Biographies We Need: Judy Blume, Our Patron Saint of True Adolescence

Judy Blume
Judy Blume © Carl Lender on Flickr

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

Judy Blume is having a moment. A film adaptation of her novel, Tiger Eyes, was released this summer. She was interviewed for the young fashionista magazine Rookie, and has an interview with tastemaker Lena Dunham in a forthcoming issue of The Believer. Her Twitter feed is approaching 100,000 followers, and her novels Blubber and Deenie were recently celebrated during Banned Book Week. And, at the age of seventy-five, she is hard at work on a draft of a new novel.

For those of us who think of Blume as "our" writer, whose childhoods and adolescences were shaped and informed by the misadventures of Fudge, Margaret, and Kath, who hid Blume’s novels under the covers and passed around dog-eared copies of Forever, this sudden surge of Judy-mania is gratifying, if slightly troubling. Sure, Blume wrote about menstruation and masturbation, sex and bullying, divorce and racism at a time when most young adult novelists were writing about going steady and holding hands. And yes, she stood up to censors throughout her career, while making no attempt to hide the unflattering aspects of her own life from fans. But to turn the writer into a poster girl for freedom of speech, or to celebrate her books merely for their taboo-breaking content, is to overlook the power of Blume’s writing to comfort, console, and inspire readers, even those whose days of bust-increasing exercises are far behind them. This is why we need a biography of Judy Blume, the writer who taught generations how to grow up.

Blume has acknowledged the autobiographical aspects of several of her novels, and has said that Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, about an imaginative ten-year-old Jewish girl who moves to Miami in the aftermath of World War II, is the closest to her own story. But the book only follows a year in Sally’s life, so we never see her turning her fantasies into stories. In real life, Blume was born and raised in New Jersey, and was married and pregnant by the time she graduated from NYU in 1961. She started writing when her two sons were in preschool, publishing The One in the Middle is a Green Kangaroo in 1969, while chafing against the confines of her traditional marriage. Over the next few years, she began writing for an older audience, addressing the sort of questions she had as a girl growing up: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret deals with menstruation; Then Again, Maybe I Won’t and Deenie feature masturbation. Predictably, school principals banned the books for their frank subject matter, and Blume began developing a reputation as a (mildly) racy writer. What’s often overlooked is the other, less sexy, but equally adult themes in these novels -- in Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, the narrator has lost a brother in the Vietnam War; Are You There, God, considers religion and atheism, and in Deenie, the title character has a physical disability.

In 1975, Blume divorced her first husband and published Forever…, the novel that cemented her reputation as the writer your parents don’t want you to read. The sweet, tender story of a teenager’s first love and first sexual experiences, Forever… was later denounced as a "sexual 'how-to-do' book for junior high students." But Blume wasn’t ready to stop there. After a brief, unhappy second marriage, she published Wifey, about a straight-laced housewife who undergoes a sexual awakening. Ostensibly for adults, Wifey doubtless found its way into the hands of many teenage readers eager for more of Blume’s sexual candor and irresistible 'good girl with bad thoughts' narrators. Over the next decades, Blume would continue to write novels for adults, teens, and children, as her original readers grew up and began to appreciate how formative her books had been in their own childhoods.

And yet, despite the current acclaim, there is a sense that Blume is not fully appreciated. To do that, we must imagine growing up without her books, which would mean growing up thinking we were supposed to have the sanitized, age-appropriate thoughts and feelings of the characters in the sanitized, age-appropriate books recommended by the adults in our lives, who seemed to have long ago forgotten what growing up was really like. Yes, Blume wrote about subject matter few other writers would touch, and for this she should be celebrated. But her characters are what stay with us, and this is why we need a biography, starring Judy Blume, as herself.