27 September 2010

Banned Books Week: The Judy Blume Edition

If there ever was, or will be, a writer forever beloved by tweens and teens everywhere...it will be Judy Blume.

Just look at her books!  Who else writes about how to be loved for yourself, not just your looks?  Or how to stand up for yourself, even if that means going against the crowdFrecklesDealing with pesky - and I mean pesky - little brothers (I have two)?  Finding someone as goofily creative as myself?  Trying to grow into your own body then learning how to be a grown up in that body?  The books are funny, and Judy tells great stories, but there's always a little bit of a lesson in there (even if the lesson is that your kid brother will always be a pest so you'd better love him for it because you can't get rid of him).

I read the Fudge books in grade school (the first three - the last two came after I was in middle school) and had graduated to Blubber by around age nine.  I read that book a lot.  I had a secret wish to be one of the "cool kids" - even in fourth grade there are "cool kids", then everyone else, then the losers - and Jill Brenner was friends with the Queen Bee, Wendy, the one who decided that Linda, the overweight girl, looked like the whale she was presenting about.  The whole class gots in on it and bullied Linda in increasingly terrifying ways.  I got teased a lot in grade school and middle school and I would have given almost anything to be cool.  My copy of Blubber had a frumpy-looking girl on the cover who resembled me in a scary way; I was growing my hair out and I looked super-frumpy and old-fashioned in my barrettes while everyone else looked like permed Madonnas and Cyndi Laupers.  However, everytime I read the book, I always cheered when Jill stands up to Wendy and protects Linda at the cost of her own "coolness" - I understood what Linda went through and always wished someone would stand up for me (I solved it by standing up for myself).  I hoped that if I were in the same situation as Jill, I would stand up sooner rather than later.

Shortly after Blubber I received a copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret as a gift from my parents.  That's right - my parents.  It was a lovely edition, a blue hardcover with a yellow dust-jacket, and I read it and read it and read it.  The "this is your body on hormones" talk all the girls got in fourth grade only covered anatomical changes and never prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that comes when your pituitary gland flips all the switches.  My copy of Margaret served as my touchbase whenever I started to doubt whether all this crazy stuff (odor, mean girls, rumors about slutty girls, having breasts/your period vs. not having breasts/your period, shopping for a bra with your mom, deciding what you think about God, etc) happened to other people and not just me.  I was lucky in that I didn't grow breasts until almost junior high, unlucky in that, when I did, they went from flat to eye-catching in a blink.  I also talked to God in my head, which I never mentioned to anyone in case they thought I was nuts; people prayed in church but never mentioned having a one-on-one relationship with Him.  The keel evened out after a few years but I always looked to Margaret when I needed a boost and wasn't at the level of sobbing to my mom about the unfairness that is teenagehood.

Meanwhile, I had read a book, kind of a naughty book for a ten-year-old at least - Forever....  My parents didn't buy this one for me; I borrowed it off a friend who "borrowed" it from an older sister.  I think my eyes were as big as saucers when I read about Katherine and Michael and....what the heck are they doing together?  I was pretty up on the anatomy of the human body but I wasn't quite sure what all you did with it.  With a boy...oh my.  I think if my mother had caught me with it I would have probably gotten an "is-there-anything-we-need-to-discuss" and an "I-think-you-need-to-wait-to-read-this" set of lectures but that would have been it.  As it was, a book that talked about blow-jobs and first-time sex, while fascinating, was actually kind of icky because boys my age were smelly, knuckle-dragging apes...no way did I want to be around any of them.  For any length of time.  With no clothes on...yuck.  When I did come back to Forever..., this time a copy legitimately borrowed from the library, I had graduated from "boys are icky" to "boys are OK but they have commitment issues".  My reaction to Katherine and Michael this time around was one of "oh no, they're not going to stay together??????" - because your first real boyfriend is the one that will last "forever"...and then it doesn't.  I thought my first boyfriend was "the one" and then he turned out to be a cheating turd (I didn't date again until college); Forever... helped me finally understand why there is an ellipsis in the title.

I've read almost everything written by Judy Blume and owe her a great debt of gratitude for writing about tweens and teens and reality in a way that is truthful and accessible.

Unfortunately, there are many people who just don't agree with me.  They want to censor Judy's books.  They don't think that middle school girls should understand what is happening to their bodies or that high school students will do silly things like have oral sex because they think they love their boyfriend (or, these days, have oral sex "just for fun").  Tweens and teens are far ahead of the curve anymore and a parent or educator who just sticks their head in the sand and worries more about what kids are reading than actual reality needs a wake-up call.  Judy writes eloquently about her experiences with censorship and book-banning, as well as cases of educators and writers caught in similar situations, in the introduction to Places I Never Meant to Be

Instead of banning and challenging Judy's books - because they talk about God, or sex, or masturbation, or divorce - use those books to open up communication.  READ THE BOOKS, don't make a snap judgement.  Kids need access to Judy's books; keep them accessible.

I should have titled this post "A Love Letter to Judy Blume" - but the post really isn't addressed to Judy (although, I hope she reads it because I love her books).  It's addressed to all those people who want to keep other children and teens from reading her books because those parents/educators/whoever object to their own child reading Judy Blume.  You parent your own children, I'll parent mine (whenever I acquire some, I'll settle for my nieces for now).


  1. Melissa, what you say your parents would have said (if that makes sense) sems exactly the right way to approach things... Talk about it don't ban it! I too love judy - the book 'letters to judy' shows just what an impact she had on so many kids lives. My favourites were 'starring Sally j freedman...' and 'just as long as we're together'. Just thinking about them makes me want to read them again!

  2. I never read "Just as long as we're together" - I was never interested in that one for some reason.

    I got lucky in that my parents very rarely said "That book is not for you to read" - they banked on the fact that I would just get beyond grossed out or bored and then go find a different book to read.

  3. I really need to read something by Judy Bloom sometime soon! I have "Are you there God" lined up, I hope I will love it!

  4. @iris - Margaret is truly one of my favorite books, a little outdated now as far as cultural references go, but a great message for young teens