriate for kids of a certain age.
Blume: I guess that I was writing a lot from the kid inside me and what I wish I had to read when I was nine or 10 or 11. All the secrets that adults kept from me. Nobody ever talked to me about things that I was really thinking about, leading me to believe that I was maybe not okay because I was thinking about these things.
I had questions. Even though my father was a very open father and said to me, “You can always come to me with your questions,” I didn’t. I think – I can’t say why I didn’t, but you get to a certain point in a young life and you don’t necessarily go to your parents if they haven’t been open and honest with you all along, from those first questions. “Where do babies come from?”
If nobody tells you, then you get a little older and you have other questions. You’re not going to go to your parents for the answers to those questions.
Tavis: Given that kids can be exposed to so much more than this these days on the Internet, how much of this do you think is just pure silliness at this point?
Blume: I think it’s pretty silly. But then I’ve always thought it was pretty silly, because here’s the deal with kids reading books – if they’re reading something and they don’t get it, they read right over it. Like “Deenie.” “Deenie” has a special place, okay?
You probably don’t know this book, but anyway, “Deenie” has a special place, and I have heard from endless women who when they were little girls just decided that their special place was here or their special place was here, and they just read over it.
It didn’t stop them. It didn’t make that much difference. If they did wonder where it was, then they would go and ask somebody. The best would have been if somebody had just very simply and to the point told them.
Tavis: In your mind, what is the value of exposing, no matter how honestly or candidly or gently one does this, what’s the value of exposing kids to “a special place” or any of the other issues that you raise in these books? (Laughter)
Blume: I guess because again, the child that I was when I was 12 or 13, it would have meant a lot to me to know that I wasn’t the only one. I did have a special place, and I’m not going tell you where it was.
Tavis: I’m not your special person, though.
Blume: This is not what I think when I’m writing. It’s not about that. Again, I think that kids will always come to a book and if they’re uncomfortable they’ll close the book and put it down. I know that because I had a daughter who was a very avid reader and she once wanted to read “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
She was 12, and it had just been published. I gulped as a parent – (makes noise) okay, but please come to me so we can talk about it after. She put it back in 10 minutes. She said, “It’s boring,” but that’s not what she meant. She meant, “I don’t want to read this. I’m not ready to read this,” and she put it back on the shelf.
Tavis: Tell me about your childhood. I’m curious. You mentioned your father a moment ago. I know he died when you were much younger.
Blume: I was 21.
Tavis: Twenty-one, yeah.
Blume: He died suddenly.
Tavis: Died suddenly, yeah.
Blume: I adored my father. He was the fun parent, the nurturing parent, the parent I wanted to be like. He was a dentist and he had a workshop in the basement, and he would lift me up and put me on the bench and give me some hammer and nails.
He was my everything. He was fun and loving and I knew that he loved me. I knew it. My mother was very private, very shy, never told me anything about anything. My father tried, and I guess it was – what is a happy childhood? Nobody has a happy childhood all the way through, right? I pretended a lot because I knew that my mother especially just wanted me to be happy and don’t have any problems. So I kept the problems and the dark stuff inside and I never told her.
Tavis: I asked that because I figured, and you kind of intimated this earlier, I sense there’s a direct link between your childhood and the kind of stuff you’ve written over the years.
Blume: I suspect that with everybody who writes. We do write from deep inside. We observe what’s going on around us. I think everybody who writes fiction especially, that’s what I know about, we listen, we watch.
But it’s what’s inside us. My father was very funny. He had a great sense of humor.
Tavis: I read a funny story about – since it’s been four years, about “The Turtle,” and publishers were afraid to take this on for fear that – I’ll let you tell the story.
Blume: Well, two of the rejection letters that I remember, it wasn’t this whole book, it was just the last chapter.
Tavis: The last chapter.
Blume: It was about – I read about a child who swallowed a turtle – a teeny, weeny little turtle. A toddler. Every day there was a follow-up report in the paper where the X-rays were watching that turtle. Kids don’t like to hear this, but that was true, and yeah, I got two letters.
