Judy Blume for President
Meet the woman who invented American adolescence
by Ellen Barry
Presumably, puberty would have happened without Judy Blume books, but there's
no way to know for sure. A professor of mine once argued at great length that
Shakespeare had invented modern love, because before we knew the words --
"Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo" -- we didn't know how love was
supposed to feel. Shakespeare himself may have thought he was merely depicting
what already existed, but for a modern reader the two can no longer be
untangled. This sort of thing is hard to research.
By comparison, there is a large body of evidence to the effect that Judy Blume
is responsible for puberty as we know it. Talk to women in their 20s about Judy
Blume and take note of the sweet, reminiscent looks that come over their faces.
This isn't a matter of personal preference, like Nancy Drew versus Trixie
Belden. When Blume came to town last week promoting her new adult novel,
Summer Sisters (Delacorte Press), I called a series of fierce,
intelligent women to find out what nail-you-to-the-wall questions they might
have for the Poet of Puberty. None were forthcoming.
Several of these women responded simply, "We must -- we must -- we must
increase our bust!" One woman gurgled that Forever . . .
truism, "Once you have sex you can't go back to holding hands," and another
friend, a woman who has had significant opportunity to snuggle up to Supreme
Court justices, begged me in the most pitiful tone of voice to get her Judy
Blume's autograph. This is the situation. Every unhappy adolescence was unhappy
in its own way, but Judy Blume was universal.
In certain important ways, she raised us all. She presented us with a vision
of adolescent sexuality stripped of shame and danger; where earlier girls in
fiction had kept their first periods a closely held secret (when did Meg March
get her period? Jo? Beth? Amy?), Blume's girls got downright competitive about
it. Blume was our fairy godmother of sex. Feminist historians have identified a
fault line in the way young women experienced sexual maturation: 1970, the year
Macmillan published Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, the
trauma-free tale of a suburban girl waiting to menstruate.
It is no coincidence that Blume's books became a battlefield between parents
and children and remain so almost 30 years after Margaret reached for her
maxi-pad. Here's a report from a school that attempted to ban
Forever . . . in 1991:
An assembly organized by students to discuss the ban was quickly broken up
by school administrators. Despite this, several students produced and wore
buttons reading JUDY BLUME FOR PRINCIPAL and JUDY BLUME FOR PRESIDENT to school
each day to protest the administration's actions.
You get the sense that Judy Blume did not expect to become a folk hero. In
person, she turns out to be a stylish, effusive 60-year-old woman who is keen
on kayaking and makes faces at strangers' babies. She still gets teary when she
recalls a bad review of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, and then
again when she recalls a young boy with multiple sclerosis with whom she
corresponded until his death, and then again when she reminisces about the
38-year friendship that inspired Summer Sisters. She enunciates very
clearly, as if she is squeezing her words out of a pastry bag, and she says she
is routinely impressed by the warm reception she gets among the 20-to
30-year-old set. "Overwhelming," she says of her fans' adoration. "Just
She is -- just as clearly -- no firebrand, at least not on purpose. Asked
whether she is a feminist, she says yes: "I think it's wonderful that medical
schools and law schools are filled half with women and half with men. I think
that's terrific. I think women having careers is wonderful." But she is also
quick to say that her books were never political in their aims -- not overtly
political, not covertly political, not political at all. "I'm a storyteller.
That's it. Open and shut. I tell stories."
When she published Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, which
portrayed young girls monitoring each other's sexual maturity, she had no idea
that she was doing anything remotely controversial. At 12, Margaret plays Two
Minutes in the Closet and cries out Please God, let me be normal. She
desperately wants breasts and regards those girls who have them with marked
suspicion. It seemed benign enough at the time.
"I didn't know anything," says Blume. "I was really young and naive and
inexperienced. I would write what I knew to be true from my own experience
Margaret raised some hackles, but it was nothing compared to her next
few books, like the scoliosis/masturbation classic Deenie and
Forever . . ., the book that made high-school sex seem
normal. Blume says she was never trying to push the social envelope, just to
reflect kids' reality. In some cases, that alone seems to have been enough to
get her in trouble -- her books came off as morally neutral, lacking the clear
last-chapter lessons generally present in children's literature. Between 1982
and 1992, the 1974 novel Blubber -- in which an overweight girl is
taunted by her classmates until one of them, the narrator, becomes the new
scapegoat -- was removed from library shelves at least 13 times,
according to the National Coalition Against Censorship. One challenge came from
an elementary school in Perry Township, Ohio, where school administrators
judged the book dangerous because "bad is never punished. Good never comes to
the fore. Evil is triumphant."
