NEW YORK, June 2 — People have intense feelings about Judy Blume. Fans, readers, booksellers — even other authors and celebrities — often dissolve into tears upon meeting her, confessing that books like “Forever ... “ and “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” got them through adolescence; taught them about sex, love and friendship; and provided their first glimpse of adulthood. Blume has come to expect overwrought reactions.
“It’s because of what I represent,” she said in a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine. “I’m your childhood.”
Blume will be greeting fans on a cross-country book tour to promote her new novel, “In the Unlikely Event,” out today from Knopf, her first book for adults in 17 years. The story was inspired by her teenage years in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the 1950s, when the city was devastated by a bizarre series of plane crashes within the span of a few months.
Blume, 77, began the tour over the weekend at BookCon in New York, taking the stage with a star-struck Jennifer Weiner, who revealed to Blume and the audience that she had written a message to herself — “Don’t cry”—- across the top of her notes.
Another fan, the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, who will interview Blume this month as part of the tour, said she planned to ask what it was like to be the catalyst for such powerful emotions.
“I wonder if it is burdensome or challenging to be this repository for people’s preadolescent confusion,” she said.
Below are edited excerpts from interviews with six notable long-time readers on what they learned about sex, puberty and writing from Judy Blume.
John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns”
The first Judy Blume books I read, I read when I was a little kid, when I was 8 or 9 years old, and they served as a kind of introduction to myself. I wasn’t able to say much about what it meant to be what or me it felt like to be me.
“Forever ...” and “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” taught me about girls and sexuality. Those books were my first paths into thinking about or having any understanding of girls. In elementary school, the books were paths to myself, and in middle school they were paths to, well, puberty is so (expletive) terrifying and weird, it’s another time when you have to become yourself again and figure out who you are. You feel like you lose control of your body. As much as I found my own puberty overwhelming and strange, I had no idea what was happening to girls, and “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” was very important to me in that respect.
She’s written some of the most important books about teenagers and female sexuality. If someone published “Forever ...” now, I would be like, this is great, and I haven’t seen a lot of books like this, and it’s almost 40 years old. It felt extremely emotionally honest about sex. There weren’t a lot of other voices in the culture that said it was OK to be sexual and that it was also OK to be really emotional. Particularly with young men, we’re told we’re allowed to be these sex maniacs but we’re not told we’re allowed to be emotional.
In a lot of ways, Judy was one of a very small group of people who invented what I do for a living.
Jennifer Weiner, author of “In Her Shoes” and “Good in Bed”
I remember reading “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” and thinking: “Oh my God, I’m so glad I’m not a boy. I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with embarrassing erections and wet dreams.” We all took sex ed, we all sat through the slide shows, but that was the first intimate sense I got of what it’s like to have a boy’s body.
Now there’s all this outcry about young-adult fiction — Is it too raw and is it too real, talking about eating disorders or cutting or rape? Judy Blume was doing this 35 years ago. She wrote about a girl who was having sex and getting pleasure from having sex and not getting punished for having sex.
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of “Prep” and “Sisterland”
I bought “Forever ... “ at a school fair when I was probably 10. There was a used-book sale, and I picked it up and remember being in this big crowded gym and being like, “Uh, does anyone have any idea what this book contains?” I had stumbled upon this incredible raciness in this wholesome setting. I thought, like, holy smoke! It was very enthralling and very informative. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t remember the boyfriend’s name, but I remember the name of his penis. Do you remember its name? Isn’t his penis named Ralph?
Megan Abbott, author of “The Fever” and “Dare Me”
She was so huge for me. Then I got to meet her last year at the Key West Literary Seminar and it was like I became 8 years old again, which I’m sure happens to her all the time. We had this luncheon. It was me and the crime writers Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman and Attica Locke, and we all just sat there with our jaws open. We went around the table naming our favourite moments in her books. It was hard to not keep saying, “Remember that scene in ‘Deenie’ when she touches her special place?”
My distinct childhood memory is reading “Wifey,” her adult book, at a slumber party when I was in fifth grade. We didn’t understand the story at all or the fact that all of us had mothers who were a lot like the main character, a frustrated housewife. What we got was, “How can you have sex standing up?” I saw it in my mom’s bookshelf a few months later and said something about how it was a dirty book, and she said: “No it’s not. It’s not a dirty book at all.” And it felt like this huge revelation and relief somehow, because of course I had loved it and I had felt like I had done something wrong.
Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s “Girls” and author of “Not That Kind of Girl”
With the kerfuffle that happened around my book, I realiSed how uncomfortable young kids having curiosity about each other’s bodies and trying to understand their own physicality and sexuality makes people. And Judy is one of the only authors who, at the time she started writing, acknowledged that kids have a fully formed consciousness and questions that aren’t innocent and a sense of what’s happening in the adult world around them. She had the bravery to write about growing up in a way that wasn’t vanilla and that acknowledged just how complicated being a little girl is.
“Summer Sisters” really mimics one of the closest friendships in my life and was a huge part of the genesis of “Girls” and of my desire to talk about female friendship in all my work. It’s so much about two young female archetypes butting up against each other. We all kind of look at our friends and see the version of ourselves we wish we could be, never really understanding the pain behind the mask. For me, it was so pivotal to read about female friendship as something that was as grand and romantic and complex as romantic relationships.
Samantha Bee, cast member on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and moderator of “An Evening With Judy Blume,” Tuesday
I’m 45 now, so I’m the exact generation that devoured her stuff. “Blubber” was my favourite. When I say that, it always surprises people. I think I sometimes saw myself reflected in the lead character, not from the bullying point of view, but from the point of view of a kid who’s trying to fit in. A striver. I recognise in myself that feeling of: “Oh, you’ve got to work hard to belong. You’ve got to figure it out.” I know that for a lot of people the sexuality in the books was an important part of it, but for me it was more about the social relationships. I really did feel like an outsider for most of my life. I had to give birth to my own children to finally feel I was part of something.
I’ve been trying to refamiliarise myself with her books for this interview. I mean, they’re still all so familiar to me; it’s like they’re in my DNA. The minute I started reading “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” again, I went, “Right, I remember this - got it.” My daughter is actually reading that book now. She’s 9, and she loves it. It’s so fun for me to watch that book reflected in her eyes. — New York Times