One of them said, “This is very funny, but it will teach young children to swallow turtles.” (Laughter) The other one said, “This is very funny, but it could never happen and so we can’t publish it.”
Then I met this wonderful editor who said, “I love this. How about -” I was brand new as a writer – “How about writing” what we now call a chapter book but then we didn’t. “How about writing a long book and each chapter will be another story in the lives of this family, the Hatcher family?” It just spilled out. It was wonderful.
Tavis: How did you – it’s been a while now, so take me back to how you discovered that writing, storytelling, was your gift.
Blume: I think it was just such a happy accident. Now, I always had the stories inside my head. They were there. I remember being nine years old, bouncing the ball against the side of the brick house. I don’t know what did my mother think I was doing for two hours, practicing ball, catch.
Tavis: Ball-bouncing, yeah.
Blume: Sometimes it got – the ball would get stuck in the gutter upstairs. We’d have to ask my father to go and get it. It was a pink Spaulding ball. You probably never saw one of those.
Tavis: Your memory is very vivid.
Blume: Oh, it’s very vivid. I loved that ball.
Tavis: That doesn’t surprise me, though, given your work. But go ahead, I’m sorry.
Blume: Bounce, catch, bounce, catch, and the stories were going round and round and round and round but never – kids weren’t encouraged to write in school the way they are today. Today, kids grow up writing. We read. I loved to read. But the stories were there, and I never told anybody they were there because I thought that makes me a weird kid.
What am I going to say? “Guess what? I have people inside my head.” No. So I played a long time with paper dolls that I made myself, and these paper dolls had very – they had heavy-duty, melodramatic stories. What was fun.
I didn’t start writing – I don’t know, I was a creative kid in school and then I was married young, and by 25 I had two babies. I didn’t really write the stories for the babies, just to set you straight there, but they were little and in those days you stayed home with your babies, and I loved them.
I loved taking care of babies. I still like babies. But something was missing, and I was sick a lot, all through my twenties I was really sick. Nobody ever knew what was wrong with me.
Tavis: You mean physically sick?
Blume: I was physically sick, yeah, yeah. Then I started to write, and all the illnesses – exotic illnesses, too, they were so exotic – they magically disappeared, because everything was coming out.
Tavis: Right, it was therapeutic and healing for you.
Blume: Changed my life. Still does, to this day.
Tavis: Wow. I take your correction a moment ago. That’s part of, as you know, part of obviously lower folklore about you.
Blume: Oh, there’s a lot of folklore.
Tavis: That you started writing in part for your kids. So if that in fact is not the case, I take that, but it does beg the question as to why (unintelligible) there are all kind of folk who have people – I have people in my head, and I haven’t written anything like this. (Laughter) So I think we all hear voices in our heads from time to time. That doesn’t mean we all become writers, much less best-selling writers around the world?
What was it that pushed – and on the other hand I get that once you got it out, you felt better, you were healed and it was therapeutic, but what pushed it out? What was behind that love push, so to speak?
Blume: I needed the creative outlet. It could have been anything. The first thing I did, I made felt pictures – that is, pictures out of felt – for children’s bedrooms. That was so exciting. I’d put them in a suitcase and I got on a bus with them in a suitcase, and I went to Bloomingdale’s in New York.
I knew nothing, I knew no one. Someone was kind and said, “Oh, you need to see the children’s accessories buyer,” and took me up to that floor. This person looked at them said, “I’ll take those three. Go home and make them in different colors.”
Oh, that was so exciting. That lasted a couple of years. Then my fingers started to peel from the glue and I had to find something else, another outlet. I don’t know, I was reading the kids a lot of picture books and I started writing imitation Dr. Seuss books.
From there, just the stories, I let the stories come out more, and it was with “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” was the third published book, and two years before this one was published. I just said I’m just going to let it all out.
I was an anxious child and fearful, but in my writing, no fear, no anxiety. I still can’t believe that when I think about how fearless I was able to be, and I hope still am, in my writing, as opposed to Judy in real life.
