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Fiction Heroine

Judy Blume's Books Made Her a Friend to Legions of Children Who Are Now Adults

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK

Standing at the window in Judy Blume's Central Park West apartment is like looking out at Fudge territory. Remember Fudge, Peter Hatcher's incorrigible little brother? Remember when Fudge fell off the jungle gym in Central Park while Sheila (otherwise known as "Sheila the Great") was supposed to be watching him? Remember how the ambulance had to be called once because Fudge had swallowed Peter's turtle?

Remember what it felt like the moment you realized that characters in storybooks could be your friends?


Judy Blume in her Manhattan apartment. She will receive the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters tonight. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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"Oh, it is Fudge's neighborhood," Blume says, taking in the view. "That's right! And you know what's really funny? The 'Fudge' books were really set in my best friend from seventh grade -- that's Mary, we're still best friends -- in her building. She has always lived around the corner from here."

We are here, in Blume's pied-à-terre, because, well, because we finally have the excuse. Tonight in New York, at a ceremony to announce the winners of the National Book Awards, Blume will receive the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This is a big-deal award, one previously given to the likes of Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison, John Updike and Arthur Miller. This is not the literary company Blume usually keeps.

Blume writes mainly for children, from early elementary school up through adolescence. She writes for the fat girl who gets tortured by the popular kids, and for the quiet ones who painfully watch it go on. She writes for the siblings who feel ignored once they get a younger brother or sister. She writes for kids going through divorce and kids who move and find themselves nervously starting at a new school. She writes for girls who are apprehensive about getting their periods and boys who are embarrassed by the physical side effects that come with their first sexual impulses.

Only Blume wouldn't put it so obliquely. She'd just call them wet dreams.

For legions of young people -- many of whom are now adults, given that she has been writing for more than 30 years -- Blume is, at heart, a childhood friend. She is the author who knew our world better than any other adult did. She is the one who told us secrets, who took the mystery out of the embarrassing stuff. She made us feel normal. She made us feel understood.

And so now we have seized on this award as an opportunity to meet the writer. To know her, as she has always seemed to have known us. How often, after all, do you get the chance to rediscover an old friend?

Blume has lots of mirrors in her apartment. And art, some of it in the nude category. And she's funny when she talks about what it's like to have a 13-year-old grandson. ("The other day at the table," she says, "he tells me: 'You don't know anything about kids!' ") And she worries about what her kids will think if they ever read her journals. ("This is what I did at difficult times in my life," she explains. "And some of those difficult times have to do with your children.") And when her husband comes through the door, she introduces him as her "honey" in a voice that indicates exactly how she still feels toward him, 25 years after they first met. And --

Maybe we should slow down here. Take a breath. Let's start with the award, our ostensible reason for being here. Apparently, when the letter from the National Book Foundation came, Blume didn't get it. As in, she didn't understand. She was being honored as what? By whom?

"I had to call up," she says, laughing now, "and ask, 'What is this?' It took a while to sink in. Then I was, like, ooooohhhhh."

Blume is curled up on the sofa in her living room, ready to visit. It is tempting to say she looks waiflike, so slight and delicate are her features, but there is an energy to her that makes that word seem inappropriate. Girlish, perhaps, is better. This, we think, is perfect. She's 66, yes, but Blume was never an actual age for us -- other than, of course, the age of the characters she created. She must always be youthful.

"My son says that all I need to do now is sit back and collect awards," she says, and then laughs out loud at the thought that this somehow means she's ready to be put out to pasture. "I was, like, noooo! That's not what I want my future to be."

Oh no. Blume has movies to make now -- earlier this year, she (along with her director son Lawrence Blume and producer Jane Startz) signed a multi-picture deal with Walt Disney Studios to adapt her novels, starting with "Deenie." Glamour magazine just made her a Woman of the Year. And there's the National Book Award. Apparently, this is her time to be hip.

"It's like a book tour, but you don't have to travel," she says. "A lot of attention coming at a time in my life when I don't really need or want that much attention. But it's lovely."

Blume's work may be better known for popular appeal than critical acclaim; she's had mixed reviews, but her 23 books have sold more than 75 million copies worldwide. We snatched up the "Fudge" series (which includes her most popular children's book, "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing") and so desperately wanted more that we begged her -- through letters, e-mail and posts on her Web site -- to write another installment, "Double Fudge," just two years ago. At puberty, it was copies of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" (about a girl worried about both her religious identification and her changing body) or "Then Again, Maybe I Won't" (about a boy coping with his budding sexuality) or, in many cases, both. "Forever" was the book passed around among friends in their teens, each reading it surreptitiously under the bedcovers, sure that its subject matter -- a girl's first experience with love and sex -- was something parents would label contraband.

Others got the point: Blume made sense of things in simple, familiar terms. The world she wrote about felt real.

"People say, 'Do you feel responsible?' " Blume says, sighing, when asked about adult protests over her subject matter. "Do I feel responsible? The responsibility, as I see it, is first to be honest. To be honest with your characters. And that, for me, includes the language, which gets me in trouble."

So let's just cut to the chase here, ask what we've always been dying to know: How did she know all that stuff about us?