Blume never did play adult -- she refused to tell readers that the mean kids
would suffer for their crimes. And it is precisely because of that that kids
sent her bags and bags of mail asking the questions they could never ask their
parents -- which the author eventually anthologized in Letters to Judy
(Turtleback, 1987). The fact is, by fourth grade kids already know
that evil is occasionally triumphant. To teach them otherwise would be rank
Name that Pube
Judy Blume's books are a hymn to normalcy. Set in the suburbs, they usually
center on children whose fondest wish is to not be deviant -- they frequently
have exceptional friends or siblings, but themselves show no quality remotely
out of the ordinary. The writing is simple enough to invite grade-level
hopping; in fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a paragraph of description in
any of Blume's books. There are no haunting ideas, no current slang, no poetic
So why do we remember every single one of them? Well, never mind. We do. Here
are excerpts from four of Blume's coming-of-age classics.
Nancy and her family went to Washington over Lincoln's Birthday weekend. I got
a postcard from her before she got back which means she must have mailed it the
second she got there. It only had three words on it.
I GOT IT!!!
I ripped the card into tiny shreds and ran to my room. There was something
wrong with me. I just knew it. And there wasn't a thing I could do about it. I
flopped onto my bed and cried. Next week Nancy would want to tell me all about
her period and how grown up she was. Well, I didn't want to hear her good
-- Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
On Thursday we made Linda show the boys her underpants. She wasn't anxious to
do that, so Caroline had to hold her hands behind her back while Wendy lifted
Irwin found some names for Linda in the Random House Dictionary, which
Mrs. Minish keeps in the corner on its own table. He's really good at looking
things up. He can tell you exactly on what page certain words are found. We
called Linda "flubsy," "carnivore" and "bestial." I didn't recognize any of
them, but they all sounded good.
I woke up suddenly. It was morning. I felt wet and my pajamas were sticky. Oh
God! There is something wrong with me. Really wrong. Dr. Holland doesn't
know what he's talking about! I am so sick. This proves it.
Wait a minute. Wait just a minute. Maybe I had a wet dream. Yeah
. . . I bet that's it. How about that? I thought they'd be different
though. I thought a lot more stuff would come out. And anyway, I wasn't so sure
I'd have one. At least not yet.
"I didn't feel anything." I wrapped a beach towel around my middle and
went to the bathroom. When I wiped myself with a tissue I saw a few spots of
blood, but nothing like what I'd imagined.
-- Then Again, Maybe I Won't
On the way home I thought, I'm no longer a virgin. I'll never have to go
through the first-time business again and I'm glad -- I'm so glad it's over!
Still, I can't help feeling let down. Everybody makes such a big thing out of
actually doing it.
-- Forever . . .
The only book that drew more fire than Blubber was
Forever . . ., which was as much a part of my
school-bus experience as the steering wheel.
Forever . . . seemed impossibly illicit when we first got
hold of it -- fifth grade, as I recall -- although the book now comes off as
kind of '70s, with its quaint VD scares and cool, hippie family. ("Were you
fucking?" "Jamie!" "That's not a bad word . . . hate and war are bad
words but fuck isn't.") Kath, the heroine, is portrayed as aggressively normal
-- her decision to have sex is studied and responsible -- and here, too, Blume
says she had no idea she was going to rock the boat. When she wrote the book,
in 1975, she was responding to a specific request from her daughter.
"She was reading a lot of books which were all about pregnancy and terrible
things that happen because of sex," Blume says. "And she said, `Couldn't there
ever be a book about two kids who do it and nobody has to die?' And I hated the
idea of sex and punishment."
So she felt that book was a little political in its motivation?
"I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that I wrote it because she asked me
But a few signs suggest Blume does know she was rewriting American
adolescence. For one thing, she has come to value her readers' approval over
that of the traditional arbiters of taste. After years of being passed over by
kiddie-lit awards panels, she finally won the American Library Association's
Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, an event that she says made her "worry --
is this good that they're accepting me? I mean, the whole library thing."
And then, there are recent gestures aimed at keeping her books current. The
brand-new first page of Forever . . . warns young people
to use condoms even if girls are on birth-control pills -- it's the sole
mention of AIDS in the whole book. And after years of consideration, the new
paperback editions of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret will no
longer feature sanitary napkins suspended from belts, a contraption that
sounded medieval by the early '80s and downright Neanderthal by the age of
"I have just changed -- some people get really upset about this, but it has
nothing to do with the story -- I have updated the equipment that Margaret
uses," she says. "No one uses belts any more. Half the mothers haven't used
them. [Contemporary readers] have to go to their grandmothers.
