Are You There Judy?


Reprinted by permission from Moment Magazine.

Judy Blume, one of our most beloved English language children’s authors, is now an icon: the sage whose novels answered everything you wanted to know when you were growing up but were too afraid to ask. At 70, with 26 titles to her name and over 50 million copies in print, she remains one of the best-selling children’s and young adult authors in history.

After the 1969 publication of her first novel, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, Blume took on controversial subjects like religion, interfaith families, menstruation, masturbation, premarital sex and social class when no other author of young adult books did. She never set out to traverse forbidden territory. Instead, she only hoped to be honest, and America’s young readers were grateful. Often, however, the parental powers felt different. What Salman Rushdie and Henry Miller are to adult fiction, Judy Blume is to children’s books, having penned some of the most frequently challenged or banned titles–Deenie, Forever, Blubber, Tiger Eyes and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. She holds the dubious honor of being the second-most-censored author of the past 15 years, according to the American Library Association.

cover art While the pajama party set has always adored her, the rest of America is catching up. The Library of Congress awarded Blume its Living Legend Award in 2000. In 2004, she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, joining the company of previous recipients like John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Eudora Welty.

Born Judy Sussman in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Blume and husband George Cooper have three grown children between them, as well as one grandson. The woman who never spoke down to children is still giving it to them straight, even if her original 1970s and ’80s audience (and her own children) now meet her at eye level: The second book in her new series illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist James Stevenson, Cool Zone with the Pain & the Great One, will be out in May, and more are on the way.

From her home in Key West, Blume talked with Karin Tenabe of Moment Magazine about growing up Jewish, why parents should talk openly to their kids and how she holds onto her inner child.

Were you raised in a Jewish home?

I grew up Jewish in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s. Both my father and mother were born in Elizabeth and attended the same high school. My father, the youngest of seven, was raised in an Orthodox family.

We all went to temple together on the High Holy Days. When I was little my father would take me down to the Orthodox synagogue so I could see it, but I was very small and didn’t like sitting upstairs alone. My father’s mother went to another Orthodox synagogue and we would always stop in there. It was kind of like a round robin when I was very young. It was something I saw as rather fun, checking out all these different rabbis.

I named my first doll Hadassah. My father was always going on about the rabbi’s beautiful daughter named Hadassah. I was probably the only child in Elizabeth with a baby doll named Hadassah.

Did Jews and Christians socialize?

In our community, social life was dependent on religion. Were you a member of the YMCA or the YMHA? Did you go to church or synagogue? We dated and went to parties with those of the same religion. Yet at school our friendships had nothing to do with religion. When I was in ninth grade I fell for a non-Jewish boy. My parents weren’t thrilled but our understanding was: This is okay for now so long as when it comes to marriage you choose a Jewish boy. Fred took me to a dance at his Y. I was ashamed to tell my grandmother, who was ill and living with us, that I was going out with a Christian boy. And as much as I liked Fred, I was apprehensive. I wasn’t sure what I would find at the YMCA. To my surprise I found it was very much like my Y. No one talked about Jesus, which, I think, was what I feared. They were too busy dancing. And later, when Fred and I kissed, religion had nothing to do with it.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is the story of a sixth grader who grew up with no religion. Her father is Jewish, her mother Christian, and the novel explores her quest to define her religious identity through daily talks with God. Did you have a strong religious identity as a child?

Though my Judaism was part of me, like having brown eyes, my relationship with God had almost nothing to do with organized religion. My relationship with God was very much like Margaret’s. It had nothing to do with going to synagogue or hearing rabbis talk, it had everything to do with my imagination as a child. It was a very personal relationship.

What inspired you to write about a half-Jewish girl named Margaret? I think the decision to make Margaret half-Jewish grew out of my own early experiences and my curiosity about my brother’s life–he had married a Gentile. He had 2 young sons by then, who, as far as I knew, didn’t even think about religion.

