American author Judy Bloom claims she never expected her books to be banned. “When I started, in the ‘70s, it was a good time for children’s book writers,” she said in a recent interview with the UK Guardian.
“Children’s reading was much freer than in the ‘80s, when censorship started; when we elected Ronald Reagan [as president of the United States] and the conservatives decided that they would decide not just what their children would read but what all children would read, it went crazy. My feeling in the beginning was wait, this is America: we don’t have censorship, we have, you know, freedom to read, freedom to write, freedom of the press, we don’t do this, we don’t ban books. But then they did.”
The Guardian calls Blume “one of the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century. Her books have drawn fire from parents ever since the ‘80s for their frank depiction of puberty and sexuality.”
Meanwhile, at the Lennoxville Library, two of her short novels for young people, Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, were so popular when first acquired that patrons were restricted to a 14-day check-out, no renewals, “because of demand.” Yet now, some 40 or so years after their original publication, they can seem dated, and those two books are stored in the basement – still available upon request, but a request is rare.
Not that Blume, now 76, has ever stopped writing.
Summer Sisters (1998), in adult fiction, is an at times raunchy tale of a lifelong friendship that begins in Grade 6, when an erratic and spoiled rich kid, Caitlin, invites the grounded Victoria, whose family barely gets by, to spend the summer. Their almost 20-year friendship is constantly imperilled by sexual jealousy and all sorts of selfish behaviour, making it a wild romp of a read.
But the library also has far less controversial Blume tomes for youngsters that are still fan favorites. Consider Soupy Saturdays With The Pain And The Great One (2007, illustrated by James Stevenson, of the New Yorker magazine fame). This short book stars Abigail, who is in Grade Three and is known as The Great One because, says her brother, “she thinks she’s so great”, and Jacob Edward, who is in Grade One: “Everyone calls him Jake,” says his sister. “Everyone but me. I call him The Pain…”
Each child tells funny short stories about the other – like the time The Pain refused to get a haircut, or the time one took something of the other’s without permission.
There’s one refrain the two have in common. All together now: “Sometimes I think [our parents] love her/him more than me.”
And then there’s Fudge. He’s five. He lives in New York with Tootsie (one-and-a-half) and Peter, who has just finished Grade Six. Fudge-A-Mania (1990) is narrated by Peter, but all his fans know Fudge as the real star of this book (and series). In Fudge-A-Mania, Peter discovers the family is off to spend August in a country house in Maine. Except… it turns out there’s a shared kitchen with Sheila Tubman and her family. That’s Sheila, the Queen of the Cooties.
Thankfully, Peter gets permission to bring a friend, Jimmy, for protection.
As for Sheila Tubman, an older generation of Blume fans will recognize the star of Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great (1972). She’s 10, and this book begins one week before summer vacation. Sheila is a delight, but she is a bit of a baby – afraid of everything, petulant, and a liar.
Yet Sheila learns to grow up. A bit, anyway. (There’s a very nasty comment about being fat in this book; that would be the dated part. Please immunize your children against such awfulness.)
Meanwhile, the book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), another classic of old, features Margaret Simon, almost 12, as she struggles through Grade Six. “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!” And, in between discussing her day and asking for advice, she pleads with God for assistance: “Help me grow… you know where.”
Margaret is awaiting her first period (and here’s a dated part: she tests out a sanitary napkin belt).
She is also a child born of a marriage between a Christian and a Jew that that none of the grandparents sanctioned. In turn, her parents have brought her up with “no religion”, and tell her she can choose if and when she wants.
Blume is an icon to many, and still active in politics. A liberal (obviously), Blume told the Guardian she receives death threats (because of her support for Planned Parenthood).
Are You There, God? was intensely controversial when it was published. Argued Blume: “Kids will actually go to Mom or Dad and say, ‘What does this mean?’, which is the perfect time to talk to them about it. But that’s when sometimes parents get hysterical. Really. It’s like, ‘Argh, I don’t want to talk to you about this, let’s get rid of this book, I don’t ever want to talk to you about this, I don’t ever want you to go through puberty.'”
Blume is a product of her time. Many of her portraits of childhood, however, continue to entertain and even resonate: “I call him The Pain because that’s what he is.”
– Eleanor Brown, September 5, 2014