In a clever bit of counterprogramming, Symphony Space in New York City scheduled its Judy Blume party for Super Bowl Sunday. (“We’re all rooting for Judy’s team, The Mighty Training Bras!” yelled the evening’s host, New York Times-bestselling author Meg Wolitzer.) A host of luminaries, from Molly Ringwald to Samantha Bee, read from Blume’s work. More celebs offered birthday greetings via big-screen video: Gary Shteyngart said, “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret got me through Hebrew school,” and Whoopi Goldberg confided, “You are still my favorite banned author.”
It’s hard to believe Judy Blume is 80. Generations of kids have grown up with her and shared her books with their own children and even grandchildren. I was shocked—and should not have been—by how much my own girls loved Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, even though they read my ancient disintegrating copy, with its references to “sanitary napkins” and little pink belts with plastic hooks, rather than the updated version, which was issued in 2006 and in which Margaret uses maxi-pads. My daughters were clueless about menstruation-related marketing anyway, so it didn’t matter. And Margaret’s concerns—about being liked and keeping up and navigating the changes and no-changes in her body and figuring out what religion meant to her in a pluralistic world—all these worries were utterly immediate to them, as they were to me. Josie’s bat mitzvah program was a copy of the book’s vintage cover with the line “Margaret Simon—almost 12 and full of questions” changed to a quotation from Lech L’cha. (A parashah literally called “go forth to yourself” is actually a great match for Blume’s work.)
Nearly 950 people—almost all female—filled the sold-out auditorium, nearly gibbering with excitement. (Earlier in the day, there had been an event for kids, too. There, National Book Award-winner and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson and other popular children’s book authors talked about what Blume had meant to them. She also noted what was absent in Blume’s work: anyone who looked like her. “Reading Judy’s books and not seeing kids of color in them made me want to put those kids of color on the page,” Woodson said.) As people filed in, there were periodic shrieks of joy and recognition—everyone seemed to know someone else in the room, someone they didn’t know would also be there.
Wolitzer more than held her own in a roomful of comedians. Explaining the derivation of the name Blumesday, she said, “I mean, we love James Joyce, but where was he when we got our periods?” She read a spoken-word piece (using the hipster cadence of pretentious Beats and performance poets) constructed from Blume’s titles:
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Rebecca Wolitzer.
What is happening in our country?
It’s starting to remind me of Watergate, because it’s feeling kind of John Dean-y [DEENIE, GET IT? DEENIE!]
Just as Long as We’re Together, we’ll get through the Trump years.
They won’t last Forever.
And In the Unlikely Event that he’s around in 2020, I will spend the rest of my life just Blubber-ing,
And getting totally shitfaced on glass after glass of…Freckle Juice.
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.
In what the program billed as “a Whirlwind Tour of Blume Books” performers Tavi Gevinson (Rookie Magazine, The Crucible), Julie Klausner (Difficult People), Jenna Ushkowitz (Glee), Laura Gómez (Orange Is the New Black), Michael Chernus (Orange Is the New Black) and Giullian Yao Gioiello (Julie’s Greenroom) read a bunch of scenes aloud. It went on a little too long, and while it showcased Blume’s gift for naturalistic, funny dialogue, it didn’t show off what she did best: create characters that generations of girls could identify with. (And, fine, boys, too: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is for any kid who has ever been bedeviled by a younger sibling, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t is notable for its sympathetic depiction of a 12-year-old boy contending with anxiety, wet dreams, and ill-timed erections … but in my humble experience, girls have always been the ones driving the Judy Blume fandom van.)
Ringwald, with her signature bright red hair, in a black pantsuit and red sky-high heels (“she looks fabulous!” cooed the older woman behind me), recalled performing as a little kid in the West Coast premiere of Annie. “All the orphans’ mothers were reading Wifey,” she said. She chose to read from Are You There, God. The audience clearly wanted to recite, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” with her, but she didn’t encourage it. Wolitzer gave the people what they wanted by following up with her own chant: “We must, we must, we must increase the number of female Democratic candidates in government!” making the crowd erupt in wild cheers.
In an odd choice, the woman whom Sady Doyle called most hated woman on the internet, Amanda Palmer (who describes herself as “performer, writer, giver, taker, listener, love-lover, rule-hater and co-founder of the Brechtian punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls”), presented a new video of her song, “Judy Blume.” She’ll be releasing the song on her own pay-what-you-wish website next week. It is a long and uncomfortable song. A snippet:
One day they ignored me, the next, they were all down my pants,
But you were in bed with me, safe, before anyone else,
You opened beside me and held me when I needed help,
You and me lying together at night, my hero,
You’ve been inside me forever, Judy Blume.
Watching the video, in which the camera swirled dizzyingly around Palmer as she pounded at her piano in a Southern-Gothic-y, flowery parlor crammed with dozens of people pretending to read Judy Blume books felt like being strapped into a chair, Clockwork Orange-style, and being forced to gaze at a horrid person’s Instagram.