Tavis: When you start writing book when you’re that young, you’re in your twenties and you’re getting all this out and you have young babies at the time, I understand and can see, at least, the direct link that one has to young people.
You’re still relatively young yourself, again, and you have two kids. As you’ve gotten, as my grandmother would say, not older but chronologically gifted, (laughter) as you become more chronologically gifted, how do you know that you’re connecting to young readers?
Blume: No, I’m not sure that that’s the reason that I wrote for children. I don’t think so. I think that I had a connection to children and I still have that connection to children, and I really don’t know how to explain that child inside me, the memory of being a child.
Tavis: But being a child when you were a child – for that matter, being a child when I was a child is very different, I suspect, in a lot of ways, not in every way, but in many ways, from being a child – I have nieces and nephews now and their childhood is nothing like the childhood that I grew up in. The world is nothing like the world that I grew up in. So how do you make that connection?
Blume: The world is nothing like it.
Blume: But I think that inside, being a child is a universal experience. So is being an adult, right?
Tavis: But children are so less innocent these days, though. They don’t have that time to be innocent the way we did for an appreciable period of time, you think?
Blume: Well, I think – I’m not sure that we were ever innocent in that way. I know, again, the things that I was thinking about at nine, the secrets that were kept, the family secrets that were kept. These are the things that I wanted to know about.
I was desperate to know about the adult world, desperate to know what all these secrets meant. So I don’t know that there’s a big difference. Yes, they’re reading the books younger. Yes, that’s true.
Tavis: They see more, that’s my point. They see everything now. It’s all around us. It’s hard to – to your point about secrets, there are all – I’m laughing inside and I’m thinking there’s so few secrets now for kids anyway, because everything seems to be exposed to them.
Blume: No, but they don’t know what it is. I don’t – I’m not sure that I agree with that. They don’t know, necessarily, what it is. They don’t understand what it is, and families – I’m talking about family secrets, and they’re still there.
Tavis: If you can, give me some sense of how you think parents navigate that journey of exposing stuff to kids when it ought to be exposed to them.
For example, let me just – I say this because I’ve written about it in one of my own books heretofore. Years ago I learned that the father who I thought was my father was not my biological father. This has been many years ago, so I’ve written about it and my family’s dealt with it and it’s all out in the open now.
But for years I thought that this person, Mr. Smiley, was my biological father. I found out years later he was not. But my mother and my family had a very difficult time trying to figure out when I should know that family secret, as it were.
Because they wanted me to be exposed at the right opportunity to make sure I could handle it, to not tell me too soon, and every parent, to your point about secrets, every – your family’s no better than mine – we all have secrets in our families.
It’s a matter of trying to figure out when to share those secrets, so you say this so easily, that you wanted to know the secrets and you wanted to know what was going on in the adult world, but there is a balance. There’s a time that you tell –
Blume: But I didn’t.
Tavis: Yeah, you did –
Blume: Nobody told me.
Tavis: Yeah, well, maybe you were too young to be told at that time, that’s my point. How do you know when to share those secrets? That’s my question. You can’t tell a kid everything when they’re four, five, or six or seven or eight.
Blume: No. No, you tell them when they ask a question. You tell them in an –
Tavis: But sometimes when they ask –
Blume: – age-appropriate way, which is very, very simply. You answer it as simple as you can, and to the point. You’re asking me questions; I’m not an expert on any of this. But we’re just talking as friends here, because –
Tavis: Absolutely, absolutely.
Blume: I think every.
Tavis: You’re not an expert, but your books raise these questions, though. That’s what I’m talking about. Because when certain books are banned – and I’m not suggesting that they’re right to ban them. I’m just suggesting that somebody made a decision that there was some stuff in this book that a child ought not to be exposed to at this age.
So I’m just asking a broader question of how parents figure that out. You’re a parent. How did you figure it out? Did you answer all of your kids’ questions every time they asked?
