Judy Blume, the author who read children’s minds

Judy Blume, the author who read children’s minds

Therapy was not so common back then, so hundreds of kids wrote to her about their innermost feelings, perhaps feeling safe in confiding to a stranger, who was an adult, and understood what they were going through

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, May 18, 2023, 10:17 PM IST
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When we were growing up, Enid Blyton books were very popular, mainly because they flooded the neighbourhood libraries. Also because parents approved of the harmless mystery-solving antics of the Fabulous Five and the adventures of the girls at Malory Towers. Now Blyton is cancelled for being racist and inappropriate in ways we never imagined back then and Judy Blume, a controversial writer of Young Adult (YA) fiction — before the term was coined — is having her day in the sun.

Her trend-setting and controversial coming-of-age book, Are You There God? It’s Margaret, written in 1970, has been turned into a film to be released in a few weeks, and a documentary on her, Judy Blume Forever, directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, is streaming (on Amazon Prime). The author, now 85, lives in Key West with her husband George Cooper, and runs a bookshop. This year she was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine, though her fame was mostly limited to the US and later the UK.

“I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking inside,” she says in the documentary, but, before she became such an influential writer for American children, Judy Sussman had a normal suburban upbringing, a regular college education, marriage, two kids and all that women were told to aspire for in the mid-nineteenth century. But she found something lacking in her life, started writing books for children, and gathered a pile of rejection slips before her first book The One In The Middle Is The Green Kangaroo (1969) was published. (With the small advance of $350 that she received, she bought an electric typewriter.) But it wasn’t until Are You There God? It’s Margaret, came out, that she became a literary sensation, and also one of the most banned authors of her time. That book was followed by a male-centred counterpart, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.

Today, kids mature soon, there are sex-ed classes in school, what were once considered taboo subjects are openly discussed — but now as then, adolescence is a time of confusion and angst, which is what Blume wrote about. Most parents were, and still are, awkward about discussing matters of sex with their children, and Blume wrote about a young girl’s feelings about menstruation, masturbation, breasts and boys. While many parents were shocked, if not downright outraged, kids found a kind of solace in her books. There were questions they had and did not know whom to turn to for answers; reading Blume’s books, Margaret, the Fudge, Blubber and Deenie series, made them realise they were not alone; others went through the same growing-up pains too. Her two kids provided plot ideas — Fudge was based on her son Larry — but she also had a preternatural ability to read the minds of children and teens.

Therapy was not so common back then, so hundreds of kids wrote to her about their innermost feelings, perhaps feeling safe in confiding to a stranger, who was an adult, and understood what they were going through — from bullying, to incest, love or heartbreak.With remarkable compassion, she wrote back to many of them, words of sympathy and wisdom. Some of them carried on a correspondence with Blume for years, and credit her for helping them grow into well-adjusted adults. Two of them — Lorrie Kim and Karen Chilstorm — are interviewed in the documentary, and talk candidly of their fandom; Lorrie was touched when Blume came to her graduation function, when they had never even met. Many other movie celebrities and writers talk about the influence of their books on their life and work. Those thousands of intimate confessional letters must undoubtedly have given Judy Blume topics for her books, as they gave her an inside track into the minds of American kids.

Most books or films about teenage or pre-marital sex in those days ended with the girl getting pregnant, dying or suffering in one way or another. Blume wrote the fearless and moving book, Forever, in which sex is treated as a rite of passage and not a punishable offence. This resulted in the book being targeted for censorship because of its explicit sexual content. Most parents, of course, preferred to pretend that their kids were not going through puberty and hormonal changes, or god forbid, having sex.

When two of her marriages failed, Blume, often looked down upon for writing children’s books, wrote Wifey (1978), a very adult novel about a bored and neglected housewife having an affair, and talked about open marriages and marital dysfunction with her trademark honesty.

In the conservative years that followed Ronald Reagan’s election as President of the United States, the moral majority reared its head a lot more, and Blume’s books were targets for much fulmination. In the documentary, is a clip of a talk show in which conservative Pat Buchanan repeatedly attacks her books’ content; Blume calmly asks, “Did you read the whole book or just the highlighted parts?”

Along with illuminating interviews, the film has news clips, photographs and snippets of Blume’s frank, grace-under-fire TV interviews over the years, in which she pleasantly answers provocative questions without losing her cool.

It’s not surprising that Judy Blume’s books seldom reached Indian bookstores or libraries; traditional Indian parents would have been appalled to find their kids reading her books. Even in relatively liberal America, her novels were being constantly pulled off library shelves. In this age of the ebook reader, maybe parents who do not know how to deal with their children’s growing up pangs should nudge them towards Blume’s books.

Despite the letting-it-all-hang out emotional indulgences of the internet age, some things never change; letters sent to newspaper or magazine agony aunts and uncles just prove that a glut of information does not necessarily eradicate ignorance. Judy Bloom’s novels reached out to children and young adults not just for their empathy, but for the sanctity accorded to the printed word. Judy Blume wrote about delicate matters, but never in a salacious way to sell more books. Kids did not have to read her books by torchlight under the blanket; they became such bestsellers because many progressive parents must have realised their worth. Which is why, over half a century later, Judy Blume, her impact and legacy are being given due credit.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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