Judy Blume Changed My Life

This week, one of Judy Blume’s novels will debut as a feature-length film. Tina Boyer discusses how the author helped to shape an entire generation of women.

“I’m a part of the women’s movement even if nobody ever knew it but me. It was inside me…I wanted to be out on the streets. I wanted to be protesting…I wanted to be part of what these brave women were part of. They were braver than I was.” – Judy Blume, interviewed for MAKERS on PBS

As the only working mom on a cul-de-sac in 1970s suburban New Jersey, Judy Blume says she felt like a bystander to the era’s second-wave feminist movement. To me, she was anything but a bystander during this period, crafting young adult stories that were as radical and game changing as anything occurring on the streets or in the pages of Ms. magazine. By simply telling the types of stories she wanted to tell, Blume was a different kind of revolutionary. She was creating a bridge for her readers to cross into the third wave of feminism.

On June 7, Judy Blume’s 1981 novel, Tiger Eyes, will be released as a feature-length film, marking the first time one of her books has been turned into a movie. The news of the movie’s release has generated a collective swell of nostalgia among my peer group and it seemed a fitting time to revisit my favorite of her books to better understand why we still get so excited about Judy Blume.

Judy Blume was born in 1938 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. At the age of 21 she married and subsequently had two children. When her children started preschool, Blume began writing and published her first book in 1969, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo. Since then, Blume has maintained an impressive pace and currently has 29 titles to her name, spanning children’s, middle school, young adult, and adult literature. For my particular peer group, it was the books we now call young adult (though the term didn’t exist at the time) that we most readily associate with Judy Blume’s work.

In what may be her most iconic novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the title character agonizes over her desire to grow breasts, menstruate and kiss boys. Had I read Margaret a couple years later I might have been able to relate, but being a bit precocious I’d picked up the book somewhere around the third grade (wondering what all the hype was about) and with knitted brow asked my mom, “Why does she spell out the word ‘period’ at the end of the sentence? There’s already a period there, why does she spell it out?” After a perfunctory examination of my purple Dell paperback, my mother made the shaky declaration, “We’ll talk about it later!” Although my brow remained knitted, that was when I knew this Blume lady was on to something.

With a significantly more advanced understanding of menstruation than I’d had initially, I recently reread the book, prepared to knowingly giggle my way through it. And while there was much to smile about, I was surprised to discover that Margaret doesn’t have a relationship with her mother’s Christian parents because they disowned her after she married a Jewish man. Whoa, how had this not garnered my attention back in the early ’80s? Given the history of interfaith marriage in my own family, I found it particularly odd that such a subplot would have drifted past me. But then a new surge of appreciation overtook me at Judy’s ability to deftly weave adult and children’s themes into her stories. And by the way, there is no canned happy ending to the anti-Semitic grandparents storyline in the book. Because that’s not what Judy does—she’s honest and realistic and gives her readers credit for being able to handle it.

Speaking of, there’s no shortage of honesty and realism in Blubber, a story of brutal cruelty inflicted on a fifth-grade girl by not only her classmates but also her teachers. It’s actually quite a complex morality tale as lines and loyalties bend over the course of the story. In fact, Blume made the interesting choice to narrate the book from the point of view of one of the story’s aggressors. Over the years the book has been criticized for its viciousness. But it is exactly this viciousness that makes the story feel true and complicated and thus allows the reader to think rather than simply receive a lecture.

I could go on and on about the dark quality of Blume’s themes and her expert handling of them. From the violent death of a parent to racial discrimination to relatives being gassed in a concentration camp—among a host of other social issues she addresses—Judy doesn’t resort to euphemism or apology.  

And it is also without apology that Blume writes some fabulous mother characters. In a scene straight out of The Feminist Mystique, Margaret has recently moved to a new town and has the following interaction with one of the neighborhood mothers. “Please tell your mother I’m looking forward to meeting her. We’ve got a Morningbird Lane bowling team on Mondays and a bridge game every other Thursday afternoon.” Margaret replies, “Oh, I don’t think my mother knows how to bowl and she wouldn’t be interested in bridge. She paints most of the day.” Blume’s other mothers work, occasionally smoke, rip their pantyhose, swear from time to time and may be found indulging in a Bloody Mary after a long day at the office. Some of them are brave enough to get a divorce and some are widows due to accident or war. In other words, they’re modern. Blume has said that as a young suburban mom she had trouble finding like-minded, kindred spirits among the other neighborhood wives. It seems she found the next best thing by creating her own and thus, redefined motherhood for her readers. 

She redefined it all, really. And given the scope of her reach, with more than 82 million copies sold, it’s hard to think of a more influential figure in the women’s movement for my generation. Judy treated us with dignity and we grew up expecting that same respect in every other aspect of our lives. Moreover, she empowered us with knowledge about taboo subjects that other adults didn’t want or know how to address. We grew up less naïve, more self-aware, and worldlier for it. We’ve benefitted from a post-Judy Blume world in which we don’t shirk from what’s scary and opportunity is presumed. Judy made us into the women we are today by carving out a place for us to be confident, informed, strong, and most importantly, ourselves.

Tina Boyer lives on the West Coast and writes grants when she isn’t volunteering as a “writercoach” at her local middle school, where she helps eighth graders master their English assignments. Her first novel, GOOD GIRLS, is in the final throes of revision. You can find her on Twitter @GoodBoyer.

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