I'd be hard-pressed to name my favorite Judy Blume book. From Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, I learned about families, anti-Semitism, dads and daughters, love. From Blubber, I learned about mean girls, how kids can be cruel, and about girls who wind up being "mean" even though maybe they didn't intend to be. From Iggie's House, racism. From Forever there was sex; there was also sex, or, more specifically, puberty in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Then Again Maybe I Won't. It's Not the End of the World was about divorce. I devoured them all.
Of course, there are many more books in the Blume canon, and you probably have a favorite, a reason why, and a memory of how those books changed you. A few I heard: "Tiger Eyes... or rather, the sections of Tiger Eyes my older sister had marked with dog-eared pages"; "Superfudge. I found a kindred soul"; "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I read it again with my daughter when she was in fourth grade. Still loved it"; and "Are You There God..... We all need someone to talk to!"
Blume is 74. She's still writing; when last I communicated with her assistant, Peg Owen, in the late spring, she was beginning a new book. And she's still teaching us lessons. The latest, one of particular gravity, comes in the form of a blog post, which she wrote today, titled !@#$% Happens. Today, Owen wrote us, "Judy appreciates all the messages she's been getting regarding the post," and added in the best no comment we've received, "Unfortunately, she's traveling promoting the Tiger Eyes movie right now, so she's not available to comment for your article." Earlier this year, Blume explained, she was planning a dream summer of spending weeks in a castle in Italy writing, when she visited the radiologist in early June for a routine ultrasound, given her dense breast tissue. That led to a biopsy, which she nearly put off—a lot of women can surely relate. What came back in the biopsy report was a diagnosis of breast cancer. "It was good that I wasn't alone and that she, who has been my doctor for seventeen years, could explain it to me," she writes. "Very early. Very small. Well differentiated. All good news. But it was invasive ductal carcinoma ... How is this possible? Well, guess what – it’s possible." Again, we can relate, and again there are more lessons.
She sprang to action, assembled a team of health care providers, learned everything she could, and ultimately decided to have have mastectomy and reconstruction. In her post, she talks about these decisions, and what they meant for her, in typical Blume fashion: "I have small breasts (a la Margaret Simon). A-cups? The breast surgeon asked at our first meeting. She nailed it. I told her the exercises didn't work for me. Not sure she got my attempt at a joke." Later in her post, in a section headed July 30, she writes, "I'm not afraid of surgery. Maybe I should be. Anesthesia can be dangerous but I'd had a hysterectomy seventeen years ago (cervical cancer caused by HPV). We didn't know it was cervical cancer before the surgery but we knew something was going on. Caught it just in time, extensive but still in situ. No other treatment necessary. Another story for another time." In another paragraph, following up a month after surgery, she writes that she is "feeling stronger every day," and thinking about getting back to her book "after Labor Day, kind of like starting school."
If there are bright spots to be found in a diagnosis of cancer, they are these: That Blume's recovery appears to be going positively, and that she addresses her illness with the same honesty and bravery and steadiness of hand with which she's addressed so many other topics before. It's somehow fitting that she'd remind us to take care of ourselves, to get regular mammograms and sonograms if need be, just as she gently guided us into the wide world of women's health, and just as she's continued to support pro-woman causes, like Planned Parenthood and HPV vaccinations. We owe her a lot, and now we owe her even more, but she gives it freely: "Medical diagnoses can leave you feeling alone and scared. When it comes to breast cancer you’re not alone, and scary though it is, there’s a network of amazing women to help you through it," she writes. Also, "If you have dense breast tissue ask your radiologist about having a sonogram."
