by Melanie Heuiser Hill
I had the extraordinary fortune of seeing Judy Blume a few weeks ago. I was going to say “seeing Judy Blume in concert” — that’s sort of what it felt like, actually. She’s a rock-star in my world. And she was interviewed by Nancy Pearl, no less, so the whole event felt like I’d won a prize and been dropped in A Dream Come True. Both were wonderful — profound, honest, funny. It was such a treat.
Judy Blume played a large role in my childhood/adolescence. My fourth grade teacher read us Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, of course, and from there I went on to Freckle Juice and Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great. By fifth grade I was reading Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself and learning about anti-semitism, which I knew nothing about; and racism, which was a daily part of life where I was growing up; and lice, the reason we spent hours with our whole class in the nurse’s office being picked over. (If we’d spent as much time learning as we did having our hair picked through, I probably could’ve skipped a couple of grades.)
I think it was probably Sally J. that got me actively looking for Judy Blume books. She’s the first author I remember searching for at the library catalog. I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? many times in fifth grade. I was stunned to learn that a girl could wish for the changes brought on by puberty. Puberty hit me early, hard, and fast and I hated the changes it brought. It was fascinating to read about a girl who yearned for her period, did exercises in hope of increasing her bust line (“We must! We must! We must increase our bust!”), and prayed to God to make her a woman.
My daughter’s fifth grade English teacher handed her Margaret’s story. Perhaps I gushed too much about how I loved it, because Darling Daughter cared for it not. Our Mother-Daughter Bookclub tried a couple of times to suggest the book — we mothers who came of age in the seventies had fond memories. But as it turned out, the mothers (re)read it, and the daughters refused. Not interested. Not even about the religious stuff, which I was surprised to find was really the main conflict in the story! I’d forgotten all about it — it was all bras and “sanitary napkins” in my memory.
We mothers wondered: was it because we were encouraging the girls to read Margaret that they didn’t want to? Our own mothers were not so keen on the book — Judy Blume’s books didn’t have a great reputation among mothers in the 1970s. Ms. Blume covered all kinds of topics quite frankly and some of those topics our mothers either wanted to cover themselves, or leave as a “mystery.” (Probably mostly the latter.)
But I read a lot of Judy Blume, not having a censoring mother, and I learned a lot from her books. I learned about scoliosis and bad decisions and wet dreams and periods and insecurities and meanness and kindness and family issues/secrets and masturbation and gender and crushes and sex. Well, actually, I didn’t learn much about sex. The “key pages” from Forever were passed around the sixth grade, but I was too nervous to actually read them, which left things a little vague, given that the playground discussion around said pages was…a little vague.
Ms. Blume told us that those of us who grew up reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret often ask her for a “sequel” bringing our friend Margaret full circle as she goes through menopause. I would love this book, I must say. But Margaret’s author said, “Margaret is always twelve! Menopause is not her story.”
And indeed — the book is pretty timeless (with a little vocabulary updated) because being twelve has a timelessness about it. Twelve (and the years just on either side of twelve) is a time of tremendous transition and change, hopes and prayers, insecurity and decision. The details change a little generation to generation, but the important stuff — the stuff of creating and discovering yourself, of growing up — stays remarkably the same.
I’m so grateful to Judy Blume and grateful for the work she still does — the writing and speaking and the stand she has taken on censorship. Her newest book (for adults), In the Unlikely Event, is terrific. I can hear her voice as I read it, which is a tremendous treat as both a reader and a writer. Huzzah to Judy! I say. Huzzah!