It's a complicated answer. Part of it, Blume says, is that she was raising her own kids during much of the time she was writing. She was, as she puts it, "very tuned into the school bus culture." Part of it, too, is her ability, when she writes, to retreat into the world she's writing about, to almost get lost in it. And part of it is simple: "We've all felt those emotions, haven't we?" she says. "We've all been through it."

She just remembers it more vividly than most.

Growing up in New Jersey (not coincidentally the setting of many of her books), Blume was a kid like the kids in her books. She did very typical kid things. She cut the hair off her dolls. She cut her own hair, for that matter. Never to particularly pleasing result. She still remembers poor "Sparkle Plenty," the doll that lost her long yellow stringy locks one particularly bleak afternoon.

"I loved dolls, but I played with them, I think, in very dark and mysterious ways. I had my melodramas, which I never shared with anyone. I was inventing, always."

By the time she was 10, her friends were her world. "I still had the fantasies, the secrets, the imaginative life," Blume says, "but it was really important to be with friends. You eat your supper as fast as you could get away with it and go back outside and play."

Her mom, Esther Sussman, was a housewife. Her dad, Rudolph, was a dentist with a knack for talking to people. People used to make appointments just to come get his advice. "But I could never do that," she says. "It's always harder for a child to talk to a parent. You have to see him again in the morning."

She went to NYU, where she met the man who would become her first husband, John Blume. They married young, and she had her two children -- son Larry, who is the model for Fudge, and daughter Randy -- in quick order. And she felt trapped.

"It was the '50s when my first husband and I came together," she says. "I was 21, and I had two kids by 25. In those days, we all did that. It wasn't unusual. And then everything changed. Everything changed, and I wanted to be out there. I wanted to go to Woodstock. I wanted to be active in the women's movement and the sexual revolution."

Instead she retreated back into the imaginative world of her childhood, and started to translate it to the page.

"My work gave me something that was missing in my life," she says. "A creative child grows up, and then what? If you come of age at a time when you're not supposed to do anything but be a good wifey" -- the title of one of her grown-up novels -- what are you supposed to do with it? I tried for a while. I tried to fit in. I never did."

She divorced, and met her current husband, George Cooper, while living in New Mexico. It's a sweet story, one she tells with relish. He, too, was divorced and had come to visit his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda. A friend gave him a list of five women who could be potential dinner partners during his stay. He showed the list to Amanda and asked for her input. She took one look at the name "Judy Blume" and started shrieking.

"He denies that he says this now," Blume says, smiling, "but he used to tell me that his response was: 'Not that woman who writes those books that you read over and over and over again!' "

So credit Margaret and Deenie and Blubber for the romance of Blume's life, a love that's still going strong.

"Honey, I'm almost finished," she says to Cooper when he wanders through the living room late in the conversation. "What do you have planned for us?"

"I'm taking you out," he replies.

"Ahhh," she sighs, contentedly. "You're going to walk me."

We are, we admit, feeling a little silly about our eagerness to ask Judy Blume everything. We want to know what she thinks about raising adolescents ("It was not my favorite part of being a parent," she says dryly). We want to know about her kids, her homes -- in Key West and on Martha's Vineyard -- her plans for the future. She'd like to do a set of stories about the characters in her first book, a children's book, "The Pain and the Great One." She was working on that when this whole National Book Award hullabaloo started. Suddenly it seemed she was in a constant whirlwind.

"I didn't expect all of this," she says. "I thought my last book tour was it. It was the book tour to end all book tours."

That came in 1998, when the third of her adult novels, "Summer Sisters," was released. Blume agonized over that book, the story of two friends who summer together every year on Martha's Vineyard. It took years to write, and when it was finally finished, Blume turned to her husband in horror.

"You have to help me get this book back," she remembers telling him. "We're going to give back the advance and we're going to stop this book. I've had a wonderful, long career and I don't want to go out this way."

Cooper was bemused. "Why don't you just leave the country," he told her. "Come back in a few months and it'll all be over."

The book wasn't the flop Blume feared. It was a huge success, her best-selling book ever, and went to No. 1 on several lists. At book signings across the country, she found herself surrounded by women desperate to reach out to her, thank her, share their stories.

"I thought that should be my last book tour," Blume says, "because I met all these twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, who had grown up on my books."

Tears well in her eyes.

"I have mascara on because I'm having my picture taken," she says, clutching a tissue. "So you can't let me cry."

Only she can't fight off the tears as her voice lowers to a whisper. The memories are so vivid, and so meaningful. These women, they didn't come to see her about "Summer Sisters." Not really. They came to buy "Summer Sisters" because they wanted to meet her. All these women, all talking about how much her books meant to them, how much they reflected their own lives, how much Blume seemed to understand them when it seemed that no one else could. It is a familiar litany -- she gets thousands of letters a year, many from children -- but one that never fails to move her. It happened again, just a few weeks ago, when she was in Boston participating in a benefit organized by fellow author Alice Hoffman. There she met a young woman who had come all the way from San Diego to meet her.

"She told me something I always hear," Blume says, her voice still raspy with emotion. "She told me, 'You saved my life when I was young and my parents were splitting up and you were my friend.' "

Ahhh, yes. We always knew, deep down, that we were not alone.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company