Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
The perennially best-selling author Judy Blume is a rare phenomenon in children’s literature. Almost seventy million copies of her books have been sold worldwide. Her young fans pass around her books and compare notes, cram her mailbox with up to two thousand letters a month, and buy her books with great fervor. At the same time, her books are frequently subject to censorship. Blume’s works are characterized by emotional and sexual candor, total empathy with the concerns of childhood, and a direct colloquial tone, giving her readers the sense that she knows all their secrets.
Judy Blume was born on February 12, 1938, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Esther (Rosenfeld) and Rudolph Sussman, a dentist. When Judy was in third grade, she moved with her mother and her older brother David to Miami Beach, where the climate would help David recuperate from a kidney infection. Her father, to whom Blume was especially close, stayed behind in New Jersey, running his practice.
Blume has described her childhood home as culturally Jewish rather than religious. Her father had six brothers and sisters, almost all of whom died while Judy was growing up, and she has said, “a lot of my philosophy came from growing up in a family that was always sitting shiva.”
She graduated from New York University in 1960 with a B.A. in education. She married lawyer John M. Blume in 1959, the same year her father died. Her daughter Randy Lee was born in 1961, and son Lawrence Andrew in 1963. She divorced Blume in 1975, moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and later lived in London, England. In 1976, she married physicist Thomas A. Kitchens and moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico. She divorced her second husband in 1979 and moved to New York in 1981. In 1987, Blume married writer George Cooper.
Blume’s Beginnings as a Writer
Blume began writing after her children started nursery school in the mid-1960s. Although she had published two short stories, she received as many as six rejection slips a week for two and a half years before Reilly and Lee accepted her picture book, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo (1969). Her next book, Iggie’s House (1970), was written in the course of a writing class she took at New York University.
The tremendous success of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) was a turning point for Blume. She acknowledges that it was the first book she gave herself permission to write from her own experience, and it was then that she began to grow “as a writer and as a woman.” In the novel, Margaret Ann Simon, the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, asks God for direction in choosing a religion, and prays that she will soon get her period. When the story ends, Margaret is stuffing her bra with cotton balls. She has explored various religions but has chosen none.
Blume, who had no idea she was breaking any barriers with the novel, was surprised at the efforts to have her book banned from libraries. However, the New York Times Book Review ranked it as one of the best children’s books of the year, and it remains one of her most popular titles.
Blume’s great popularity can be attributed to her compassionate treatment of a range of subjects that concern her readers. Her books for younger children, such as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972), Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great (1972), Blubber (1974) and Double Fudge (2002), deal with problems of sibling rivalry, self-confidence, and social ostracism.
Books for teenagers, such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), Deenie (1973), and Just as Long as We’re Together (1987), consider matters of divorce, friendship, family breakups, and sexual development. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself (1977) and Tiger Eyes (1981) explore issues of death and loss. Forever (1975) is the story of a young woman’s first love and first sexual experience. In each of her books, Blume’s characters confront their feelings of confusion as they begin to search for a resolution for their problems.
Accomplishments and Critiques
Blume has said that she vividly remembers the questions and emotions of her own youth and that she attempts to show readers they are not alone in their fears and confusion. Her books read like diaries or journals, and the reader is drawn in by the narrator’s self-revelation. Blume’s work is laced with realistic personal details, from a child’s breakfast menu to sleepwear fashions.
While Blume’s work is popular with readers, critics have frequently asserted that the author’s readable style, with its emphasis on mundane detail, lacks the depth to deal with the complex issues that she raises. However, the overall evaluation of Blume’s work is ultimately determined by her loyal and enthusiastic readership. Her emotional adventure stories give her young readers a reference point from which to examine and discuss their own feelings.
Blume has also written three novels for adults which share the writing style and empathetic tone of her juvenile fiction: Wifey (1978), concerning a woman’s search for fulfillment in her life and marriage, Smart Women (1983), about a divorced woman trying to cope with single motherhood and new relationships, and Summer Sisters, which captures the intensity and complexity in the life-long friendship between two women.
In 1986, Blume published an anthology of letters she had received from readers called Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You (1986). The book is an attempt to help parents see life through their children’s eyes. Furthering this end, Blume established the KIDS Fund in 1981 to develop programs that encourage communication between parents and teens and that foster parent-child discussions through books.
In light of her own experiences, Blume fights actively against censorship, serving as the spokesperson for the National Coalition against Censorship. In 1999 she published Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers.
Judy Blume has received countless state and local awards for her books, as well as the International Reading Association Children’s Choice Award (1981), an American Book Award nomination for Tiger Eyes (1983), the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and Children’s Choice Award—Favorite Author (1983), and the Margaret A. Edwards Award (1996).