The original influencer? How Judy Blume emboldened young girls like me

By Simmone Howell

Credit:New York Times

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When I hear the word “influencer” an image arises, of youthful, lissom Byron baes talking earnestly to camera. I do not think of women past middle-age, for is this not when the great disappearance begins? The older a women becomes the harder she is to find in the media.

So I was cheered to see my personal hero, 85-year-old children’s writer Judy Blume, on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people for 2023. This month sees the release of a documentary, Judy Blume Forever, directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok and featuring some of Blume’s famous fans, including actresses Molly Ringwald and Lena Dunham. Later this year, the film adaptation of her classic novel Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, starring Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates, will appear. So much Judy! Cue the raising hands emojis: it is time.

Judy Blume, main, and two of her famous fans, Molly Ringwald (top) and Lena Dunham, in the documentary Judy Blume Forever. Credit:Amazon Prime

Children’s and young adult writers have long held Judy Blume in high regard. Consider the Blume Effect: the surge of YA fiction that bubbled up in the oughts (the second golden age) was a direct result of a generation of women processing their girlhoods.

Judy Blume was the first author whose name I looked for in the library, my first “brand” author. I read her obsessively in the early ’80s and obscure details have stayed with me: Nancy’s nose “turned up so much I could look right into her nostrils” (Are You There God…); Karen’s new friend’s foot-shaped rug (It’s Not the End of the World); Tony’s hot neighbour Lisa hurling her cigarettes out the car window (Then Again Maybe I Won’t); Deenie’s capsule review of the Natalie Wood film Splendor in the Grass (Deenie). Blume’s young characters read the world around them, and I heard their voices in my ear: frank, funny, plaintive, peevish, both strange (American) and true.

Blume grew up in a Jewish family in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was a scared child, a people pleaser. She adored her father and found her mother emotionally unavailable. Blume was seven when World War II ended; she saw the newsreels and had an understanding of the atrocities committed. She also saw how the world kept turning. Judy Blume Forever details her coming of age in the post-war period: “In the ’50s so much was about pretend.” Blume acted the role of the perfect daughter, then the perfect wife, but, she quips, “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking just inside.”

Blume married young and had two children. Her husband okayed the writing as long as it didn’t interfere with family life. From the start she was drawn to writing from a child’s perspective. “I felt that adults kept secrets from kids. I hated those secrets. I had to make up what I thought those secrets were.” She had a few false starts and many rejections before finding success with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in 1970. She wrote the first draft in six weeks, while the kids were at school.

In the novel 11-year-old Margaret moves from New York to suburban New Jersey. God is her confidante. She addresses him throughout the novel, talking plainly about bodies, bras, boys and bad best friends. As well as the everyday stuff, Margaret researches religion, spurred by her own mixed faith, and asks the big existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s it all about?

Judy Blume books in her Florida bookshop, where she proudly sells banned books.Credit:New York Times

Eleven is an intense age: childhood is ending, nothing feels fixed. Eleven comes with a growing social awareness, and emotional intelligence, and a heightened sense of justice. It is distressing to realise that life isn’t fair, that bullies often win, and that adults aren’t all that interested in listening to you.

When I was 11, I so wanted someone to spill my soul to. I remember having deep conversations with the family dog. As much as I “got along” with my siblings, we were each our own impenetrable world. Around the time we first encountered Margaret, my sisters and I kept diaries. Maybe, subconsciously, we were writing for each other, things we wanted to say, but did not, things we wanted to be, but were not. In the ’80s the messaging was that girls were stupid and weak and boring. Books by Judy Blume (and M.E Kerr and Paula Danziger) that showed the inner lives of girls felt like the only things telling me that I was OK.

Judy Blume reading letters from fans in Judy Blume Forever.Credit:Amazon Prime

The Judy Blume Papers, in the Yale library archives, includes correspondence between Blume and her readers over the decades. One of the joys of Judy Blume Forever is hearing and seeing their words, the intimate phraseology, their confessions, and requests. It is an abundance of readers feeling known and seen. The documentary has commentary from several long-term correspondents who consider their relationship with Blume, her consideration of them, nothing short of life-changing.

I read Letters to Judy soon after its 1986 publication and was amazed, but not surprised at how personal the letters were. It strikes me now that readers writing to Blume is not so different from Margaret writing to God. Writing can be therapeutic. When we turn experience into words we give it distance, we hand it over. To be the recipient of all that wordage would have been a heavy burden at times. In the documentary Blume says it sent her to therapy, but she was good with that, she was grateful for it. (In her interviews she is as warm and funny and gracious as you’d suppose her to be.)

I have imagined Are You There God? so fully that I’m nervous to submit to anyone else’s vision. The fact that it is Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen) at the movie’s helm helps a little. The film is set in the ’70s, and I can imagine theatres packed with nostalgic Gen X-ers. But I wonder if today’s tweens are too busy Snapchatting and shoplifting bras from Lululemon to sit through depictions of 1970s adolescence.

Judy Blume, centre, with the stars of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Abby Ryder Fortson, left, and Rachel McAdams.Credit:AP

Still, there are other contemporary resonances. The banning of children’s books that’s been happening in the US comes to mind. Blume’s books have been banned over and over, “since” as Molly Ringwald writes, “there are always people for whom the thought of an empowered young woman’s autonomy over her mind and body is objectionable”.

Although Judy Blume doesn’t write books any more – she stopped after 2015’s In the Unlikely Event – she is still influencing readers. She owns a bookshop in Florida where she gleefully stocks banned books, and signs copies of her own for fans young and old. On Twitter, where she has more than half a million followers, her bio reads “Are you there, Twitter? It’s me, Judy.” We’re here, I reply (in my head, in this piece). We’re all still here.

Judy Blume Forever is on Amazon Prime Video from April 21.

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