Judy Blume's Love, Writing About Kids Ages 9-12

Author Judy Blume talks with Renee Montagne about how a suburban housewife in New Jersey turned into one of the country's most celebrated children's writers and how her own childhood inspired her fiction writing.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We pick up our occasional series The Long View this morning with a look at childhood as depicted by Judy Blume. "Are you there God? It's me Margaret," "Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing," "Blubber" - just some of Blume's forays into the facts of life and family relationships: subjects that have landed some of her books on the banned lists over the years because grown-ups found them uncomfortable. Judy Blume was a young housewife herself, with children of her own, when she came to writing. It was the late 1960s. She was living on a cul-de-sac in suburban New Jersey. Then, as now, she was drawn to one particular time of life.

Ms. JUDY BLUME (Author): The child from nine to 12 interests me very much. And so, those were the years that I like to write about, when I'm writing.

MONTAGNE: You know it's funny, though some people remember their childhood, quite vividly, others maybe don't. I mean I for instance, have very distinct memories of certain moments, but my childhood is something of a blur. But it seems as if you really are there in the writing, when you're writing about, you know a sixth grader.

Ms. BLUME: Yeah, or even now, I mean, you know my most recent books are about a brother and sister, who are six and eight. I have very vivid memories, I can conjure them up, and I could just go on, and on, and on, and on, and on, I can smell the coatroom, you know on a snowy day. I think people who write for kids, we have that ability to go back into our own lives.

MONTAGNE: Does it matter if that childhood, in some way does it help to remember if times were a little harder?

Ms. BLUME: Well, I don't think there's any childhood that's 100 percent happy, because no matter what your life is like at home with your family, you still have to go out there to school. It's really going into the workplace every day, you know going to school, that's a kid's job. And it's certainly never all happy there. Anybody who says my childhood was completely happy is a person who isn't remembering the truth.

MONTAGNE: Even today, it's hard often, for people to imagine themselves being writers. How did you find your way to that?

Ms. BLUME: I never thought about writing. I was married young, I was still in college, as we did then, and I had two babies before I was 25, and I loved them, and I loved taking care of them, but I was a little bit cuckoo, staying at home and not having a creative outlet.

I mean my first career, if you want to call it a career, was I made felt wall hangings for children's bedrooms that I designed and glued together in my basement. And I once put them in a suitcase and with a lot of chutzpah, I went on the bus, I lived in New Jersey. I went to Bloomingdales in New York, and I found my way to the children's accessories buyer and I took out three samples. And this guy said yes, we want these. This was the highlight of my life. And I don't know how many I did before my fingers reacted to the Elmer's glue I was using and I knew I had to find another career. And I think that's when I decided maybe I would start to write rhyming children's books, because that's what I was reading to my own children.

MONTAGNE: Was there a specific sort of way in which you managed to fit that in to your life?

Ms. BLUME: Yes, they were in pre-school. And I had two hours every morning to myself, and that is when I wrote. You know, I was in my late 20s then, and it seemed that being 12 was just you know, it was just last week. I have to say that 12 is further away now, although I can still conjure it up. But then, it was right there, it was right there.

MONTAGNE: What you did was rather revolutionary in its time, the way you wrote about children and young people, and pre-teens, and the realistic I guess one would say, way in which they perceived the world. And the things they talked about, I mean certainly Nancy Drew never talked about that stuff.

Ms. BLUME: Well, you know what? Sitting down to write Margaret was just remembering what it was like for me, when I was Margaret's age. And you know, yeah for a while in my life I was totally obsessed by breast development and the idea of getting my period. And maybe that's because I was the late bloomer. I was sick of being the smallest in the class and the skinniest. And when I finally got a bra, of course I stuffed it with everything I could think of, including toilet paper, which was a big mistake. Because when I went to a dance with a bra stuffed with toilet paper, it crunched against the boy's chest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, you know what, you're speaking of course, when you speak about Margaret, you're speaking of the book "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret."

Ms. BLUME: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Would you read a little from that.

Ms. BLUME: Oh, I would love to. Oh, I'll read from the very beginning.

(reading) Are you there God? It's me Margaret. We're moving today. I'm so scared, God. I've never lived anywhere, but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me, God. Don't let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.

We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day, I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it's hot and humid to make sure her deodorant's working. I don't use deodorant yet. I don't think people start to smell bad, until they're at least 12, so I've still got a few months to go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: You have - I hope you don't mind - may I say, you have turned - a big age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLUME: Of course you can say it, are you kidding? You announced it. On my birthday last February 12th, I was in the shower and I heard the announcement. Today, Judy Blume is 70, and I thought, Ah, it must be true, if they're saying it on NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLUME: Because up to then it was like a joke. How could this possibly be true, I'm just the same as I always was, how could I be 70? But you know, I think it's a big turning point, because you look at that line on a graph, how many more years are there after 70? And you realize, you know what do I really want to do? How do I want to spend whatever time I have left? And sometimes I think I don't want to write anymore, it's too hard, it's too painful. But I'm happiest when I'm locked up in that little room, inventing characters and telling their stories. And so, I think I will continue.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Novelist Judy Blume. Tomorrow we look back at some kooky characters on one city block, with the co-creator of Sesame Street. This urban landscape was something new to children's TV.

Unidentified Woman: Children can move very fast between reality and fantasy, and need not be their experience, because if you stop and think about it, very little is of their experience.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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