As the evening progressed, the emphasis on the sexuality of Blume’s work started to feel relentless. Two monologues from Blume’s adult novel Wifey were about sexual frustration. (Both well-performed by Julie Klausner and Samantha Bee, but genug, you know?) By the time Hasan Minhaj (The Daily Show) and Phoebe Robinson (Two Dope Queens) showed up to read from 1975’s Forever, I was weary. It got worse. Minaj clearly hadn’t read the scene he was performing, let alone the book, before going on stage. He kept gasping, “This is so NSFW!” and criticizing the sexual cluelessness of his character, Michael. On the one hand, his giggling and eye-rolling was a throwback to how we all read it when we were 11. (And after the show, on the sidewalk, in the rain, strangers shared stories about passing the book around clandestinely at summer camp, in Jewish day school, on the bus, telling friends which page numbers were the dirtiest.) “I like your style, JB,” Minaj said, faux-suave, mid-passage. Another time, after making fun of Michael, he added: “No disrespect, JB, I love you.” Waves of loathing wafted toward him from the audience. “Why does he have to be such a douche?” the woman behind me wondered. The woman next to me muttered, “He’s dead to me.” Finally, a woman in the front row yelled at him, “It was a different time!” His scene partner, Phoebe Robinson, made fun of Catherine’s naivete, too, but in an older-sisterly way. She made us laugh with Catherine, not at her.
Minaj’s snideness felt like a betrayal. Here was this frat-boy-like dude in a roomful of women, doing material that felt totally dismissive of an icon and of literature that women cared deeply about. It felt like, you know, the entire real world. It popped the bubble of safe space that Judy Blume had always created for us.
And I started thinking about what else was disappointing about the evening. Why weren’t we talking about Blume’s decades of advocacy for intellectual freedom, with the National Coalition Against Censorship? (Young-adult superstar John Green, at least, mentioned it in his video tribute, and Wolitzer mentioned how often Blume herself has been banned: “She also has this in common with James Joyce,” she noted.) Why couldn’t this event be a fundraiser for the NCAC or a children’s literacy charity? Why couldn’t there have been some interactive audience component, a way for these superfans to be more than passive observers? A “How well do you know Judy Blume’s books?” quiz we could scream out answers to, or a “show of hands” survey about the moral questions Blume’s characters wrestle with?
Thankfully, there was a brief respite from sex when two of the many young authors Blume has mentored, Rachel Vail and Tayari Jones, spoke about what Blume had done for them personally. Vail, who’d loved Blume as a kid the way we did, said, “She told me I was a good writer. And I believed her. Because she was Judy Fucking Blume. And she had never lied to me.” Jones, for her part, called Blume her fairy godmother. Right before a writers’ conference, Jones, author of two well-reviewed novels, found out she’d been dropped by her publisher. Depressed almost beyond words, she dragged herself to the conference, where an older woman approached her. The woman told Jones she’d heard about her career setback, sympathized, and said, “You need to meet Elisabeth!” and dragged her over to another woman. Elisabeth asked Tayari, “How do you know Judy?” Tayari said, “I don’t know any Judy?” And Elisabeth, who turned out to be Elisabeth Scharlatt, editor of Algonquin Books, said, “Judy Blume! She just introduced us!” Jones turned around, but Blume had disappeared. Scharlatt became Jones’ publisher; Jones’s new book with Algonquin, An American Marriage, which came out last week, has gotten rave reviews, is Oprah’s Book Club’s 2018 selection, and is the ninth-bestselling book on Amazon. (The New York Public Library doesn’t have it yet, and the wait list for the first copy is already 251 people long. I checked.)
I needed more stories like this. I needed stories that said the real Judy Blume was as generous as the Judy in our heads. (To be fair, author Libba Bray told a wonderful story on video about Judy Blume lending her, a perfect stranger, her lipstick, in a public bathroom. “That sort of means we made out,” Bray clarified.)
At the end of the night, Blume herself came out to wave and say thank you. The audience leapt to its feet, hollering its love. She looked beautiful, and not-80, and wore a beige flax-y linen-y expensive-hippie-looking patchwork swing jacket and big cool earrings. She looked like a Berkeley therapist. She thanked everyone, but noted, with the “steely warmth” Jones described, “I’ve written about other stuff besides sex, you know.”
The evening’s overemphasis on sex tamped down what was special about Blume’s books for younger kids, and why we loved her without knowing her: She saw us. She didn’t offer us bright pretty lies about childhood. Her books felt true but kind. (Well, all except Blubber.) And funny.
And, I suspect, like a lot of women in that theater, I loved Judy because she showed me myself in a children’s book for the first time. I’d never read about a Jewish girl who didn’t live in a shtetl or Nazi Europe. Judy wrote middle-class, secular American Jewish girls navigating a mostly non-Jewish life. No shtetls, no Nazis. Her characters certainly wrestled with Jewish identity and history (my own fave Blume book, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, is a brilliant example), but they worried more about their popularity, the size of their feet, how to stand up to cruel friends.
And when Blume’s books did address Nazi Europe, they were (shockingly to adults, not shockingly to kids) funny. Take this scene from Sally J. Freedman:
“Let’s play Love and Romance today,” Alice said. “Sally and Betsy can be the boys and me and Christine will be the girls.”
“No thank you,” Betsy said. “I was the boy last time.”
“That’s because you’re so tall,” Christine told her. “You make a good boy.”
“Let’s play War instead,” Sally suggested.
“Oh, I’m sick of playing War,” Alice said. “I always wind up being Hitler!”
“Well, you can’t expect me to be Hitler,” Sally said. “I’m Jewish.”
“So…everybody expects me to be the boy and I’m really a girl,” Betsy argued.
“That’s different!” Sally said. “But if you don’t want to play War I have another idea…”
“What?” Alice Ingram asked.
“We can play Concentration Camp instead. And nobody has to be Hitler because he is away on business.”
Sally J.—Blume’s most autobiographical book—is set in 1947, but Sally’s imaginings feel like the summer-camp-wide Nazi-themed role-playing escape games Jewish kids play today. As Samantha Bee said in passing, “The most important thing I learned from Judy that I still carry with me is, ‘Never talk down to your audience.’” (Hear that, Hasan Minhaj?) Judy Blume never did, and that’s why we loved her, and why kids today still do.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.