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Perhaps the most popular contemporary author of works for upper elementary to junior high school readers, Judy Blume is the creator of frank, often humorous stories that focus on the emotional and social concerns of suburban adolescents. She has also enjoyed success as a novelist for adults with her best-selling works Wifey (1978) and Summer Sisters (1998).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Family Divided by Geography
Blume was born on February 12, 1938, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Rudolph and Esther Sussman. Her father, a dentist, shared with her a penchant for fantasy and game-playing and provided emotional support when she was ill, unhappy, or fearful. Blume describes her mother as a traditional homemaker and a reader who spent every afternoon with books. When Blume was in the third grade, she moved with her mother and her older brother, David, to Miami Beach, where the climate would help David recuperate from an illness. Many of the incidents in her books are based on her experiences during the two years she lived in Florida during the school months while her father worked in New Jersey and saw the rest of the family only occasionally.
An Opportunity to Write
Blume graduated from New York University in 1961 with a degree in early child hood education. While still a student, she married John Blume, a lawyer. Blume began writing after her children entered nursery school in the mid-1960s. Though she had two short stories published in Westminster Press periodicals, she received as many as six rejection slips a week for two and a half years before Reilly and Lee accepted her first novel, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo (1969). The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo established the pattern and style of other Blume books, which followed in rapid succession throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.
On the crest of the civil rights movement, Blume enrolled in a class called ”Writing for Children and Teen agers.” For each session, she completed a chapter of Iggie’s House, which was published by Bradbury in 1970 after having been serialized in Trailblazer for Juniors in 1969. In the book, eleven-year-old Winnie spends every Saturday night with Iggie’s family, from whom she absorbs an attitude of interest in and tolerance for people who are ”different.”
Influences and Development
Blume’s ideas for her novels have often come from her own children’s concerns. After a rash of divorces in the neighborhood, the Blume children asked whether divorce could ever happen in their family. Blume told them no, unaware that she would be married a total of three times in her life. It’s Not the End of the World (1972) expresses the feelings of three children faced with their parents’ divorce.
After Blume’s first marriage ended in 1975, she explored in Wifey (1978), her first adult book, the paralysis of a wife in a traditional marriage. This book came on the heels of the women’s liberation movement, which aimed to expand women’s roles beyond the household and encouraged women to question traditional ideas about marriage and family. ”Wifey was always in my head,” Blume told People magazine. ”I write out of my real life experiences, but they become fiction.” Immediately following her divorce from John Blume, she married Tom Kitchens. Blume and her family lived with Kitchens in England for a period and then moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico. She divorced Kitchens in 1978 and married a third time, to George Cooper, in 1987.
During her career, Blume’s writing has matured and her audience has expanded from younger children to adolescents to adults. Although she is no longer as prolific as she was during the 1970s and early 1980s, she continues to write for a dedicated audience.
Works in Literary Context
A Young Person’s Perspective
In less than two decades, Blume’s books have sold more than thirty million copies. She deals with a wide variety of issues that are significant to adolescents. Combining intimate first-person narratives with amusing dialogue supplemented by familiar everyday details, her books reveal her East Coast upper-middle-class Jewish background while describing the anxi eties of her protagonists: characteristically female preteens and teenagers who encounter problematic situations and survive them. Despite the fact that she often ends her works on a note of uncertainty, Blume consistently underscores her books with optimism about the successful adaptability of her characters.
Controversial Subject Matter
At the same time her books enjoy enormous popularity, they are also highly subject to censorship attempts because of their frankness in sexual content, language, and the lack of traditional moralizing and authoritarian pronouncements. Blume’s books reflect a general cultural concern with feelings about self and body, interpersonal relationships, and family problems. It is her portrayal of feelings of sexuality as normal, and not rightfully subject to punishment, that revolutionized realistic fiction for children. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) depicts eleven-year-old Margaret’s apprehensions about starting her period and choosing her own religion. At the time of the book’s publication, Blume was praised for her warm and funny re-creation of childhood feelings and conversation but was criticized for her forthright references to the human body and its processes. The book is now considered a groundbreaking work due to the candor with which Blume presents previously taboo subjects.
