Becoming a teenager is never easy, but for anybody hitting adolescence from 1969 onwards there was suddenly an adult who understood!
Reading American author Judy Blume’s books was almost a rite of passage for me and my friends at secondary school; her books were (and still are) funny, sensitive and happy to tackle issues that others weren’t. They were frequently called controversial for many reasons - references to female puberty, teen sex and birth control, perceived slighting of Christianity, adult language, descriptions of violence and alcoholism – all subjects which are commonplace in teen fiction now, but were still highly shocking in the 1970s.
Having said that she made up stories inside her head throughout her childhood, her first story ‘The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo’ was published in 1969. Although a common misconception of Blume’s works is that they are aimed at girls (and largely her most famous books do feature a female perspective) there are several that are aimed at boys, including this one. Freddy is the second child of three and the story focuses on how he copes with the attention given to his older brother and younger sister whilst he is pushed into the background.
In 1970, Blume used her novel ‘Iggie’s House’ to discuss issues surrounding racism. Winnie lives in a very white neighbourhood, and when her best friend Iggie moves away, an African American family move in to the recently vacated house. The story explores how the local residents react to their new neighbours, and how Winnie finds her own path through this sometimes difficult situation. ⇥ ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ is possibly Blume’s most famous novel, published also in 1970. Margaret is the fictional character that has helped many a girl through some of the most confusing and trying times of her early life. Covering topics such as puberty, boyfriends and friendships, it also touches on her struggle to find a religion (she has been brought up with no religion, although her parents are Christian and Jewish), and the story is interspersed with her prayers, which started each time using the words of the title. Blume’s sympathetic and humorous writing make this book able to speak to its audience on a very personal level, and there are bound to be well-thumbed copies on most young females’ bookshelves. This was reflected in the decision to give ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ a place on Time’s 2011 list of the top 100 English language fiction books written since 1923.
The success of Margaret’s story gave Judy the inspiration to pitch her next novel at the opposite gender. 1971’s ‘Then Again, Maybe I Won’t’ charts the tribulations of puberty from a teenage boy’s point of view. Tony Miglione’s journey to becoming an adult is very different to Margaret’s; he moves from a middle-class neighbourhood to one that is far more upper-class, and here he meets Joel. Tony soon realises that Joel’s respectable veneer covers up a rampant delinquency and he too is drawn into a life of shoplifting and drinking. He also starts spying on Joel’s sister Lisa as she gets changed. The complications of a teenage life send Tony to therapy, and we discover that at the bottom of all his negative behaviour lies the fact that his parents never have any time for him.
‘Blubber’ tackles school bullying. Published in 1974 the story follows a group of fifth-grade girls who single out and ostracise one classmate for being overweight. In twists that will be familiar to anybody who has every spent time in a gang of females, friendships break overnight and sharp tongues turn towards whoever is deemed weakest at any one moment. Jill is by no means an innocent party in the name calling, but she also becomes a victim of spite herself later on in the book and discovers it is not a nice place to be.
1975’s ‘Forever’ was the one book in my school library that always had a waiting list to take it out. Dealing frankly and realistically with teenage sexuality Blume’s book always came up against censorship and criticism by those who felt it was a bad influence on children, when in fact it was probably a life line to many confused adolescents who needed to know that somebody knew what they were going through. It is fairly graphic, but not titillating so; its portrayal of relationships was realistic and very welcome to many.
‘Tiger Eyes’ (published in 1981) is a much darker subject than anything Blume had written previously; we meet Davey Wexler in the aftermath of her father’s murder during a shop robbery and stay with her as she copes with life without him. It also touches on her friend Jane’s alcoholism. ‘Tiger Eyes’ was made into a film in 2012 and was directed by Blume’s son Lawrence.
Not all Blume’s books were based around teenage angst. She wrote a series of five stories known as the ‘Fudge series’. Beginning with ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing’ (1972) we met nine year-old Peter Hatcher and his two year-old brother Fudge. Fudge is obviously a nickname, but when you discover that the toddler originally given the name Farley Drexel Hatcher you can sort of see why he prefers to be called Fudge. This book amusingly chronicles Peter’s growing irritation that Fudge’s terrible behaviour (mainly loud and long tantrums) is largely ignored by his parents. The following three - ‘Superfudge’ (1980), ‘Fudge-a-Mania’ (1990) and ‘Double Fudge’ (2002) introduce us to not only Tootsie, the boys’ new baby sister, but also takes on further cheeky adventures with the Hatcher pair.
‘Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great’ (1972) is also included in this series, although it focuses almost entirely on Peter and Fudge’s cousin Sheila Tubman and her large collection of fears and phobias.
Blume has also written for adults: ‘Wifey’ in 1978 and ‘Smart Women’ in 1983 made number one on The New York Times’ bestseller list with ‘Wifey’ selling over four million copies so far. ‘Summer Sisters’ was the latest one to be published, in 1978, and spent five months on the list as well.
To go into detail of all of Blume’s books would take far more room than is available here. Instead I shall let the fact that she has won over 90 literary awards (including being named a ‘Living Legend’ in the United States’ Library of Congress’ Writers and Artists category) tell you what an impact her writing has had on children and adults the world over.
Blume had (and still has) the remarkable ability to empathise with the people who read her novels. From bullied teenagers to grown-ups dealing with the death of a loved one, she does the one thing that people will always turn to books for: the feeling that you are not alone.