Are You There Judy?

November, 30 2011
2008 May-June

Blume SpreadJudy Blume, one of our most beloved English language children’s authors, is now an icon: the sage whose novels answered everything you wanted to know when you were growing up but were too afraid to ask. At 70, with 26 titles to her name and over 50 million copies in print, she remains one of the best-selling children’s and young adult authors in history.

After the 1969 publication of her first novel, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, Blume took on controversial subjects like religion, interfaith families, menstruation, masturbation, premarital sex and social class when no other author of young adult books did. She never set out to traverse forbidden territory. Instead, she only hoped to be honest, and America’s young readers were grateful. Often, however, the parental powers felt different. What Salman Rushdie and Henry Miller are to adult fiction, Judy Blume is to children’s books, having penned some of the most frequently challenged or banned titles—Deenie, Forever, Blubber, Tiger Eyes and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. She holds the dubious honor of being the second-most-censored author of the past 15 years, according to the American Library Association.

While the pajama party set has always adored her, the rest of America is catching up. The Library of Congress awarded Blume its Living Legend Award in 2000. In 2004, she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, joining the company of previous recipients like John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Eudora Welty.

Born Judy Sussman in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Blume and husband George Cooper have three grown children between them, as well as one grandson. The woman who never spoke down to children is still giving it to them straight, even if her original 1970s and ’80s audience (and her own children) now meet her at eye level: The second book in her new series illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist James Stevenson, Cool Zone with the Pain & the Great One, will be out in May, and more are on the way.

From her home in Key West, Blume talks to Moment about growing up Jewish, why parents should talk openly to their kids and how she holds onto her inner child.—Karin Tanabe

Were you raised in a Jewish home?
I grew up Jewish in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s. Both my father and mother were born in Elizabeth and attended the same high school. My father, the youngest of seven, was raised in an Orthodox family.

We all went to temple together on the High Holy Days. When I was little my father would take me down to the Orthodox synagogue so I could see it, but I was very small and didn’t like sitting upstairs alone. My father’s mother went to another Orthodox synagogue and we would always stop in there. It was kind of like a round robin when I was very young. It was something I saw as rather fun, checking out all these different rabbis.

I named my first doll Hadassah. My father was always going on about the rabbi’s beautiful daughter named Hadassah. I was probably the only child in Elizabeth with a baby doll named Hadassah.

Did Jews and Christians socialize?
In our community, social life was dependent on religion. Were you a member of the YMCA or the YMHA? Did you go to church or synagogue? We dated and went to parties with those of the same religion. Yet at school our friendships had nothing to do with religion. When I was in ninth grade I fell for a non-Jewish boy. My parents weren’t thrilled but our understanding was: This is okay for now so long as when it comes to marriage you choose a Jewish boy. Fred took me to a dance at his Y. I was ashamed to tell my grandmother, who was ill and living with us, that I was going out with a Christian boy. And as much as I liked Fred, I was apprehensive. I wasn’t sure what I would find at the YMCA. To my surprise I found it was very much like my Y. No one talked about Jesus, which, I think, was what I feared. They were too busy dancing. And later, when Fred and I kissed, religion had nothing to do with it.

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