The woman who taught a whole generation about sex
As iconic teen writer Judy Blume publishes a new novel, we reflect on her legacy
Mention the name Judy Blume to a woman of a certain age, and she's likely to melt into a puddle of glassy-eyed nostalgia. Not me, though. After all, it's hard to be nostalgic about something that never really leaves you.
The time: suburban Dublin. The year: 1985. I'm in a small national school in Mulhuddart, but even in the middle of Nowhereseville, someone has sought fit to add Blume's Superfudge to our small, 15-book library. Reader, I was hooked. As the oldest child in the family, I bought wholesale into Peter's woes with his younger, ebullient sibling.
Little did I know when I first opened those pages that I was standing right next to Aladdin's cave. At 8 years old, and before the Young Adult explosion, it was hard to come by books that didn't speak down to a young reader. With protagonists ranging from 8 all the way up to 18, Blume's characters were set to seep into my consciousness for better or worse; Deenie, Margaret, Sally J. Freedman and (eek) Ralph. More about him later.
My parents raised me, of course, but Blume's books made me. It being 1980s Ireland, the country was mired in a sort of recession-era unease, and there was always a hum of low-level anxiety in our house.
I was loved by my parents, of course, but they were too busy on the hamster wheel of life, with their jobs and bills, to really coddle or indulge us. This was the 'children should be seen and not heard' era, where we were unceremoniously thrown out into the back garden when visitors arrived.
Predictably, the facts of life were delivered in 1980s Ireland in a rather perfunctory manner. I gleaned a little about sex from babysitters, or in the 10 seconds it would take my dad to huffily get up from his chair and switch the channel when things got a little salty on Dallas.
One morning, I was dismayed to see my mother bleeding in the bathroom. "It's fine," she assured me, rummaging for a tampon. "This happens to everyone, even Madonna." She got on with the rest of her day, but I was hungry for answers and information.
There's a very good reason that Judy Blume became the original 'queen of teen'; a prong on the holy trifecta that also included Sweet Valley High and Just Seventeen. Kissing, menstruation, masturbation, friends, popularity, sex, parental bereavement, body image - all of young life in its messiest iterations was right there in Blume's pages. We all did exercises to increase our bra size (Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret), and dreaded the possibility of a back brace for scoliosis (Deenie).
Confusing stuff, certainly, but we were in safe hands. Blume's message, shot through with warmth and humanity, rang time and time again: "You will be okay. That weird thing you are going through is completely normal. I know exactly how you feel. You are fine and lovely and brilliant just as you are".
I had read Blume's definitive novel, Forever, when I was about 10 or 11. The story focuses on 18-year-old Katharine as she loses her virginity - very responsibly, too - to a boy who names his penis Ralph (no one ever remembers the boy's name, funnily enough). By the time I reached secondary school, a dog-eared copy - almost worn to the nub at the two 'sexy page' bits - was feverishly doing the rounds.
Blume's reassuring prose was manna from heaven for us kids, although adults appeared to have different ideas. She has received hate mail for speaking out on behalf of pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood, and travelled with a bodyguard to book readings for a while. During Reagan's era, when censorship really notched up a gear, schools and libraries stirred up much controversy when they deemed her hugely frank books as age-inappropriate for young readers. Blubber, about a character dealing with body issues, was banned for a "lack of moral tone". In the end though, Blume had the last laugh; the American Library Association later awarded her a lifetime achievement award.
In those days, it was hard to come by information not just on sex, but on anything. There was no Google with which to search authors. In my mind, Blume was a benevolent, plump and warm presence, like a very cool aunt. It was only later that I saw that she was a spry, pixie-like woman, and still is.
The punchline, though we weren't aware of it at the time, was that Blume only started writing out of sheer boredom. Having trained as a teacher, she married early and had two children by the time she was 25. Stifled by domesticity, she made up stories in her head while washing the dishes. Some 83 million book sales later, she is still writing.
Now 77, Blume has re-emerged into public view thanks to her fourth adult title, In The Unlikely Event. Grown women I know are coming over all One Directioner at the thought of a new title (a friend is interviewing her, and I've reacted with what can only be described as weapons-grade envy). I know why we're all chomping at the bit. Blume's writing, even after all these years, is like meeting an old friend.
But what of today's young readers? When Blume was writing in the 1980s, there was a lot of virgin snow in the children's fiction field. Nowadays, one can't move for Young Adult literary rockstars: David Levithan, Stephanie Meyer, JK Rowling, John Green, Rainbow Rowell. So has Blume managed to hold her ground and save herself some elbowroom in this new world order?
Well, not quite. According to sales figures, Are You There, God, It's Me, Margaret? has sold a mere 1,938 copies in Ireland since March 2001, while Forever has sold 1,397 copies. By contrast, John Green's lowest-selling book here, Papertowns (released May 2010), has sold more than 4,500 copies.
"Judy is a staple of American teen reading," says an Irish publishing source.
"There are die-hard Blume advocates everywhere but that hasn't translated to Ireland's teenagers. These are new readers, looking for something immediate and familiar, they don't have the nostalgic drive that makes shows like Mad Men such a success to an adult audience."
The good news is that, for my generation, Blume's adult writing is every bit as humane and filled with wonderment. Her skill of mainlining right into teenage angst is still present and correct.
In her latest heroine, 15-year-old Miri Ammerman, we run the gamut from first love to flaky friends. In the end, and after her protracted quest for answers, she - spoiler alert - works out just fine.
Just like we all did, really.
In The Unlikely Event is out Thursday
The best of Blume
Published in 1975, Blume's novel that deals with teenage sexuality, was the seventh-most challenged books of 1990-2000, according to the American Library Association. In it, Katharine meets her first boyfriend, Michael, and his…um, sidekick, Ralph.
Are You There, God? It's, Me Margaret
Even though it was published in 1970, the pre-teen's struggles are universal. From dealing with periods and bra buying to liking boys, Margaret tackles every 13-year-old's worst nightmares, and lives to tell the tale.
15-year-old Davey Wexler has to come to terms with the sudden death of her father. In 2012, the novel was made into a film by Judy's son, Lawrence.
Wilmadeene's pushy mum wants her pretty 13-year-old to be a model. Unfortunately, the teen is diagnosed with curvature of the spine, and forced to wear a back brace. A brilliant tale about trying to fit in, even if you are the prettiest girl in the school.
It's Not The End Of The World
Blume's 1972 work about a 12-year-old dealing with her parents' divorce and a wayward brother, neatly encapsulates Blume's ability to get right inside the mindset of a teen, depicting a very adult situation from a child's viewpoint.