Blume: Was I the perfect parent that all of my readers think I must surely be? No.
Tavis: No, I’m not asking that. No, no, I’m not asking that.
Blume: Yeah, if they asked a question, I tried.
Blume: I tried. We got books. My daughter says, “Oh, the Blume family, we always had books, so the neighborhood kids could come, and there were books.” You try. You make an effort. But you keep it chatty. It’s not like oh, we’re going to sit down and now we’re going to have The Talk. You’re cooking, they ask you a question, you try to keep it light and simple.
Tavis: Does it feel like 40 years for you? This is a big anniversary.
Blume: It does not feel like 40 years to me at all, no. People say – I remember long ago being interviewed by someone who said, “Well, do you think your books will stand the test of time? Do you think that 20 years from now people will be reading your books?” (Laughter)
This was 20 years ago, and I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t think that’s what’s important at all. I’m happy if they’re reading them now. It never occurred to me. When I wrote, did it ever occur to me? My thing was maybe someday I’ll be published, and then you get bigger in your hopes and wishes.
Maybe people will actually read the books. Maybe you’ll actually hear from the people who read the books? Wouldn’t that be great? Forty years later?
Tavis: Let me answer the question to whoever put that query to Ms. Blume 20 years ago, if you’re watching or still around, let me answer that question (laughter) with greater detail.
So, now author of over 25 books – I wrote this down – 82 million copies sold.
Blume: Sounds like a lot.
Tavis: Let me repeat that – 82 million copies sold in over 40 countries, now translated into over 31 languages. I think you stood the test of time. (Laughter) I think you might have a future in this.
Blume: It’s a – yeah, thank you.
Tavis: You might have a future at this.
Blume: I hope so, because I’m writing a new book, so I hope so.
Tavis: Yeah, I was about to ask, I’m glad you went there. So what’s next on the docket, because I get the sense that you’re going to be writing until the moment they – you’re going to die with a pen in your hand.
Blume: I’ve thought from time to time, that’s it, I’m done. I’m not doing this again. Too hard, “Summer Sisters,” I thought, I’m never doing it again. I waited a while, and then I realized I liked being in that little room by myself with the characters in my head. My son and I, Fudge, my son –
Tavis: Exactly, exactly.
Blume: My son was the inspiration for Fudge, and he grew up and he’s just directed the movie –
Tavis: Now he’s directing movies, exactly.
Blume: – of “Tiger Eyes.” So that was very thrilling.
Tavis: How is that, being a co-writer with your son?
Blume: Co-writing is difficult, but being on the set every day, oh, that was the thrill of a lifetime. I loved it. I loved it.
Tavis: That’s a great story, though.
Blume: I loved it.
Tavis: Some of these stories based on your son, and then you end up –
Blume: Working with him.
Tavis: – working with him as he’s directing a movie about your work.
Blume: We’re Judy and Larry on the set. We’re not –
Tavis: Yeah, not Mom and Dad.
Blume: Not Mom and child.
Tavis: Mom and child, yeah. (Unintelligible) said “Mom and Dad,” mom and child I mean, yeah.
Blume: Yeah, but I’m writing now a book that’s set in the ’50s, and somebody said to me recently, “Oh, you’re writing an historical novel.” It’s like, “No. That’s when I was in junior high.”
It’s very interesting. I did a lot of research, something I’ve never done. I love it. I love doing the research.
Tavis: Well, I hope you never stop writing, for two reasons. One, because what you write is good stuff and eye-opening for a lot of readers, and secondly, because I don’t ever want you to feel sick again. (Laughter) Don’t let that stuff get pent up inside of you again.
Blume: Thank you.
Tavis: Her name, of course, Judy Blume. “New York Times” best-selling author. Fortieth anniversary, a special edition of “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.” Ms. Blume, delighted to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.
Blume: Thank you so much. It was fun.
Tavis: I had a great time.
Blume: I did, too.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Be sure to download our new Tavis Smiley app today in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night, and as always, keep the faith.
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