Saturday, 18 February 2012

Without Judy Blume, I’d know nothing about life

My much-loved Judy Blume collection
There is no other teen novelist who had such an impact on me as Judy Blume. And based on some Twitter conversations last night, I’m not alone in my enduring respect and love for Judy.  (Would it be too familiar to call her Auntie Judy?)
This came about after my mum yesterday produced a box of my old books. Among the battered copies of Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series, Snoopy novels, and Adrian Mole diaries (held together with peeling Sellotape) were a handful of extremely tatty and well-thumbed Judy Blume novels.
It was like meeting up with old friends, ones who had held my hand through those confusing pre-pubescent years and early adolescence. There was Deenie, who endured a crippling back brace before facing the fear of her first period. And here’s Margaret, who confides in God about her worries about periods and her parents’ marriage. Don’t forget Stephanie, who had to handle the problem of juggling two best friends. And then there was Karen, who felt so alone after her parents got divorced; and Davey who was grieving for her father. But never forget Katherine and Michael, whose love was not to last, err, forever.
It surprised me to find just the six tatty paperbacks. Where were all the others? Judy wrote prolifically in the 1970s and 1980s and I’d read every one of her books. And then I realised that while I’d devoured everything Judy wrote, the act of owning books was certainly not taken for granted back when I was 11/12 and at the height of my Judy reading. This was before I had a Saturday job and my own money, so any books I owned came from birthday or Christmas presents or book tokens. Everything else was found in the school or public libraries, or borrowed and swapped with friends. In school holidays, we’d even post paperbacks to each other. There’s something very pleasing about remembering this early absorption in reading, and for it to be a shared pleasure – one that was not ordered by teachers but that was entirely self-generated, and one that was (at times) irritating to teachers and parents, who knew there were sometimes controversial topics in Judy’s books (periods, masturbation, bullying, racial abuse, parental divorce, the Holocaust, teenage sex…). 
Aged 11, I spent a year diligently scribbling in my Judy Blume Memory Book.
Needless to say, it is extremely embarrassing to read now.
I really don’t think it would be overstating the matter to say that Judy contributed to the bulk of my early education about puberty and growing up. Remember, I was reading Judy’s books in 1989/1990, while attending a convent school staffed by joyless Belgian nuns, and the internet was but a twinkle in someone’s eye. Pretty much all I knew about puberty came from the solitary school visit by the Dr Whites nurse: our class was not told the reason why our timetabled lesson was cancelled and we were being shepherded into the formal assembly hall, where a middle-aged nurse proceeded to show us some confusing watercolour pictures of cross-sections of the female body (minus head or legs), before issuing us all with a bag of leaflets and Dr Whites samples. Couple this with the solitary lesson about periods from our biology teacher, which involved her getting a Tampax out of its wrapper, and putting it in a glass of water to show us how big it would get. But at no point telling us why we would need such a scary looking thing, or even where we should put it. Honestly, I can only hope that sex education in British schools has progressed a lot in the past 22 years. And don’t get me started on the sex education video we were shown (in the school library, which was sealed off with ‘Do Not Enter’ signs, already making us aware that sex was a shameful act, a fact that was aided by the TV being positioned underneath a crucifix), which was filmed in the 1970s and involved some extremely hairy, naked people playing volleyball on a beach, and a starchy male scientist in a studio talking incomprehensibly about things like ‘penises’ and ‘vaginas’ (what were they?!).
So, thank heavens for Judy Blume. Thank heavens she wrote Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and Deenie, to explain about periods and that they were perfectly normal, but that it was OK to be a bit confused about the whole thing. And thank heavens she wrote her books in such an accessible way that made you sure that here, finally, was an adult who understood what it was you needed to know, and whom your friends also read.
Woo! Judy wrote to me in February 1990...
I chose to overlook that it was a photocopied form letter.
But Judy didn’t just teach me about growing up, she also made me aware of a whole world outside of the tiny Somerset village I grew up in. Judy’s books were all set in her homeland of America. To 11-year-old me, there seemed as much chance of me going to the moon as to somewhere as exotic as America. After all, this was a country with a whole other dialogue! Judy’s books were peppered with words and phrases I didn’t understand, and needed to find out the meaning of. What were ‘cooties’? What was ‘the den’? What was Scotch tape? There were so many examples that made America seem way more glamorous than my provincial English existence. Why didn’t my school have a ‘homeroom’? Why didn’t we have a schoolbus? Or Halloween parades? What the heck was a ‘Y’? Looking back now, it’s terrifying to know that all the Jewish references were also alien to me – with my Catholic education and small-town English upbringing. It’s embarrassing to admit that. At my school, we had no knowledge of any religions outside of Church of England or Catholicism. As far as we knew, there were no other options. And since WW2 wasn’t covered in history classes, there was no need for us to know about Judaism. This alone is a terrifying lack in 1980s/1990s schooling.
What’s my favourite Judy book? It’s Deenie, the first book of Judy’s I read, and probably the one I’ve read more than any others (first accessed from the school library – but removed after the nuns discovered it had references to periods and masturbation). But Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret holds a strong place in my affections (a Christmas present, and a book I fondly remember while lying on the sofa with Neighbours on). And it’s impossible to overlook the significance of Forever on my young mind (bought with Christmas book tokens in WH Smith). I’m sure that book is responsible for many generations of women who remain unable to snigger when they hear the name Ralph – maybe Forever is single-handedly responsible for the decline in popularity of the name Ralph?!
Has Judy been sainted yet for her services to education? Because she should be. The very fact that so many of her books were deemed controversial or even placed on banned lists (here’s an article by Judy that explains more about this) is testament to the fact that her books were honest and true accounts of real topics that patriarchal society feared it would be damaging for young girls to know about.
Thank you, Judy, for writing all those important books, and for filling in the many glaring gaps in my education where my schools failed me. And thank you for introducing me to America, a land I still think of as romantic and exciting.
Here’s a powerful article in The Tablet about Judy’s Holocaust novel, Starring Sally J Freedman As Herself.
And here’s a Huffington Post article about Judy’s most controversial books.

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