Bonnie Fogel of Bethesda was sitting at the dinner table, listening to her 7-year-old daughter Sarah read aloud from a school library book.
"That teacher is such a bitch," the second-grader read in clear tones. Bonnie Fogel was shocked. The book could not possibly say that. Her daughter pointed to the page.
"Here it is, Mommy," she explained. "B-I-T-C-H. Bitch."
The book was 'Blubber," a best-selling children's novel by Judy Blume, called by her detractors the Jacqueline Susann of kids' literature. After Fogel complained to school officials, the story of "Blubber" -- a 10-year-old fat girl who is cruelly tormented by her schoolmates -- was taken off the library shelves last week in Montgomery County public schools.
The 153-page novel, which has sold about one million copies nationwide since it was first published in 1974, can now be used in the county schools only under direct guidance of a teacher.
"Blubber" also is the focus of controversy in Fairfax County, where one public elementary school is currently debating whether to remove it from the library shelf. According to school officials in the District of Columbia, Alexandria and Arlington, the book is available in public elementary school library shelves and has provoked no formal complaints. Prince George's County schools have refushed to purchase the book because a review committee held it was cruel toward fat people.
Although Blume says "Blubber" is lightweight compared with the ridicule unpopular students actually face, County School Superintendent Edward J. Andrews decided to restrict it. "We didn't feel it was the kind of material children should have without some supervision," a spokesman for Andrews said this week.
Responding to complaints from other parents, Andrews also removed two other books from elementary school libraries last week, saying they were suited only for junior and senior high school students.
All three of the novels found their way to school library shelves in Montgomery County as a result of a school board policy adopted in 1974 that allows individual school librarians to buy any book that is favorably reviewed in any one of 97 journals.
Although Blume's books have been praised for her keen insight into the hard realities of growing up, several of them have been banned in school libraries across the country.
The other two books Andrews removed last week are "They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me" by Alice Bach and "It's Not What You Expect" by Norma Klein.
Although neither book has sold nearly as well as "Blubber," all three are part of a new wave of realism in children's literature, which abandons happy endings and loving parents and includes frank and often graphic examples of violence and sex.
It's enough to make the Bobbsey Twins blush.
Consider the Alice Bach book. A committee of teachers and administrators reviewed "They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me" and said the book was inappropriate for elementary school libraries because "young impressionable students may well be swayed by a story that features lying about sexual activities to acquire a used diaphragm from a friend for the sole purpose of attempting to gain acceptance of others."
In Norma Klein's "It's Not What You Expect," 14-year-old twins, Carla and Oliver, discover that their 8-year-old brother has impregnated his girlfriend. The twins offer to pay for the abortion. Later, their mother tells Carla about her own abortion -- then illegal -- several years before.
School Superintendent Andrews agreed with the review committe's recommendation that the subject matter in Klein's book was more appropriate for junior and senior high school students.
Bonnie Fogel's complaint about "Blubber" was not sex. It was cruelty.
Among the offending scenes:
Linda, the fat girl who is nick named "Blubber," gives a report on whales, then her skirt is lifted by schoolmates to show her underpants to boy students.
Linda is forced to eat what she is told is a chocolate covered ant. "After a minute, Linda turned this awful greenish color," Blume wrote, "gave a big burp, then puked all over her desk and the floor."
In another scene, Blume writes, "A loud noise came out of Linda then. At first I wasn't sure what it was, but then the smell hit me and I knew. I wondered if she's had sauerkraut for breakfast . . ."
Finally, Linda is locked in a supply closet screaming while her classmates start a mock trial of the hapless girl.
Just before the book ends, the group turns on another girl who is tougher than Linda and the hazing subsides. The book ends with a discussion on earthworms.
"What's really shocking," Fogel said, "is that there is no moral tone to the book. There's no adult or another child at the end who says, "This is wrong. This cruelty to others shouldn't be.'"
Author Judy Blume, in a telephone interview from her New Mexico home, says that's precisely the point.
"The fact that it's not resolved is the most important part of the book," she said. "I don't think you can change children's behavior. You can make them aware. 'Blubber' is a tough book, but I think kids are awfully rough on each other. I'd rather get it out in the open than pretend it isn't there."
During the past decade, 42-year-old Judy Blume has become the best selling author of children's fiction in the country, according to several national surveys. The popular author of 12 books, which have sold 8 million copies, says the only thing she has in common with sex potboiler author Jacqueline Susann is "commercial success."
She has also sold 3 million copies of her adult novel "Wifey" and one million copies of "Forever," a sexually explicit tale of an 18-year-old girl taking her first lover.
"Forever" was removed from Montgomery County high school libraries in 1977, although it is still available in Fairfax school libraries.
Blume's children's books, mostly in paperback, are aimed at youngsters from second grade through junior high school. Their topics are a litany of preteen and teenage troubles, including menstruation, masturbation, "wet dreams," buying a bra, shoplifting, divorced or insensitive parents, insecurity and group cruelty.
Despite their hefty sales and a large number of favorable reviews, the books are almost totally absent from prize lists compiled by critics and librarians.
"You should see the letters I get from kids," and Judy Blume. "I get more than 1,000 of them a month -- deeply personal letters about their feelings. They tell me, 'I don't have anybody to talk to and I feel from your books that I can talk to you.'"
At the same time "Blubber" is being taken off Montgomery County school library shelves, the county's public library system has decided to buy 110 copies of it, for the first time.
"It's not a great piece of literature," said Ann Friedman, who is in charge of selecting the children's books. "But I feel we have an obligation to be responsive to what kids are reading . . . I don't think we have to be afraid of kids. I have great faith that kids will figure out what's the right thing to do without having a moral lesson spelled out."
"Blubber," according to Friedman, has "great appeal and doesn't do anything harmful."
Bonnie Fogel disagrees.
"Cruelty and nastiness can come pretty easily to children," she said. "But one tries to turn it around, to temper it, and teach. I think adults have an obligation to steer young children away from cruelty -- not introduce them to more."
Judy Blume, who explains that "Bludder" was written from a child's point of view, said, "If libraries want kids to read and that's what everybody is saying, then how dare they put down the books that the kids want to read. That's saying kids have no taste, that kids don't know what's good for them that kids don't know how to decide."
Sarah Fogel, age 7, has already decided.
"Blubber," she told her mother, is the best book I ever read."