As a show of support, I reached out to Blume fans (and there are many) from the kids and teen book world, to gather some favorite Judy memories and what we learned from her. Here are a few:
"Judy Blume was definitely one of my literary heroes when I was a kid. I read everything she wrote, but for some reason, my strongest memory is of reading Tiger Eyes (1981)—a book in which a teenage girl deals with the emotions that come after the murder of her father and her subsequent relocation to a different state with her grief-stricken mother and younger brother. There were definitely some very "mature" themes being explored in the book—Davey starts a new high school, her best friend is an alcoholic, she meets boys, she deals with death, fear, isolation, etc. What strikes me the most now is that although I was not quite a teen when I read it, I didn't feel like I was reading something I 'shouldn't' have been reading. At the same time, I didn't feel like I was being talked down to, either. In other words, Blume has a knack for writing about adult and young adult issues for a younger audience without being preachy or condescending, or unealistic/sensationalistic."
This sort of reading is very important for kids and teens to experience, which is why I still recommend to my young patrons today (especially the girls) the books that I read as a kid—the books that helped shape me as a reader and as a person. (Also, a funny ALLEGEDLY TRUE story my mom likes to tell: when I was a kid, I was reading Are You There God? It's Me Margaret on the beach during a family vacation. Apparently, I didn't know what 'menstruation' meant exactly, so I asked the nearest adult—who happened to be my very sweet, shy uncle. It's said that he turned red and told me to talk to my mother. Oops!)." —Rita Meade, children's librarian, Brooklyn, NY
"I have been blessed twice by Judy Blume. As a fast-growing sixth grader, towering over (and blossoming before) my classmates, Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret was a lifeline. My mother's way of educating me about my body was to hand me a box of tampons and tell me to read the instructions. Judy taught me what I really needed to know; that I was normal, that I was going to be OK, and that books could fill the holes left by the adults in my life. When my novel, Speak, faced censorship challenges, I turned again to Judy for advice and comfort. She is the big sister I always wanted. I guess she's the big sister I've always had." —Laurie Halse Anderson, Y.A. novelist
"Judy Blume was one of the authors who made me feel like it was just okay to be me, and okay to be a girl, and as I got older, that it was going to be okay to be a woman. Forever... was the first book I read that made me feel like it was okay to want to have sex. Summer Sisters was one of my first book group discussions, if girls whispering about a book at a lunch table can be a book group. I met her last winter and remember nothing of it, because I blacked out from joy, aside from the feeling of being in an elevator with Judy Blume and thinking 'AHHH YOU ARE IN AN ELEVATOR WITH JUDY BLUME' and also, really envying her hair." —Stephanie Anderson, librarian, Bookavore, daughter of Laurie Halse Anderson
"I know some consider it a cliche to discuss the milestone of reading Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, but it truly was one of the very first books that spoke to me about issues that I couldn't express to anyone out loud. I was 10 and struggling to deal with my ridiculously early development -- inside and out. Margaret's musings about religion, friendship and those life-changing but embarrassing moments like buying your first bra and dealing with your first period -- it was like Blume had written Margaret's story just for me. I knew I wasn't alone, trying to figure out what the changes in my body and my soul meant."
Even though the times have changed, those roller-coaster eary adolescent feelings Blume explored via Margaret haven't. My sister, who is 12 years older, gave me the book, having read it herself in the mid '70s. I read it in the mid '80s, and I can't wait to share it with my own daughter in a couple of years when she's a tween." —Sandie Angulo Chen, Teen Lit Rocks
"I can't count the number of things I learned from Judy Blume books -- growing up in a small town in Oregon, there was a lot I didn't know about the rest of the world. But I learned about scoliosis and eczema from Deenie, about little brothers from Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, and about so many things from Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which was my favorite (I mean, other than Forever, which my best friend and I read and re-read as if we'd be able to absorb all the mysteries of sex and relationships from its pages). Sally was a nervous, curious kid just like me, but her Florida seemed like a foreign country, full of jellyfish and old movies and party lines. I knew nothing about anti-Semitism and very little about racism, and Sally's story was eye-opening without ever being didactic. Blume is a master of combining the universal dramas of young-adulthood with experiences we didn't all have, and I'm grateful to have grown up reading her books." —Molly Templeton, bookseller, WORD
Our thoughts and our thanks are with you, Judy.