Judy Blume, on top of the world (and her Key West bookstore)
At Books & Books, the nonprofit store Judy Blume and her husband have run for the past seven years, you will find her own work in various sections: from general fiction, among the other “B”-named authors, to a shelf dedicated to her — a name unto herself.
For more than 50 years, Blume has been a proud member of the literary community. She is also a literary celebrity of the rarest kind, who has not only sold millions of books, but also moved young readers so profoundly that, as adults, they approach her in tears and thank her.
“I remind them of their childhood,” she likes to say.
Now 85, Blume has never been forgotten, but is currently enjoying renewed interest. For the first time, one of her books has been adapted into a major Hollywood film: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Premiering next week, it stars Abby Ryder Fortson as the preteen from New Jersey with a lot of questions about religion, boys and her own body. There’s also a new documentary, “Judy Blume Forever.”
Books & Books has become a Key West destination, like the former home of Ernest Hemingway. Blume spoke recently from a favorite refuge — its roof, looking out on a muggy morning over the island city.
“I have no private life anymore,” she laments with a smile, reflecting on press events from Los Angeles to the independent movie theater, co-founded by her husband, just down the street.
Born Judith Sussman and raised in New Jersey, she is a lifelong reader and lifelong storyteller. But she had no Judy Blumes to turn to as a child, no books affirming her deepest thoughts or guiding her through physical and emotional changes. Like countless women of her generation, she was expected to marry and raise a family, and fulfilled those promises early. But by the end of the 1960s, the wife and mother was becoming a professional writer. She published “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo” in 1969, soon followed by “Iggie’s House” and “Are You There God?”
“It was a year of obsession with bodily development," she says of her own sixth-grade experience. "I wanted to be normal. I was a late developer, a tiny kid, and I just wanted to be like everybody else.”
She has since written more than a dozen books, sold more than 80 million copies and challenged many taboos: Teenage sex in “Forever,” masturbation in “Deenie,” divorce in “It’s Not the End of the World" (Blume and her first husband divorced in 1975).
Her power wasn’t only in what she wrote, but her voice — confiding and inquisitive, open and matter-of-fact about the most sensitive topics, as if sharing secrets with friends unseen.
“These are not books to be read aloud in a classroom,” Blume says. “These are books to take into your bed. They are personal and intimate.”
Censors have offered their own kind of tribute by trying to keep young people from reading Blume. “Are You There God?”, “Forever” and “Deenie” have been frequently challenged and complained about over the past 30 years, according to the American Library Association. Blume noted a bill being considered by the Florida House would ban discussion of menstrual cycles in elementary schools. It reminds her of a principal in New Jersey who objected to “Are You There God?” when it was first published.
“He said, ‘I can’t have girls in our school reading about this.’ And I’m like, ‘Do you know how many girls in the fifth and sixth grade have already had their periods?’” Blume says. “Now, look what’s going on in Florida. You have girls being told not to talk about menstruation. What are you going to do? Of course they’re going to talk about it.”
The adaptation has a sentimental feel only time can add. Blume set her story in what was then the present — the late 1960s to early 1970s. The film takes place in the same era, which Blume insisted upon.
“This book cannot be updated because of the electronics. I don’t want them to have phones. I don’t want them to be texting,” she says.
“It’s not for the kids, although they can go — they’re welcome to go, I hope they do,” she says. “It’s a nostalgia piece. And it’s really for the people who grew up with it. It’s girl’s night out.”
Blume had long resisted requests to grant the film rights. But she loved Craig's “Edge of Seventeen,” and was open to meeting after the filmmaker emailed her. Authors have had a long, troubled history with the filming of their books, but Blume seems happy. She has enthusiastically promoted the project, citing just one objection — an objection that could only come from her.
In one of the book’s most famous passages, Margaret and her friends chant “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” with an accompanying exercise. But Blume noticed something off in how the kids were moving their arms on set.
“I discovered I had been doing it wrong for 30 years,” Craig says. “All my friends, when we we were little, we’d kind of clap our hands together and push them real hard and flex our muscles. That’s the way it was going in my mind. And Judy says, ‘No, no, no, that’s not how you do it. You clench your hands and pull your arms back.’”
Craig continues: “I was happy she was there that day. I couldn’t get such an iconic moment wrong.”