"I'm not taking out her velvet party dress. I'm not taking out her giant hair
rollers, but just the equipment. I'd been thinking about it for a long
time," she says. "And some people said, `Oh, no, it's a classic. You can't mess
around with a classic.' And I said, `Look, we're not messing around with the
character or anything else. We're just messing around with the
Most authors don't rewrite their novels to keep their paper products current,
but then Margaret was not just a novel. If Blume familiarized readers
with wet dreams, masturbation, and sexual fantasy, she actually revolutionized
the social meaning of menstruation. Kathleen O'Grady, a feminist historian now
studying at Cambridge University, refers to herself as a "product of the Judy
Blume generation," and she isn't joking. When she and Paula Wansbrough began
collecting women's memoirs for their 1997 book Sweet Secrets: Stories of
Menstruation, they noticed a difference between people who grew up without
the books and those who read them.
"In the generation before Judy Blume, a huge number of women thought
when they had their first menstruation that they were dying," O'Grady says.
"They had very little information. Prior to widespread TV advertisements about
sanitary protection, there weren't a huge number of sources. Judy Blume, I
think, really opened up discussion in that area."
In fact, for women who went through a note-passing, doctor-playing Judy Blume
puberty, it's virtually impossible to imagine the world before her. As late as
1870, professors of medicine were claiming that menstruation was a new
phenomenon, according to Joan Jacobs Brumberg's The Body Project: An
Intimate History of American Girls (Random House, 1997). In an 1895 study
of high-school girls in Boston, a full 60 percent reported that they had no
idea what was happening to them when they got their first period. The taboos
lasted well into this century; while O'Grady was doing research for the book,
she looked with interest at a new critical edition of The Diary of Anne
Frank, which included significant material that had previously been
censored on orders from Anne's father, Otto Frank.
"I thought it would have to be something horrific, something to do with the
Holocaust," she says. "But it turned out what had been censored out were
passages about menstruation. I think we just hit that whole menstrual taboo. We
can give young kids books in school about the Holocaust, but we can't let them
know about menstruation."
So Margaret, which featured four girls so eager to "get it" that they
lied to each other about it, broke some ground. The only children's book that
had mentioned menstruation before was Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret,
published in 1965, which offers the jolly imagery of rotten pebbles cutting
you up inside and then falling out of you.
Blume threatened parents every bit as much as she won kids over. Since the
week after Ronald Reagan was elected, when the first challenges began to roll
in, Blume has been one of the most frequently censored novelists in America.
She has come to the conclusion that what really bothered people was not so much
what her books contained as the fact that they were meant for kids in the
9-to-11 age range -- before many parents see the need to dispense information
about sex. Blume herself argues that kids start thinking about both the
biological and the emotional aspects of sex far earlier than anyone wants to
admit. In reality, this curiosity is kind of benign -- "I was in love all the
time when I was little," she says. "I can remember having a crush in first
grade." But again and again over the years, parents have made the decision that
knowledge about sex is more dangerous than lack of knowledge.
Blume disagrees. And so she stepped in, with or without the sanction of
elementary-school librarians. She got to kids before their parents were quite
comfortable talking about sex with them, and imprinted them with a certain
vision of life. This literature was fourth-grade samizdat: the homes were
suburban, the moms swore, kids were sometimes mean, there was frequently no
moral to the story, and sex was something that people talked about all the
time. Much of that information has seen us safely into adulthood. We all have
different parents, and we all had different social studies teachers, but there
was only one sex-ed teacher, and that was Judy Blume.
At Blume's reading in Framingham, the bookstore is packed with women carrying
copies of books that represent her turtle-eating, bra-stuffing, and biker-sex
periods. ("Wifey is tired of chicken on Wednesdays and sex on Saturdays. This
morning a mysterious motorcyclist flashed and revealed himself to Wifey and
brought her frustrations into rigid focus!") It's the women who grew up
pre-Blume that seem to best understand what the books did. One woman in her 50s
says she realized the world had changed some years ago when her husband invited
her teenage daughter to go running and she told him she had "wicked cramps."
"You wouldn't have said that?" says her daughter, now 23.
"Never," says the mother, shaking her head and laughing. "Never never
This, then, is the work of Judy Blume. The mother is laughing at the very
idea. Her daughter is looking at her like she is crazy.
Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry[a]phx.com.