In the Blume of Life

One of America's most renowned young-adult fiction authors reveals why she is still relevant after so many years, while kids have changed so much.

Amid the endless shower of fantasy books for children in this post-Harry Potter era, a writer who creates exciting stories about routine life is worthy of esteem. American author Judy Blume has been doing this with great charm for more than four decades, and the secret of her everyday prose's magic is indeed intriguing.

Blume was born in 1938, and has written dozens of books for children and young adults. She has won important literary prizes for her witty, sensitive writing that is so very relevant to children. She also has written several best sellers for adults, two of which were translated into Hebrew ("Smart Women" at Kinneret and "Wifey" at Zmora Bitan ). However, it appears one of her main achievements is the very fact that she has continued to succeed in her career at a time when children have changed almost beyond recognition.

Judy Blume

Her book "Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One" (translated into Hebrew by Keter Books as "Shabbatot shel Marak im Hakotz Vehamushlemet" ) depicts the love-hate relationship between a sister, aka the Great One, and a brother, the Pain. The book, which is part of a series, frequently sent our household's youngest reader into gales of laughter as he read in his room. "It looks like this author knows me and my sister!" he said in amazement.

Blume has written other series for elementary-school children, like the Fudge books (in the Hebrew translations from Keter Books, "Pashosh" ). These works, which include "Superfudge" and "Double Fudge," are known for their outstanding humor and teachers often read them aloud in class, even in Israel. "It's Not the End of the World," "Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great" and other books by Blume also have been translated into Hebrew.

Asked how children connect to her books time after time, Blume answers modestly, "Maybe it's because I have two children and once upon a time they were not so much unlike the kids in the book. But it's been a long, long time since I lived at home with children," she says from her home in the United States.

Be that as it may, she says none of her stories are based specifically on life with her own two sons. "I think being part of a family or having siblings never changes. It's universal," she explains.

"There are two of me: Me the grown-up, the grandmother, and me who still sees the world through the eyes of a child. I can be 4 years old or 12 years old. That's not something I think about, but when I am writing I guess that's where I go. To that part of myself which is still at that age."

Blume grew up in New Jersey. She was an inventive child, and would play make-believe by herself, she recalls: "I would spend time alone without feeling lonely. It was my way of playing. I had always had my stories. I was an imaginative child, very shy. And also I liked the real world. I liked being with other children. By the time I was 10, I was out on the street playing all the time. That's how we grew up. There were lots of children. Parents weren't afraid of letting you out."

When she began writing, she simply jotted down the stories running through her mind. When her son was 9 years old, Blume heard him laughing as he read a book (not one she wrote ). "I said to myself, this is the best thing it is possible to give a child: laughter," she remembers.

No one to talk to

Blume is one of the first authors to have written books for teens - especially girls - about bittersweet adolescence, the first bra and the first boyfriend, life without a father, divorce and other subjects. In the United States, young-adult literature is considered a category of its own. Blume without a doubt was the pioneer of the genre, and many writers seem to copy her intelligent and ironic style, or simply derive inspiration from her.

Books written for teenagers today, which often treat sex delicately, now seem taken for granted. However, in the 1970s and the early 1980s, Blume was writing about things adults didn't want children to read about. Menstruation, for example. Blume is a great believer in telling children the truth.

"Like Sally in [her book ] 'Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself,' I had so many questions that no one answered," she relates. "Questions about the war years. I was 7 when World War II ended. Really small. If I had so many questions that nobody answered truthfully, I would have stopped asking them and like Sally come up with imaginary stories."

One of her best-known, most touching books is "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." The book, published in 1970, is written from the perspective of a prepubescent sixth-grader with a Jewish father and a Christian mother. She is very concerned about her religious identity, and she goes through big changes. She transfers schools, meets new friends and gets her first period.

"Margaret was the kind of a child I was. It was my relationship with God I wrote about. I had that kind of relationship with God. I actually felt the presence of God when I was alone in the room talking to God. It is not my story though," says Blume, who is from a Jewish family.

Blume's character explores things that might have been off-limits. She doubts, she gets angry at God. This displeased some fundamentalist Christian groups, as well as parents who were not happy Blume was exposing children to sensitive issues. In the early 1980s these groups tried to censor her books and in some states they were indeed removed from libraries. And even though things have changed considerably there, she says, every year some of her books appear on a list of "challenged books" - works that some people want to have censored.

In the wake of this experience, Blume became a prominent activist against censorship.

"Writing is something I do spontaneously, naturally," she says. "I just let it happen. When I started it was not a conscious decision. I was telling what I knew to be the truth. I can't remember actually of having decided about that ... I remember when I became a mother I decided that [to tell the truth]. No one was honest with me, you know [in my childhood] ... I would be able to deal with the truth, answer every question. I think I did that better in writing than as a parent.

"What started out in the extreme Christian right, the fundamentalist right, has spread even to the liberal left. And what can I say? To me it's craziness.

"I grew up in a house full of books. My parents thought reading is a good thing. When I was very small I sat on the floor and played with the books. I couldn't read. By the time I was a little bit older I was reading the books that were on the book shelf. I didn't say to my parents, 'Can I?' They were not categorized as children's books. There were no books about teenagers. And so I read everything. And it was the same in my house. Even if the books were not age appropriate."

In the 1980s, puberty was a dirty topic, and some people couldn't accept writing about it, she says. The censorship was evident "not in public libraries, but in school libraries. A school librarian, a teacher, they can lose their jobs ... You are not alone, I like to tell them. We now have the National Coalition Against Censorship. And there are many people who are willing to stand up for your rights and the rights of the readers."

The objections always come in reaction to popular books, she says, adding that when "Harry Potter" was published, she sat by and waited for people to attack, and attack they did - claiming the books were inappropriate for children because they contained witchcraft.

In 1999 Blume came out in defense of J.K. Rowling's books and wrote a flattering opinion piece for The New York Times. Writers need to be encouraged to write without fear, she says, adding that her publishers never have restricted her.

Meanwhile, her son, Lawrence Blume, is now directing a low-budget film based on her book "Tiger Eyes." The story is about a 15-year-old girl named Davey whose father is murdered in his store. She is sent to the home of her aunt and uncle in New Mexico, but has trouble accepting her father's death.

Blume wrote the screenplay with her son, and recently visited the set.

"It's exciting to see your story come alive in front of your eyes," she says enthusiastically.

Asked whether she would produce another movie, Blume says maybe. She does not intend to stop writing books, however. After all, what really excites her are children - and writing about them.