As Judy Blume’s new book (for adults) hits the shelves, Dotty Winters explains her devotion to the woman who has taught generations of teenagers about first love, first periods and sex.
Long before Wikipedia, More magazine or even Ask Jeeves a curious tweenager could learn everything they needed to know about the world by reading Judy Blume. Blume books were passed among friends, endlessly borrowed from the library and discussed in hushed tones at sleepovers.
I’m sure the secret of her success was her in-depth understanding of her audience. She did not write books for the parents of children and young people; she wrote for them directly. Her books filled our desperate need for people to understand us and to talk to us as equals.
They also tackled an impressive range of issues: first love, sibling hatred, masturbation, contraception, body image, friendship, periods and sex. Crucially none of her books were moral tales; all of them had fully relatable, complex characters and real plot. Where issues were tackled they were part of the narrative, never simply teachable moments. Her books have a rare quality of making each new reader who discovers them feel as though only they know about her, and they have uncovered their own secret world where they are completely understood and accepted.
Blume does not write ‘nice’ characters. As a young person, I didn’t find it easy to relate to the unattainable standards of nice characters; I was frequently disappointed, disgusted or just plain confused by my own thoughts, feelings or behaviour, and the characters in these books reflected that back at me. I could see their humanity beyond their flaws and it gave me hope that I might turn out to be an OK person.
She is a formidable, undeniable and self-confessed feminist but, like all the very best of authors, Blume prefers to show her readers than tell them. She wrote books that kicked the Bechdel test in the balls (long before it was invented); she showed women enjoying sex without shame; her characters (male and female) are powerful, flawed and have real agency.
If you haven’t read her work, where have you been? It’s never too late, so here are my personal picks:
Forever remains one of the most erotic and affecting books available. It’s what 50 Shades of Grey could have been if it had romance, respect, personality, feminism and plot. It’s one of Blume’s more controversial books because of its focus on teenage sexuality, but the issue is sensitively handled, exploring health, relationships and self-esteem issues without beating any moral drum.
True to her pragmatism, despite the naively teenage assumption that sex would lead to everlasting love, Blume floods her novel with real life and the lead characters grow, develop and crack apart. It is perhaps a sign of the times, that the focus on sex in a teen novel is no big deal, but tackling menstruation and hormones (as she did in Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret) remains unusual.
A compelling and traumatic read, offering a teenage-eyed view of anxiety, depression and bereavement. I remember reading it without knowing why it was important, but understanding that it definitely was.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
This, and the rest of the Fudge series, remain some of the funniest, laugh-out-loud books I have ever read, and have probably been a larger influence on my own parenting that I’d care to admit. Part of her genius is her refusal to sanitise her books for younger readers: not only does lead character Peter suffer the loss of a much-loved pet, but that pet meets its tragic end at the hands (and teeth) of his hilariously tricksy younger brother Fudge, who eats it.
Judy Blume is one of the most banned authors in the US, a title which can only have added to her appeal among her target audience (the literary equivalent of those ‘explicit lyrics’ stickers in HMV). Undeterred by her rising notoriety among conservative parents she has continued to produce brave, unflinching books, adored by the young people who read them. She also turned her attention to supporting the anti-censorship movement and other authors similarly affected. Hero.
If you are a parent, godparent, auntie or friend of a young person, be the person who introduces them to Judy Blume. You won’t regret it, they’ll never forget it and it may save you the trouble of some cringeworthy conversations.
Judy Blume’s latest novel for adults, In The Unlikely Event, published by Picador is now available in hardback.5707 Views
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.