Judged JudyJudy Blume’s 40 Years Old Fight to Tell the Truth about Sex, Religion, and Turtles

American author Judy Blume poses on her apartment terrace overlooking the Hudson River, New York, New York, in April 1986. (Photo credit: Oliver Morris/Getty Images)

This article was published in Old Issue #46 | Spring 2010

“She’s the mother I’ve always wanted,” announced comedian Judy Gold, emcee of The National Coalition Against Censorship’s 35th anniversary fundraiser dinner in New York last October, “A Night of Comedy with Judy Blume and Friends.” Gold was, of course, introducing the event’s guest of honor, gushing that Blume “wrote the Jewish equivalent of those goyishe Little House on the Prairie books that everyone else read—which were so goddamned annoying and full of shit.” The night’s tributes to Blume included dramatic reinterpretations of scenes from Forever and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by fans as wide-ranging as comedian Rachel Dratch, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz, actor Martha Plimpton, and First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus. Other guests, including veteran comedian Paul Mooney, actor Richard Belzer, and Daily Show cocreator Lizz Winstead, paid homage to Blume’s commitment to the protection of free speech and intellectual freedom. And Dan Glickman, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, who chaired the event, led the audience in a rousing chant (with accompanying arm pumping) of “we must, we must, we must increase our busts.”

From Blume, Gold explained, she “learned about everything my mother decided we were never going to talk about. My mother actually created the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy before Bill Clinton. Judy Blume was a hero to all girls who were not able to discuss divorce, menstruation, masturbation, and religion with their parents. Thank God for Judy!” Gold’s experience with Blume’s oeuvre is likely similar to that of many women who grew up in a time before blogs and YouTube. But it often comes as a surprise to these same women that her books have been the source of controversy, and in several cases, the target of censorship. “What?! Judy Blume?” a typical reaction, is often followed by something like “Forever, okay, I can see how that one might be a little racy for the younger kids. But seriously…her other books? Which ones? Blubber? Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?” Well, yes. And yes. And, by the way, Deenie, Tiger Eyes, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, all of them penned between 1970 and 1981, reside on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.

Why? Well, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) featured a ton of talk about menstruation and breast development, to say nothing of Margaret questioning the existence of God. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971) grappled with erections and wet dreams, and also explained how to drink a variety of hard liquors. Deenie (1973) contained references to masturbation. (“Usually I take a shower and get out as fast as I can, but I liked the feeling of relaxation and I rubbed my special spot with my wash cloth until I got that special feeling.”) And of course Forever (1975) portrayed teenagers having sex and enjoying it without suffering negative repercussions like STIs, pregnancy, or death. (Blume knew to expect the worst when 1981’s Tiger Eyes was released, and removed a passage in which main character Davey masturbates; it was the only book that Blume voluntarily self-censored before publication.)

When Margaret was published in 1970, Blume was, as far as she was concerned, doing nothing more than simply telling the truth about her own experiences as a sixth-grader. “I never wrote with the intention of getting information about puberty to my readers,” she reflects. “I just found if I was writing about a 12- or 13-year-old, sexuality was on their minds—maybe because it was on my mind at that age.” But the cultural context in which her stories were set has changed, and teenage sexuality is now so wildly overrepresented in pop culture that Blume’s books can today seem almost quaint in their earnestness. With Gossip Girl offering up college-dorm threesomes to a tween audience, are books dealing with masturbation and the getting of breasts and periods now unnecessary? And is Blume as pertinent and important to young girls now as she was to Gold, Plimpton, and scores of others?

When I interviewed her after the NCAC event, Blume reasoned that the medium of YA lit is still as crucial as ever: “It’s different [to read] about kids in a novel than it is to get information from a magazine article, or online, or even from a book like [Ruth Bell’s] Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, all of which are important. As long as there are books, there will always be a need for honest, believable storytelling. There will always be kids who look for themselves in fiction, who gain an insight into the world by reading about other lives.” Unlike today, when books and movies are threatened with boycott and censorship well before the public has a chance to see them, negative reactions to Margaret, Forever, and Blume’s other 1970s titles didn’t surface in any significant way until several years after their publication. According to Mark West, in his book Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature, “It wasn’t until 1980. The big surge in censorship came right after Reagan was elected. The reported cases quadrupled overnight.”

In her introduction to the 1999 collection Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers, Blume remembers a phone call that she received around this time, an unidentified voice asking if she was the person who wrote Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. When she replied that she was, the caller declared her a communist and hung up. (“I never did figure out if [the caller] equated communism with menstruation or religion, the two major concerns in 12-year-old Margaret’s life.”) Becoming a lifelong defender of freedom of expression was never in Blume’s career plans. But would-be censors’ repeated attempts to have her books removed from libraries and schools ultimately propelled her into activism. In 1983, she became active with the NCAC, which formed in 1974 as a response to the Supreme Court’s 1973 obscenity ruling giving power to individual communities to decide what could be defined as pornography or otherwise “indecent” material. (Since then, more than 250 bills have attempted to censor or ban works of literature and art with “objectionable” content.)

