Judy Blume; Children's Author In A Grown-Up Controversy
Judy Blume tops the charts as the best-selling author of children's books today. Many younsters read and reread her books with an insatiable appetite that has sent sales soaring into the millions. Her publishers were so certain of her latest soft-cover release, "Superfudge," that they rolled over a million copies off the presses in a month a figure unmatched in juvenile books.
But she's not popular with everyone. A growing number off iconoclasts are out to take the bloom off the Blume books. They call her a Pied Piper leading kids down the wrong path. They don't like her tune and charge that she plays to the prurient interests of her adolescent audience. Too many of her books, they say, dwell on the physical and sexual sides of growing up and neglect the moral judgments that show true maturity.
These critics among them, parents, librarians, book reviewers, liberal and conservative groups, and other authors call her books "shallow," "simplistic," "unchallenging," "poorly written" even "pandering," "salacious," and "trashy."
They charge she's opened up a Pandora's box by writing on such controversial topics as:
Homosexuality and teen-age intercourse in "Forever."
Male puberty and voyeurism in "Then Again, Maybe I Won't."
A girl's discovery of her own bodily feelings in "Deenie."
Menstruation in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
Other Blume books deal with sibling rivalry, racial prejudice, divorce, finding new friends, peer cruelty, and ostracism. But no matter what the subject , her books have become a prime target of the slings and arrows of outraged parents. Many parents rate her books "PG" (parental guidance suggested). Others are so incensed that they want her books labeled "X" and banned from their libraries.
The woman who has stirred up this whirlwind of controversy stepped into Boston recently during a publicity tour. In her camel's-hair suit and high heels , she hardly looks the part of a controversial author. Rather she would be better cast as a mother of two college-age students which she also is.
In an interview with the Monitor, Mrs. Blume said she's now writing the books she was growing up. And she takes off the kid gloves in replying to her critics.
"I don't get into the position of defending my books. If they've heard things , if they've reead passages out of context and they're concerned, then I'd urge them to read the books themselves. Then if they decide that they absolutely don't want their children to read the books..."
Mrs. Blume can't finish the sentence because she is adamantly opposed to all censorship. She says, however, that all parents have the right to keep her books from their own children, but that they don't have the right to make that decision for others.
Mrs. Blume says, "You have to write to please yourself, and then hope you'll touch other people's lives." The popularity of her books with adolescents would seem to say that kids today have been reached.
One example: "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret" her most popular book year after year. Many believe Mrs. Blume blossomed as a writer with "Margaret," which was named one of the best children's books in 1970 by the New York Times. This was also her first plunge into the largely uncharted waters of controversial subjects.
The story centers on 12-year-old Margaret. The author confides that Margaret is Judy Blume (nee Judy Sussman of Elizabeth, N.J.) and her relationship to God when she was in the sixth grade.
Margaret talks to God about her problems. And one that looms overwhelmingly large in her life at 12 is puberty. She asks God to not let her be different from the other girls. She also asks God's help in deciding whether she should be Jewish like her father, or Protestant like her mother.
Critics charge that "Margaret" is one-dimensional focusing myopically on the subject of puberty. One such critic is English author David Rees. He has written 17 books for adolescents and is no stranger to a child's world.
Mr. Rees asks what a stranger from another planet might think of us after reading "Margaret." Might he think that adolescent girls are preoccupied with their bodies? he asks in his book "The Marble in the Water."
Rees readily concedes that adolescent problems are subjects to be written about; but, he maintains, Mrs. Blume goes about it the wrong way. By writing about them exclusively, she trivializes everything, especially young people themselves, he says. Rees wonders if this could cause problems in children where none existed before. He criticizes Mrs. Blume for ignoring the other interests in a youngster's life.
Mrs. Blume counters: "You can't control what your children are going to think. I think that's where parents make a tremendous mistake. They think that by burying the issue they can control their child's thought. If I don't expose my child to this, they think, then my child is not going to think about this. That is not the way it works.
She also finds it difficult to understand why "Margaret" is under attack now, 11 years after it was published. She charges that the attacks are coming from the Moral Majority and other conservative groups.
The Moral Majority denies that it opposes Blume's books or has a national campaign against them or anyone else's books.
"They're trying to use us to sell more of their books," says Cal Thomas, vice-president of communication for the Moral Majority. "It's the old 'Banned in Boston' scam. Too often the Moral Majority is used generically to mean any group that is considered right-wing or conservative."
Another of Mrs. Blume's books to bear the brunt of criticism is "Blubber." The idea for this story came to the author from her daughter's grade school class. In this book an overweight girl, nicknamed "Blubber," is the brunt of taunts and pranks. The offenders are never punished. Critics say the book lacks "moral tone."It tells kids that they can do wrong and not be punished for it.
Why didn't she present solutions? Mrs. Blume answers: "It's life. It's open-ended. It shifts from one child to another child. I think it's far more important to present characters and situations and leave it openended. Yes, it's been banned in Montgomery Count, Md., because I didn't punish anyone for bad behavior. But that's not the way life is. So you have to learn your lessons another way, by becoming sensitive, and by putting yourself in someone else's shoes. To me, 'Blubber' is one of my most important books. I feel very strongly about it. And I think it shows how cruel kids really are. I think it just begins to touch it."
Mrs. Blume tells of a letter she received from a fifth-grade teacher. Each school year, he wrote, he starts out by reading "Blubber" to his class. What follows is an active discussion and an awareness by the children of the problem. Since he has been doing this, he has noticed a decline in the level of cruelty in the class. This clearly is the type of feedback Mrs. Blume prefers.
