GET out the bunting for the visit of author whose entertaining books remain dangerously life-enhancing, writes Chitra Ramaswamy
I found one of my old school exercise books recently. Flimsy, institutionally blue, tattooed with doodles, confessions, attempts at a signature that bore no resemblance to my name whatsoever, and the occasional maths equation. Also inside this wide-margined memory chest was a short story written by one of my oldest friends that made me laugh out loud 30 years later. It was called Are You There Judy? It’s Me, Chitra and was a riff on Judy Blume’s classic 1970 novel about a 12-year-old girl called Margaret (not Chitra: children in books never seemed to share my name or indeed my skin colour). It was a gift, complete with illustrations and in-jokes, from one strange, confused, bookish, bullied schoolgirl to another. And a tribute to a writer who helped my friend and I, and millions of others, realise we were not gap-toothed aliens with dodgy thoughts, sprouting bodies, and stupid signatures. We were just teenagers.
What would I have done without Judy Blume?
When I was convinced my family would never understand me, I turned to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. When I experienced racism, it was Iggie’s House. Blubber helped me cope with the bullying I, and many others, endured at school. When I got my period, I thanked god (or rather Judy) for Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It’s still the only novel I’ve read in which a girl menstruates, which is extraordinary considering it’s something half the population does every single month. As the American screenwriter Diablo Cody put it, “if Picasso had this Blue Period, then Judy Blume had her Period Period.”
When I became obsessed with sex I managed to get my hands on a grubby copy of Forever that seemed to be doing the rounds in every school up and down the land, possibly the world. I devoured it, became terrified of its contents (which are, basically, nice girl falls in love with nice boy and has loving consensual sex with him), ashamed at my fascination with them, then I devoured it again. Yes I am one of those people who can’t hear the name Ralph without tittering like a juvenile idiot. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, frankly, where on earth have you been? (Or you’re a man.)
Last week Blume, now 77, published her first novel for adults in 17 years and what she claims will be her last. It was also announced that she will come to Edinburgh for An Evening With Judy Blume on 16 July. To which the only measured grown up response is: OMG!!!!! My guess is that most of Scotland’s female population between the ages of 30 and 40 will be there in spirit if not in person. And that there will be questions about masturbation and a lot of gratitude. I have already bought my ticket. I have already watched every woman I know scream on social media.
Why the hysterical response? The fact is, no-one speaks to teenage girls like Blume. Often, no-one speaks to them at all. Heroes are still predominantly male, whether they’re rats who dare to dream in Pixar films or boy orphans who get whisked off to magic school in Harry Potter. Girls still grow up with Disney princesses and boys who get all the good lines. Girls still grow up feeling vaguely ashamed of their bodies and the hair that grows on them. One simply can’t imagine Hermione Granger talking about masturbation.
So Blume, in the Seventies no less, did something truly revolutionary when she decided to put normal teenage girls and their actual experiences centre stage. They weren’t always pretty or good and they usually weren’t popular. She wrote from the point of view of outcasts and overweight girls. Even her most beautiful heroine, Deenie, is diagnosed with scoliosis and has to wear a back brace for four years.
Blume talked openly and unashamedly about sex, desire, body image, contraception, and masturbation. The stuff your teachers wouldn’t teach you. The stuff that made your parents mumble and return to the washing up. Which is why, according to the American Library Association, Blume is one of the most censored authors in the Unites States. In the 1980s she found herself at the centre of an organised book-banning campaign and there has long been a debate about whether the age-appropriateness of her young adult fiction. That’s how dangerous it is to speak the truth about what it feels like to be a teenage girl.
I cannot think of another writer during those hormonally charged years who managed to write from the inside of my head so clearly, truthfully, and effortlessly that I barely noticed I was reading a book. This was Blume’s consummate skill: her ability to reassure you that being abnormal was normal without lecturing, patronising, hectoring or, worst of all, embarrassing you. She did it while entertaining you instead, which is why her 28 novels have sold more than 80 million copies and been translated into 32 languages.
It’s why a book with the title Everything I Needed to Know About Being A Girl I Learned From Judy Blume exists.
And it’s why she continues to speak to new generations of young people. Though so much has changed since the mid-Seventies, growing up is still hell. The experiences of teenage girls are still shrouded in secrecy and shame. Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, said that Blume’s influence on her is “impossible to overstate”. It goes to show that every generation has its problems, obstacles, and new strains of sexism to overcome. And every generation, thankfully, has Judy Blume.