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The focus of the NCAC has been not only to defend the works targeted as a result of the ruling’s sanctions—guarding free speech merely for the sake of free speech—but also to emphasize the profound violation of freedom that results when a select “moral” few claim the power to determine which books are appropriate for (and by extension, available to) the rest of us. When Blume was the guest on Gail King’s satellite radio talk show a few days before the NCAC event in October, a 40-year-old caller named Kim shared that when, at age 14, she had still not gotten her period, it was Blume’s books that reassured her. “I felt okay. I mean, even though my sisters got theirs at ages 10 and 12, [Margaret] made me feel okay about it—like I would just get it whenever I got it. And because I was overweight as a kid, reading Blubber made me feel much less alone.” When King asked Blume the question: “What were they censoring you for?” Blume offered the succinct answer: “Reality.”

Indeed, the majority of challenges to Blume’s books have come from what she dubbed the “Moral Tone Brigade,” whose main objection to her work is the characters’ use of “obscene language, their sexual curiosity, and the fact that they have the temerity to question the existence of God”—in other words, things that teenagers everywhere have always done, and will continue to do, no matter how many books get banned. But Blume cautions that the targets of the censors are difficult to predict. “I always tell people, ‘You think you’re safe? Think again, because when you’re writing, anything can be seen as dangerous.’” And it’s not just right-wing conservative Christians, either: In a February 2009 School Library Journal article, Blume remembered one lefty, progressive mother who asked that Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing be removed from her daughter’s classroom because it included a scene with a dead turtle. “She said, ‘Don’t you know that reptiles have feelings, and reptiles feel fear?’”

In a preemptive attempt to avoid controversy and loss of sales, an editor once asked that Blume reconsider her use of the word “fuck” in her 1993 book Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, in the scene where pissed-off 15-year-old Charles toasts his sister with a sarcastic, “Here’s to you, Rachel Robinson. Here’s to my whole fucking family.” “I was told we’d lose [Scholastic] book-club sales unless I used another word—“fuggin’,” “freakin’,” and “friggin’” were all suggested,” recalls Blume. “But I knew deep inside that Charles would never have said those substitute words. I discussed this with my grown son Larry one day and he said, ‘You’re Judy Blume. You’ve always been honest in your books. You can’t give in to this craziness.’ I was touched by Larry’s belief in me. So of course I didn’t make that change, and we lost the book-club sales. And you wouldn’t believe the number of letters I got accusing me of being the worst person in the world over using that one word, one time. But I’m proud I did the right thing for my character. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

As long as there are books, there will always be a need for honest, believable storytelling. There will always be kids who look for themselves in fiction, who gain an insight into the world by reading about other lives.

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And Blume’s defense of free speech has gone well beyond standing up for her own characters. In Places I Never Meant to Be, she features and champions fellow banned writers of children’s and YA literature, including Katherine Patterson, Norma Fox Mazer, Norma Klein, and Paul Zindel, to name only a few. More recently, through her involvement with the NCAC, Blume has come to the defense of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (whose wizard heroes, detractors claim, encourage an interest in the occult and a valuing of witchcraft) and Carolyn Mackler (whose charmingly frank novel The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things was removed from school libraries in Colorado Springs and Carroll County, Maryland, in 2008). Blume’s website offers a wealth of advice and tools for kids, teachers, librarians, parents, and writers for defending the books that have been challenged and banned in classrooms and libraries.

The continued outpouring of affection and sharing of poignant Blume memories from women and men now in their 30s and 40s is a testament to the enduring value of her work. Jennifer O’Connell’s 2007 anthology, Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, features essays by a range of YA and so-called chick lit authors including Meg Cabot, Beth Kendrick, and Cara Lockwood, detailing highly personal Blume “moments” and recollections. An event known as Blumesday, in which writers and comedians like United States of Tara executive producer Jill Soloway and former Saturday Night Live player Melanie Hutsell performed Blume-inspired readings and confessionals—and which, full disclosure, I cocreated—publicly acknowledges the author, and hopefully introduces new readers to her essential work. It was never totally clear what exactly censors feared would happen to the kids who read Blume’s tales of menstrual anxiety, teenage voyeurism, premarital sex, and doomed reptiles.

But it seems safe to conclude that the millions of children and adolescents who enjoyed her books aren’t all social deviants, and may in fact be happy, well-adjusted, ethical adults. Is the loyalty to Blume, as documented in O’Connell’s anthology or the Blumesday events, a defensive reaction in light of her history with unenlightened haters? This might be true to an extent, but the fact remains that many who express reverence for Blume are, until it is brought to their attention, unaware of the controversy surrounding her work. It seems more likely that the reason her stories have resonated is that Blume validated adolescent thought. For refusing to condescend to her readers in the face of physical harassment and threats of nonpublication, Blume has been, regardless of whether it was her intention, a protector of intellectual freedom and the First Amendment. By letting kids know that they are not alone in the world, she helped them begin to protect—and value, and accept—themselves.

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by Joanna Miller
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Joanna Miller is a freelance producer/production coordinator in Portland, Oregon, who also writes about desserts and assorted confections. Presently plotting an online forum dedicated to tracking the best—and worst—cookies across the globe, she’s a contributor to Willamette Week, Best Places Northwest, sugarsavvy.net, PortlandFoodAndDrink.com, and Editorial Emergency.