The theme of "Blubber" peer cruelty has been dealt with in children's literature countless time before, of course. Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling" is a classic example. But today, Blume and other authors shun fantasy to write "problem" books in a style termed "realistic contemporary." Many parents who grew up on fantasy tales are finding this new style hard to swallow.
Not the younstsers, however. Letters pour in addressed to Judy Blume at the rate of 1,000 a month. Kids share their most intimate feelings and fears with this "Dear Abby" of adolescents. Mrs. Blume has heard it all before it's the echoes of her own voice as a child.
She answers the letters she can, but actually her books are her letters to even those who don't write, but feel the way she felt as a child.
"Reading a book can make a kid feel less alone, and that's what I get in the letters," Mrs. Blume says. Letters that come to her say, "I thought I was different," "I have no one to talk to," "I read 'Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret' and I know now that it's OK to be me."
Mary Burns, professor of children's literature at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, calls Judy Blume "a cult now like the daytome television serial 'General Hospital.' In every age there are minor works, as well as major works. THere are books that answer the needs of the moment, and Judy Blume's books seem to be fulfilling that you need. But you can't equate popularity with quality, nor quality with popularity. The question that needs to be ased is: will Judy Blume's books be as popular 20 years from now?"
Professor Burns also point out that Judy Blume writes in a first-person narrative style like J.D. Salinger in his immensely popular "The Catcher in the Rye" and it's easy for kids to relate to this style of writing. Also, her characters are almost always concerned with themselves a narcissistic attitude in vogue among many of the young in the United States today.
Mrs. Burns also atrees with critic David Rees's assessment of Mrs. Blume's writing: The characters all speak in the same flat, colorless tone: the writing is "shopping list" prose, so simple and unadorned that the speaker might be explaining things to someone who did't speak his language. Many librarians agree with these appraisals and add that the books are popular because they're easy to read.
For instance, here's a taste of Judy Blume's writing in "It's Not the End of the World":
We went to visit Daddy's new apartment. He moved this week. The place is called Country Village and it has the kind of streets running through it where you can get lost pretty easy because everything looks the same. There are two swimming pools. One for the Country Village East and one for the Country Village West. My father's apartment is in West. Each section has four apartments. Daddy's is in building 12, upstairs on the right. It's all fixed up like a magazine picture. Everything is brown-and-white and very modern.m
If the literary critics don't like her style, the moral critics like her message even less. Those coming at it from a conservative point of view tend to object to her heavy hand on sexual topics. Those leaning more to a liberal persuasion often view Mrs. Blume's books as peretuating sexist and racist stereotypes.
"You can utter Judy Blume and censorship in the same breath," says Bob Doyle, assistant to the director at the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. All of her books have come under attack, he says, except "Tiger Eyes," which is newly released. Mr. Doyle has noticed a tripling in book challenges since a year ago. Most are still aimed at school libraries, but the trend is toward public libraries and adult books.
Consistent with her views against censorship, Mrs. Blume doesn't thing any book not even something like "Lady Chatterley's Lover" should be off limits to a child. If a parent prohibits a book, she says that only makes it more appealing. Children are really the best judges of what they should read, Mrs. Blume says.
To support her point, she tells of the time her own daughter at age 12 picked up "Portnoy's Complaint" (a sexually explicit adult novel) from the family library. An hour later she returned it saying she'd wait to read it. "If I had criticized, she would have found it a lot more interesting to read," says Mrs. Blume.
But some parents worry that just that type of book can teach kids the wrong values. Mrs. Blume responds:
"You don't teach values. Values are there. You absorb them. One doesn't say, 'I'm going to teach you these values.' Children absorb them by watching their parents' behavior. If your parents say one thing and do another, the values they are teaching their children is by doing, not by saying."
The Moral Majority's Cal Thomas doesn't see it that way. He contends that parents don't get equal time with their children's teachers and peers. Kids are mentally assaulted by sex, not only in the books and magazines they read, but in ads, on TV, in movies, and on billboards.
"It's intellectually indefensible," he charges, "to say that everyone is talking about sex, and we're only writing about it, when it's the writers and advertisers who are the ones putting it before us every day.
Mrs. Blume's book "Forever" would seem to bear out this criticism. "Forever" details in explicit language the sex scenes between two high school seniors.
When the book was published in 1975, it received harsh words from reveiwers who dubbed Mrs. Blume the "Jacqueline Susann of children's literature."
In spite of intense opposition, Mrs. Blume feels justified in writing "Forever." She argues that the book is more than a sex manual for teens. She sees it as an "antidote to teen-age pregnancies," because the bok contains factual information about sex and birth control, which she says adolescents are lacking.
"'Forever' is a book I wrote with readers in mind, I guess, that were 13 and 14, to read before they were actually of the age when they might be acting it out. I think one has to take responsibility for one's own actions and one's body. Sexuality should go hand in hand with responsibility," says the author.
"Forever" is placed in the adult book racks, and so is another of Judy Blume's books, "Wifey: and adult novel." "Wifey" also contains large doses of explicity sex. Because Judy Blume is so popular with younsters, both these books have been checked out by children thinking they were like her earlier novels. Most libraries have an open-shelf policy which puts the onus for restricting material for children solely on the parents' shoulders. And as many librarians note, many parents hae no idea what their children are reading.
That could be a mistake. Mrs. Blume says you can learn what is important to your children by finding out what books they are reading. "I think it's terrific if books can help parents and kids communicate better."
But just as most parents are concerned with who their children's friends are, they should be equally interested in other major influences on their children television, movies, recording stars, and even those books like Mrs. Blume's from the juvenile section of the local library.