Blume’s refusal to prescribe solutions or advocate punishment may disturb would-be censors as much as her treatment of sexuality. Her books seldom draw distinct lines between right and wrong ways to handle a problem. Though her stories often deal with such subjects as sibling rivalry, divorce, and death, Blume resists the idea that her books are ”problem books.” ”Life is full of problems,” she responds, ”Some big and some small.”
Works in Critical Context
Blume is recognized as a pioneer for her candid treatment of such topics as menstruation, masturbation, and pre marital sex. She is also considered a controversial and provocative figure by those critics and librarians who object to the explicit nature of her works. However, Blume has won the devotion of an extensive and loyal youthful following; as critic Naomi Decter observes, ”there is, indeed, scarcely a literate girl of novel-reading age who has not read one or more Blume books.”
Blume has won over fifty national and international child-selected awards for her various works. Critics are strongly divided as to the success of Blume’s plots, characterization, writing style, and nonjudgmental approach; some object to her uninhibited language and permissive attitude toward sexuality, and complain that her cavalier treatment of love, death, pain, and religion trivializes young people and the literature written for them. However, most commentators agree that Blume accurately captures the speech, emotions, and private thoughts of children, for whom she has made reading both easy and enjoyable.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Several of Blume’s books have been the target of attempted censor ship, including Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Although the New York Times named it one of the outstanding children’s books of 1970, its reception by reviewers was mixed. Education Digest praised its ”exploration of previously untouched aspects of childhood and adolescent experience.” A New Statesman reviewer described it as ”admittedly gripping stuff no doubt for those wrestling with—or curious about future—bodily changes.” A critic for Book Window felt that ”when the author rhapsodises about the wearing of a sanitary napkin. . . . Suddenly a sensitive, amusing novel has been reduced to the level of some of the advertising blurbs.” The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement concluded, ”Margaret’s private talks with God are insufferably self-conscious and arch.”
Attempts at censoring the book have continued throughout its lifetime; the Newsletter on Intellectual Ereedom reports that it has been charged with ”denigrating religion and parental authority” and being ”sexually offensive and amoral.” Nonetheless, the book has sold more than a million copies in paperback.
The censorship attempts of Forever … (1975) surpassed those of all of Blume’s other books, with objectors quoted in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom as saying it ”demoralizes marital sex” and ”titillates and stimulates children to the point they could be prematurely awakened sexually.” Some literary critics have found the characters stilted and the plot a mere recounting of steps in the process of sexual intimacy. But, the book was praised by Joyce Maynard in a New York Times Magazine article because it ”makes kids’ erotic stirrings seem to them more normal.” A School Library Journal writer stated, “Forever isn’t really about sex at all, it’s about reassurance. Like many [young adult] novels, it addresses teenagers’ feelings, sexual and other wise, to one point: don’t worry, you’re normal.”
- Fisher, Emma, and Justin Wintle. The Pied Pipers. New York: Paddington Press, 1975.
- Gleasner, Diana. Breakthrough: Women in Writing. New York: Walker, 1980.
- Lee, Betsey. Judy Blume’s Story. Minneapolis: Dillon, 1981.
- Weidt, Maryann. Presenting Judy Blume. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
- Wheeler, Jill C. Judy Blume. Edina, Minn.: Abdo & Daughters, 1996.
- Maynard, Joyce. ”Coming of Age with Judy Blume.” New York Times Magazine, December 3, 1978.
- Neary, John. ”The ‘Jacqueline Susann of Kids’ Books,’ Judy Blume, Grows Up with an Adult Novel.” People, October 16, 1978.
- Saunders, Paula C. ”Judy Blume as Herself.” Writer’s Digest, January 1, 1980.
- ”A Split Decision: Judy Blume in Peoria.” Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom (March 1985).
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