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Late Blumers

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 1998

  Style Showcase


    Judy Blume Women who grew up on Judy Blume's books for young people are making her adult novel "Summer Sisters" a best seller. (Alison Shaw for The Post)
MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass.—Everywhere she went, the weepies struck.

"We learned," Judy Blume says, "that we had to have a box of Kleenex on the table. Like in a shrink's office."

In city after city, as Blume toured to tout her grown-up novel "Summer Sisters," women who'd read her books when they were fifth-graders came up to her in bookstores and dissolved.

One Vancouver fan in her twenties – Blume hops up from the wicker settee on her porch to demonstrate – flopped face-down onto the table and stayed there. Suddenly encountering the author who helped shepherd her through the terrors of middle school, the woman was unable to look up or speak, not that it mattered. "There was no need to say much," Blume murmurs, resettling on the settee. "She knew and I knew."

Then she gets teary-eyed herself and briefly buries her face in a flowered cushion. "It's the emotional connection," she quavers. "They keep saying, 'You saved my life.' "

A pardonable exaggeration. Blume's 21 trailblazing novels have sold a cumulative 65 million copies, the majority to preadolescent girls who relied on her to chart the scary, mysterious territory ahead.

Years later they can still quote lines of dialogue. They recall discussing with their girlfriends, all of whom were also reading "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" – in which an 11-year-old and her pals confront what are currently dubbed "body issues" – whether seventh grade was, in fact, the appropriate time to start using deodorant. Now grown, they're propelling her latest novel to the upper reaches of the bestseller lists all over again.


"Such an odd thing, when you really think about it, that puberty would be taboo for young people to read about."

"They get your jokes," Blume says affectionately. When she looks down at her still non-curvaceous chest and tells them, 'I was Margaret and I haven't changed any. The exercises don't work,' " the women in the audience laugh ruefully. They know all about the exercises Margaret did while chanting, "I must – I must – I must increase my bust!" They probably tried them out themselves.

"It's sweet," Blume says, reaching for a tissue.

It's about a 20-minute drive from the airport to Blume's summer retreat, on a wooded hillside overlooking Tashmoo Pond. The woman steering the Ace Taxi van along the twisty dirt road is excited to learn who lives in this rambling house with the riotous garden. "Omigod, I loved her books!" she cries. Lots of conversations about Judy Blume begin with omigod.

"Summer Sisters" takes place on this very shoreline. From her screened porch, Blume can see the dock where she envisioned Caitlin and Vix, the dual heroines, frolicking during their Vineyard summers. In many ways, "Summer Sisters" is merely a more mature version of a Judy Blume book, reprising many of her favorite themes: coming of age, breast angst, divorce crises, the enigma of the other sex.

Before it was published, naysayers warned her that there was no audience for grown-up fiction whose characters, while they age from 12 to 30, spend much of the narrative as kids. For months Blume was in a welter of vocal anxiety about the book's fate. "I've never felt so much that a book was going to be a disaster," she frets. Still girlishly skinny at 60, a curly-haired pixie in khakis and a T-shirt, Blume also sounds girlishly insecure. "I thought, 'I don't want to end my long and happy career on such a sour note.' "

Now, of course, it's a hoot to exult over "this insane success": despite mixed reviews, Blume's audience greeted "Summer Sisters" like a long-lost friend. With 480,000 copies in print, it's one of the season's most popular beach reads.

But it's not, to be frank, the volume she'll be remembered for.

Lots of authors write nostalgic heart-tuggers for women. But in 1970, when Blume published "Margaret," almost no one was writing honest, realistic, contemporary fiction for junior high students. If scholars study the collected works of Judy Blume 50 years hence, that will be why.

She was in her twenties when she began writing, a New Jersey "mad housewife" who'd married while still in college and had two children in short order. Her stories didn't strike her as particularly pioneering. " 'Margaret' was really the way we were – my friends – back in the '40s and '50s," Blume says. "We talked endlessly. We talked about breast development. Counting each other's pubic hairs [a scene in "Summer Sisters"] – we did that."

