Sunday, April 22, 2012

Judy Blume Forever!

Today I saw Judy Blume speak at the LA Times Festival of Books, and it was a chance to meet a truly inspirational figure in my life.  

Growing up in the early 80s, I devoured her books. Going to Catholic school and being in a very religious household, I can say these books opened my eyes to the larger world and also made me feel normal because it seemed like any anxiety I might have such as worrying about my freckles (cf, Freckle Juice) or being overweight (cf, Blubber) was addressed in her books.  

While many of my peers were reading the Nancy Drew books and the Little House on the Prairie books, I really only cared about Judy's books because she was keeping it real. After getting through her books for pre-teens, I moved on to the teen books while still a pre-teen myself. This was how we did things. We read 16 magazine when we were 12.  We read Seventeen magazine when we were 14.  We read VC Andrews WAY before we should have.  

The teen books - Deenie, Tiger Eyes, and of course, Forever - were often banned from school libraries due to their frank sexuality. Many girls recall the dog-eared copy of Forever that got passed around on the bus with all the good parts highlighted.  

Sometime in my 20s, I read Wifey and was totally blown away by it. It's both a trashy beach read and also a true feminist text.  I imagine Judy based that character on herself to some degree, as she has said she was trapped in a "suffocating" marriage when she began to escape through her writing.  And then she got divorced. And she wrote about kids in divorced families - stuff we just didn't talk about back then.

In conversation today with Mary McNamara, 74-year-old Judy Blume went through her career with us, and she was extremely down to earth and humble.  

Judy said the character Fudge was based on her son Larry, who was a rather challenging toddler. Larry is a director now, and he directed a film version of Tiger Eyes that just won best film at the Palm Beach film festival. Judy and Larry co-wrote the screenplay. When talking about how proud of Larry and the film she was, Judy teared up a bit.  It's hard to believe no films have been made from her books before this one!

She said she couldn't find books that mirrored her life as a kid, so perhaps she was unconsciously trying to write the kind of book she wanted back then.  She said she felt that parents and teachers shouldn't be judgmental about what kids want to read, and she spoke out against the Accelerated Reader program. 

She spoke about hating to write first drafts, but enjoying the subsequent drafts. She said it took her 3 months to find Sandy's voice for Wifey, and she wrote 23 drafts of Summer Sisters

As for Forever, she said she wrote it for her teen daughter who had noticed that when teens had sex in books, it always ended badly with a pregnancy or a botched abortion or a breakup.  So she wanted to show that sex could be non-fatal and maybe even pleasurable.  She said her publisher didn't know how to cope with the book and released it with "her first novel for adults" on the cover, which really pissed her off. 

An audience member tried to bait her into saying negative things about The Hunger Games and other YA gothic series', but Judy wouldn't go for it. Again, she was just happy that kids were reading. She did point out some authors who were writing about real life for the YA audience such as John Green and Carolyn Mackler. Some very young kids asked questions, and Judy was patient in answering them. She had to disappoint one boy who asked if there would be any more Fudge books. She said she didn't think so, but never say never. She's currently working on a book set in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, based on real events. 

Another audience member asked her if she'd heard Amanda Palmer's song "Judy Blume" and what she thought about it. Judy said she had watched the video on YouTube and tweeted with Amanda about how much she liked it. Thoroughly modern Judy!  It's a powerful song and one I can relate to.

Judy got a standing ovation at the end - something I've never seen at the Festival of Books - usually people just grab their book satchels and leave the panels early to scurry off to their next panel, but I didn't see much of that happening with Judy.  After the talk, I waited in line almost 2 hours to get a copy of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing signed. Judy was tireless in signing for the huge crowd.  I was bummed I wasn't able to locate my vintage copy of Wifey and get it signed, but glad nonetheless to have her autograph and to have a moment to thank her for getting me through puberty, junior high, and so many tribulations in my young life. Thanks, Judy!

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