I get a little lump in my throat every time I think about the Judy Blume panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. And I’m not the only one. A number of the Q&A participants teared up as they thanked her for bringing her work into the world.
What is it about Judy Blume’s books that makes such a deep impact? That the memory of reading them is etched into our minds long after the last page is turned?
We might never have had the chance to read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great or the Fudge books if Blume hadn’t hearkened to that niggling sensation telling her something was missing. She decided to take a class on writing for children at New York University, she told the audience at the sold out panel.
And lucky for her future readers, she had a teacher who was encouraging and she kept submitting to publishers even after the rejections arrived in the mail.
“There’s no art without rejection,” Blume said. “It’s painful stuff and I can’t say I ever got over it.”
When an acceptance letter finally did come, Blume recounted how she and the mailman (who had delivered so many rejections) literally danced across the front lawn.
Blume discussed aspects of the writing process. “I hate first drafts. It’s torture; it’s painful,” she said.
On revising, Blume said she doesn’t allow herself to backtrack on revisions–she works from beginning to end without looking back. She went through twenty-three drafts before finishing Summer Sisters (which made me feel infinitely better about being on my fourth MS draft, knowing I have many more ahead before I can consider it ready for submission).
She also gave some advice to parents tempted to share books they loved as youths with their children. Rather than approaching the child, carrying on about how much you loved the book and think your child will love it too, shoving your beat-up copy into their little hands, Blume suggested investing in a new copy of the book with an updated cover, leaving it around the house and, when the child picks up the book, telling them, “you’re not ready for that.”
She also advised parents not to be judgmental about whatever their children want to read, and declared her distaste for the phrase, “That’s below your reading level.”
Blume has taken on topics that could be considered risqué. She wrote Forever for her daughter, Amanda. Her daughter had noticed that, in all of the books she read, terrible things happened to young women who gave in to sex. Blume felt that young adult books disallowed sexual gratification for women, so she wrote a story where sex didn’t spur a young girl’s downfall. Due to the content, her publisher marketed Forever as an adult novel, though it was not intended to be classified as one.
Taking on tricky topics doesn’t bother Blume. After admitting that many of Sheila’s fears were her own, she added, “The only place I wasn’t afraid of anything was when I was writing.”
From the start, Blume wanted to tell the truth from what she knew. And there were no books about family that made her feel like her own family was okay, she said.
And that’s what stuck with me and what was expressed by the thankful Q&A participants. Blume gave her readers a sense of understanding through her stories. We saw ourselves and our families and our own stories through an honest lens and we were told that it was okay to be who we were, with all of our flaws and eccentricities; we were told that our struggles and questions were normal and nothing to be ashamed of. We didn’t have to strive to be someone else–we could be the heroes of our own stories.
“Writing changed everything for me,” Blume said. I believe it changed everything for her readers as well.