The three volumes featuring an obnoxious younger brother named Fudge were inspired by her son Larry, the proverbial handful. "Larry is like me, open, volatile, friendly – we'll tell you anything," she says fondly. The controversial "Forever," published in 1975, was a response to her daughter Randy's request for a story about teenagers who make love and afterward are not trapped by pregnancy, struck down by wrathful gods or otherwise punished.

Later on, after her fans had learned to analyze literature at Oberlin and Wellesley, some detected a feminist subtext in many of these books: With their feisty heroines and acknowledgment of early sexuality (boys', too), they served as "Our Bodies, Ourselves" for middle-schoolers. But that, she insists, was not her goal. "The women's movement came very late to suburban New Jersey," she says.

Intentionally trailblazing or not, the Blume books hit like a sonic boom. Before the late '60s, what's now called young adult literature didn't exist; there were simply children's books and adult books. But with the likes of Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, S.E. Hinton and Blume, "there was a series of groundbreaking books that really challenged the conventional presentation of reality to kids," says Lois Stover, president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English. "The language was tougher. The endings were optimistic but not all neatly tied up. The characters weren't all white and middle-class."

Blume is not, in literary terms, the most revered of this group. Though she's praised for her dialogue and her accurate rendering of kids and their world, "she's not a stylist," Stover says. "There's not a lot that's poetic in her language." For this reason – and perhaps because teachers are hesitant to conduct classroom discussions about nocturnal emissions or bra-shopping – Blume's works are not frequently assigned or taught. Merely read.

Stover, who chairs the education studies department at St. Mary's College of Maryland, was 15 and working at a public library the summer "Margaret" was published. "I was supposed to be shelving books, but I hid in the stacks and read it instead of doing my job," she recalls. "I was in awe of her ability to capture all that confusion, that whole range of feelings and how they change like mercury."

And Stover wasn't the only one. Ask any half-dozen Gen-X'ers, particularly women, whether they read Judy Blume and get ready for a chorus of omigods.


Someone to Shoot Straight
Marjorie Ingall, a 31-year-old freelance writer from San Francisco, gushes at the mention of her name. "I loved Judy Blume. I still love Judy Blume. . . . She really seemed to understand the way kids think, how intense the relationships are, how important acceptance is, how the grown-ups seem to be on some other planet."

Rebecca Benson-Bates, 30 and a store manager at Annapolis Mall, read "Blubber" and pictured her own classroom. "It was so real. . . . I was in third grade and everyone was so hard on each other. 'They just don't like me!' But reading that book, I could see, other people go through this crap, too."

"Sixth grade, everyone read 'Forever,' " recalls Danielle Lewis, 29, a programming administrator in New York. Intended for older teens, the novel features a high school senior heroine who very responsibly visits Planned Parenthood and gets a prescription for birth control pills before having sex with her boyfriend, blasting away every cliche about what nice girls do or don't. In the '80s, Blume, who worries maternally about her readers (and her family, and visiting journalists), added a foreword warning about AIDS and the importance of using condoms.

"That book made the rounds. My friend Stacey had it and everyone had to go over to her house and read it, like a reference library," Lewis says. "Or if you were really good friends, she'd lend it to you for a week, as long as you didn't mess up the cover."

Her paperbacks passed around like samizdat, Blume became sympathetic counselor and sex-ed instructor to a generation. "Women my age had '50s parents who couldn't talk to you about this stuff. They still thought you'd go blind," says Michelle Waughtel, 31, a PR woman and doctoral candidate in Philadelphia. "We needed someone to shoot straight, to tell us what goes on in a girl's head at 11 and that it's okay."

Not everyone thought it was okay. In the early '80s (Blume believes the timing, just after the Reagan landslide, was no coincidence), her books came under assault. Parents' groups wanted them yanked from school libraries or restricted to those who could produce parental permission slips. "Forever" was blasted, during a fracas in Schaumberg, Ill., as "a sexual how-to book for junior high school students." In Perry Township, Ohio, "Blubber" was condemned because "bad is never punished, good never comes to the fore, evil is triumphant."

