For many of us who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, Judy Blume’s books are a shared experience. We remember these coming-of-age novels as markers to the youthful hurdles we once cleared, ones that first tested us and then taught us how to face each other, and ourselves.
Like this writer, I have such vivid recollections of exactly what I was doing and thinking while reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and, later, Forever, to name just two of her most famous titles. All of Blume’s books resonated deeply with me and my friends. We openly discussed them—when our parents weren’t around, that is—and together we took their lessons into adulthood.
While some of her outdated descriptions have been revised over the years for an ever-refreshed crop of new readers, the underlying truths in Blume’s timeless tales remain surprisingly current. They can still inspire important family discussions with our children—a generation weaned on micro-managed playdates, Minecraft and trophies awarded to everyone for participation.
Great Talk No. 1: Why are people rioting right now in America?
In Iggie’s House, Blume’s debut novel, which was first published in the late (and turbulent) 1960s, the author takes on overt and subtle racism through her protagonist Winnie, a white girl who wants to befriend a new African American family, the Garbers, who’ve just moved into her neighborhood.
Blume says, “At the time, I was almost as naïve as Winnie is in this book, wanting to make the world a better place, but not knowing how. When Winnie refers to the riots in Detroit and asks the Garber kids if their father was involved, the Garbers are offended and who can blame them? I actually had neighbors, in the New Jersey suburb where I was living at the time, who talked about arming themselves in case the riots in Newark spilled over to our street, one that was as white as Grove Street, where Winnie lives.”
In 2015, as cities across our country, from St. Louis to Baltimore to Cleveland to New York, struggle to handle at-times violent protests over charges of racial injustice, some of our kids are caught in the emotional crossfire simply because they live physically close to the fray. Others read scary headlines online, discuss these issues at school or experience racism firsthand themselves. Iggie’s House is a thoughtful observation of the shades of racism that still exist in the United States, one that may open a candid discussion about it between you and your young reader.
Great Talk No. 2: Why do people like to bully one another?
Who can forget Blubber, a sort of Lord of the Flies for fifth graders? This story of how one Mean Girl can rule an entire class—and viciously turn on a former partner-in-crime who finally stands up to her—is one for the ages. Our kids may now go through anti-bullying programs in school, but as parents we know this special sort of torment is alive and well, on and off the playground. How do we know? Because our kids tell us so. As Blume duly notes, “Some adults are bothered by the language and the cruelty [in the book], but the kids get it. They live it.”
This means Blubber is still an excellent way to tackle the subject, whether your child is on the giving or receiving end of such targeted treatment.
Great Talk No. 3: What do you really want to know about sex and your changing body?
Many of today’s tweens seem so much more worldly than we were at their age, thanks to increasingly trendy (read: inappropriate) clothing and access to the Internet. But don’t be fooled. Beneath that outer layer of cool reserve, girls and boys are just as befuddled and scared as they ever were about what the heck is happening to their bodies. Maybe even more so, what with the mixed, overtly sexual messages they’re bombarded with by the media on a daily basis, coupled with easy access to pornographic images and videos online. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Deenie; and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t not only frankly discuss touchy subjects such as menstruation, masturbation, erections and wet dreams, they do so in a way that allows kids to learn about puberty from the opposite sex’s perspective. I confess, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t was my own eye-opening introduction to the concept of boys’ tricky rites of passage. My mother covered periods with me, sure, but she never thought to discuss what happens down there with the guys. It was all a big mystery to me until a pal handed me her well-worn copy of Then Again. Come to think of it, I think I’ve done the exact same (limited) drill with my own sixth-grade daughter. Maybe it’s time to order this book. And have that talk.
Great Talk No. 4: Does teenage sex always have a negative consequence?
When Blume wrote Forever, a chronicle of young love that was first published in 1975, there were few novels out at the time that didn’t punish teen girls for going all the way. And none portrayed girls as having sexual feelings of their own. So Blume’s then-teenage daughter requested a story about a nice boy and girl who fall in love and have sex—and neither of them dies. And that’s what this book is about: the trajectory of being madly, deeply, passionately and responsibly in love with another person, only to have that love run its course.
Blume is well aware that today’s kids, who might consider MTV’s Teen Moms as celebrities or even role models, face repercussions that trump even the seriousness of an unwanted pregnancy, including potentially deadly sexually transmitted diseases. She advises on her website, “In this book [main character] Katherine visits a clinic and is given a prescription for The Pill. Today, she would be told it is essential to use a condom along with any other method of birth control. If you’re going to become sexually active, then you have to take responsibility for your own actions.”
Forever continues to inspire parents to talk with their kids not only about the dangers of becoming sexually active as teens, but also the emotional intricacies of relationships. The book also serves to remind us elders that our kids are people, too, capable of loving and losing, even if their timeline for doing so doesn’t always jibe with the one we’d assign for them.
Blume, who’s now 77, adds, “My daughter was fourteen when I dedicated this book to her. Today she’s a grown woman with a teenager of her own. I’m glad that some things, like falling in love, never change.”
She’s right again, of course. Some things do never change—including young people devouring (and learning from) Judy Blume books.