When I was in elementary school, I would roller blade down the street to the public library, leave my skates in the hall, and plunk myself down in my favorite corner of the children’s section, the one where the “B” and “C” authors came together. This was because my favorite books were by Beverly Cleary (whose spunky heroine Ramona deserves her own post) and Judy Blume.
I was homeschooled, very sheltered, and moved every two years, so Blume’s books were a window into the normal American childhood I craved. I was independent and hated asking my parents questions (though I did once ask my dad what “testes” meant and he told me to look it up in the dictionary), so Blume’s books were the perfect way for me to get acquainted with concepts like puberty, dating, sexual desires, family conflict, etc. I think the best gift Judy Blume gave me was a feeling of normalcy, which I’ll expand on below. Without further ado, what I learned:
What “menstruation” means: Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? was the book that ignited my passion for all things Blume. I was 8 when I checked it out. The titular character, Margaret, can’t wait for her period to come and practices using pads in her closet. By reading between the lines, I figured out what a period was, though I still didn’t get exactly what section of the plumbing it involved (I initially thought it was the butt) and the outdated references to belted pads mystified me. I triumphantly told my dad I’d figured out menstruation, and he looked at my mom and was like, “I think you need to start, you know, talking to her about ladystuff. Ahem.”
What voyeurism is: Then Again, Maybe I Won’t features a boy protagonist, Tony, who habitually spies on his attractive teenage neighbor getting undressed, and even fakes an interest in ornithology to get his parents to buy him some binoculars (hey, serious voyeurs need top-of-the-line equipment). While his behavior is certainly intrusive, Blume handles it well by placing it in an overall narrative of burgeoning teenage sexuality and acknowledging kids often don’t know what is and is not appropriate. I never spied on any nude neighbors (never had the chance, sigh), but I did imagine kissing boys and decided to not be ashamed about it.
That Judaism is a religion: Before reading Blume’s books, I was supremely confused about what made someone Jewish and what being Jewish meant. I mistakenly thought goy must have something to do with being gay. Margaret from AYTGIMM and the titular character from Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself are both Jewish, though Margaret struggles to figure out whether she identifies more with her father’s Judaism or her mother’s Christianity. Both books include Jewish cultural references that helped me get a clue. I was intrigued by the idea that you can be born into one religion, which can be wrapped in your ethnic heritage, but it’s ok to convert to a different religion.
That siblings are terrible for many people: My older brother and next younger brother both had behavioral issues that caused me to fear they were possessed, on more than one occasion. Sometimes I felt like nobody else knew what it was like to have to be “the good kid” or to never get attention because your parents were always too busy trying to figure out whether to spank your siblings with the paddle or the belt (I kid, sort of). Then I read Just As Long As We’re Together. Rachel’s frustration with her heinous brother Charles, who gets expelled from boarding school and has a picture of a naked lady on his wall, made me feel like I wasn’t the only one.
That parental expectations can be a burden: In Deenie, the main character feels pressured by her mother to become a successful model. Deenie is pigeon-holed as “the pretty one,” while her older sister is “the smart one,” who is encouraged by their mother to become a doctor. In my family, I was “the smart one,” which wasn’t so bad, if it weren’t for my mother constantly giving exaggerated reports of my genius to all her friends and relatives. When I was 15, everybody thought I’d been accepted early admission to Harvard (that was probably my senile grandmother’s fault, mostly) and I hadn’t even taken the SATs yet. Then there was my mother’s insistence that I be “crafty.” I grudgingly finished a quilt, a doll-sized apron, Christmas ornaments, and a hook rug that took me over a year to get through. I sucked it up because it made my mother happy, but in my heart I knew it was ok to never touch another crafting implement after I turned 18.
That if you tacitly go along with bullies, that makes you a bully: Blubber is the Blume book I’ve read the most times. I’m not sure exactly why it resonated so much with me, as I was neither bullied nor a bully, but I imagine I related to the cautious protagonist, Jill, who reluctantly gives in to peer pressure and bullies Linda, a larger classmate. As an avoider, there were definitely times when I saw other kids getting picked on and didn’t speak up, because I didn’t want to be labeled “uncool.” I’d like to think Blubber played a role in my decision to punch one of the high school kids that knocked down my friend’s snowman (ok, ok, I probably should have gotten an adult to intervene). Also, Blubber introduced me to a vaguely-sketched concept of fat acceptance, as Linda is clearly the victim and doesn’t deserve to have her weight held against her.