You’ve said that when you looked up “sex” in the encyclopedia as a child you found only information on how plants reproduce. How did you first learn about the birds and the bees?

Poor little me! I did look up “sex” in the encyclopedia. I didn’t know anything–just a lot of rumors–and I wanted information. My father told me about menstruation when I was nine but I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He was trying to explain a lunar cycle to me, but it came out that every time the moon was full, this [experience] was happening to women all over the world. I would look at the full moon and think, “Oh, boy, this is exciting!”

My mother was so shy, she never told me anything. She figured, “Your daddy went to dental school. He can tell you.” He was outgoing and lively, really the nurturing parent in my household. My father took our temperatures, clipped my toenails, washed my hair when I had impetigo. When I had to tell the doctor it was “down there,” my father told me to tell him “pubic hair.” He was a very important person in my life. Sadly, he died when I was 21 and we never got to know each other as adults.

Today if you Google “sex,” there are over a billion hits, including some images that surely aren’t child friendly. How has your writing changed for a generation of children who have grown up in the “over-information” age?

There is universality about being a child. No matter what you know or think you know, you haven’t experienced it yet. And reading it in a book can be a way to satisfy your curiosity and experience it. I don’t think that will ever change. Otherwise, why are all these kids still reading my books and why am I still getting all these letters and e-mails?

Your 1975 book Forever was about a high school senior named Katherine who had premarital sex, enjoyed the experience and was never punished in any way. Did you come under fire for advocating premarital sex?

It wasn’t that people thought I was advocating premarital sex. They got upset because I allowed Katherine to take pleasure in her sexuality. Adult librarians said: “What right does she have to let that girl have an orgasm right away? It took me 15 years to have an orgasm!” I thought that was really funny. I knew how to have one by myself by the time I was 12. It was no big deal.

Why did you write Forever?

My daughter was reading books where if a girl actually “did it,” she had to be punished. And Forever was my answer to them–never the best reason to write a book I must say.

Five of your books are listed by the American Library Association as among the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: Forever (#8), Blubber (#32), Deenie (#46), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (#62) and Tiger Eyes (#78). Are books censored for the same reasons today as when you were getting banned?

It’s the same old thing: sexuality, language. Wanting to ban books is contagious. While it may have started with the extreme right, it went over to the left, too, to the Politically Correct. All the PCs said, “Oh no, you can’t teach Huckleberry Finn in schools any more because it uses the N-word.” People get themselves so worked up and fearful over nothing. Best to bring it up out in the open, to have a teacher who can bring it out and talk to the kids about anything. Then you can put away your fears.

Do you have any favorite characters from your books?

Do I have favorites? Of course, the most autobiographical ones. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is my most autobiographical book. It’s about growing up Jewish in 1947. I love Sally because she is the kind of weird kid I was, though I was very good at hiding it. I never told anybody about my stories, my imagination. It’s when I was Sally Freedman that I started making all these bargains with God that wound up in Margaret.

I was separated from my father for a year–when my mother, brother and I moved to Florida due to my brother’s health–and I felt it was my job to protect my father. What a burden for a nine-year-old child! I had all these bargains saying, “I will do this 20 times a day as long as you make sure my daddy is okay.” I became ritualistic. Fortunately it went away after that year.

What quality gives a book staying power?

I never dreamed my books would last this long. I have a feeling that children’s books have a longer life than a lot of young adult books. A book about the newest and latest is not going to have as long a shelf life as a story that comes from deep inside the characters. A lasting book is not about fads.

How do you keep in touch with your inner child?

Can I even tell you that? Do I even know? Some people just do and some people don’t. I still identify with kids. Part of it is memory, part of it is just hanging on to the kid you know–being able to put yourself right back there even if you’re approaching your 70th birthday. I can meet a five-year-old and we look at each other and there is just something there. We connect.

Read more: Judy Blume has posted her essay from Half-Jewish on her website.