People for the American Way, compiling annual reports on school censorship from 1982 through 1996, ranked Blume No. 1 on its cumulative Most Challenged Authors list, ahead of such perennials as Steinbeck, Salinger and Twain.

"Such an odd thing, when you really think about it, that puberty would be taboo for young people to read about," she muses, still sounding a bit surprised, given that it's the central drama of their lives.

At times, she felt tempted to acquiesce. In "Here's to You, Rachel Robinson," the heroine's troubled older brother Charles uses the f-expletive precisely once (Blume's books seldom use profanity), for dramatic effect. "That one word, my editor said, will keep it from being accepted here, here and here." Maybe, Blume thought, it wouldn't be so bad to substitute the more tolerable 'friggin.' "

"But my son said: 'You're Judy Blume! You're known for being honest. If you don't use the word you want – and you know he wouldn't say "friggin' " – every kid will know you're being dishonest.' Sometimes it's really important to hear that." She allowed Charles his single curse.


Creating Nests
Each year, a list called the All-Time Bestselling Paperback Children's Books appears in Publishers Weekly. And each year Blume rules. The most recent showed that six of the top 20 titles were hers.

But Publishers Weekly also compiles an annual bestseller list, and that tells a different story. Only one Blume novel appeared in 1997: "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing," originally published in 1972, was No. 70, near the bottom of the paperback list.

A similar picture emerges from the more recent People for the American Way lists. Blume remained atop the cumulative most-challenged author list, but her books slipped off the annual lists in the early '90s. Censorship trackers suggest that most communities and schools have already decided what to do about "Blubber" or "Forever" and no longer have to slug it out, or that protesters may have moved on to other targets, no longer paying Blume the backhanded compliment of banning her work.

Maybe Blume mattered most at a particular moment.

"When she came along, the things she was writing about were new and very fresh – the real concerns of preadolescent girls," says Diane Roback, the Publishers Weekly children's book editor. Nearly 30 years later, "it's not a new or revolutionary concept. Others have gone on to capture the affections of young readers."

That's partly because Blume is writing less for the young now. She spent the better part of three years laboring over "Summer Sisters," which went through "many, many, many drafts." There used to be a new kids' book every year, sometimes twice a year, but in the past decade she's published only three.

"When I was really young, I felt I had to do everything quickly, go go go," she explains. Her father died of a heart attack when she was still a college student, and much of his family also died young – "we were always sitting shiva." Blume felt that "I had all these stories to tell and not too much time to tell them."

She's no longer in such a hurry. "I've screwed around a lot in the past 10 years," she confesses. "Having a good time. Creating nests." Married to fellow writer George Cooper after two earlier divorces, her children and stepdaughter grown, she spends winters in Key West and summers here, where a favorite visitor is her 6-year-old grandson. On the Vineyard, she kayaks. She messes about in the garden.

But she is – fans can take heart – planning to write more. She's hoping, at her grandson's urging, to start another book about Fudge. She's been filling a notebook with preliminary reveries for an adult novel, about a family of sisters.

The evidence is that her readers will respond, even if it's been decades since they identified with Margaret or Sheila the Great. The letters on her Web site (www.judyblume.com) from "Summer Sisters" readers sound like the squeals of delight heard at a high school reunion. "I can't believe you're in my life again!" a 23-year-old from Queens burbled in e-mail. "I thought you had forgotten me as I grew older."

They haven't forgotten her. Twenty years ago, Michelle Waughtel clutched Blume's books to her too-flat bosom at St. Mary's Elementary School in rural Lebanon, Pa. "I grew up in a very strict religious environment and being able to read Judy Blume took some of the guilt away," she remembers. "The rich inner lives of these kids helped you feel normal, because at 9 and 10 and 11, everything feels wrong."

So "Summer Sisters" is next on Waughtel's reading list. "If someone can help me figure out my early thirties, why not?" she says. "It worked once before."

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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