Developing a love of reading
Hi, I'm Judy Blume and I write books. When I was about four, my mother took me every week to the public library in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where I climbed up what seemed like 100 rickety steps — outdoor steps — to get to the children's room. And once I was there, and my mother left me. She was there, but it seems to me anyway that she stayed out of it and I sat on the floor and I picked the books off the shelves.
And before I ever opened them, I sniffed them. I loved the way they smelled, so warm and ripe and wonderful. And then I would open them and you know to this day, when one of my books comes (a new book that's just been published), the first thing I do is sniff it. They don't smell the same anymore, but that printer's ink and mixed with all the children who had read it before me. So I learned to love books early on.
It's funny because I don't really remember being read to. I don't think my parents' generation knew to read to children as much as I did and my children do to read to theirs. My house was filled with books and we had bookshelves flanking the fireplace in the living room and I would sit on the floor there at 12 and take the books off the shelves and read them. And I discovered Salinger and Bellow and O'Hara and Rand. I discovered so many wonderful writers. I'm sure I had no idea what I was reading, but I loved reading these books.
And even if I didn't get it all, I got enough. I got a taste of what the adult world was all about and that is really what I was interested in by the time I was 12 and 13. I don't want to say that my parents didn't read to me because clearly they did and Madeline was my favorite book — my first great love. And I memorized that book and so clearly someone was reading to me. It's odd that I don't remember that experience of being read to when I was small, but there was a coziness in the family and books were a huge part of it — both my parents were readers. It was my mother who handed me the Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank's diary. She never said, "You have to read this." This was long before these books were part of a middle school curriculum. It was my mother who gave me To Kill a Mockingbird. We shared books. We didn't really communicate. We didn't talk a lot, at all really.
My father was the great communicator. My father was the storyteller. He was a wonderful storyteller and he was always asked to emcee his dental society dinners because he was funny and he could tell jokes and he was very good at it and everybody loved my father. My friends came to the house and loved to be with my father. But from them, I think I developed a love of reading because they were always reading.
Writing realistic fiction
When you write fiction, even if you think you're not writing autobiographical fiction, you are always drawing on your experiences and I say that I come back over and over and over to the early years of my life, especially nine through twelve. That's a decade that I return to again and again. I remember it so clearly. My mother used to say, "Just leave me out of your books!"
And I always thought that I did except for one autobiographical novel, which is Starring Sallie J. Freedman As Herself. And my mother was not happy about that book, really. She was very private, very shy. She never told me not to write it. She never said, "I don't like this book." But she did say, "Just leave me out your books."
Nevertheless, when you're writing about children, most of them have families. And especially in my books, which are very much about reality There was a mother in almost every book and it wasn't my mother, but she always thought that her friends would think it was. And she wasn't always happy about that.
It's so funny when you write fiction. Everyone always assumes that you're writing about them. "You put me in that book!" In my wildest dreams, I never thought of that person when I was writing that character. But when people know you, they see themselves or they think they do, even when it's not true.
I'm never doing this again
I think there's real danger in being aware of your audience as you write. That's like having a censor on one shoulder and the critic on the other shoulder. You've got to go into that other place when you're writing. The process for me, whether it's writing for very young children or middle graders or teens or an adult audience—the process is exactly the same and it is always impossibly difficult and painful.
And every time I say, "I'm never doing this again," my husband humors me and he says, "That's fine. Okay. You don't have to. No problem." And then, of course, weeks or months or in some cases years go by and I long to get into that little room again with just my characters for company and that's how it seems to work.
I thought I was weird
I think we write what comes naturally and what comes spontaneously. And for me, that is real life. Maybe it goes back to when I was young. I wanted to read books about real life. I was so curious about real life and how it worked and what it was like for other people. I always thought I was the only one and because I had these stories running around inside my head from way back, I thought I was weird. And so I never told anyone about those stories.
Fantasy Although I grew up reading the Oz books and I liked them very much, my favorite books growing up were the books of Maud Hart Lovelace, the Betsy-Tacy books. So I could never write fantasy. It's not how I think. And science fiction is not how I think. Mystery I love to read it. I love to see a movie, a good mystery, but it's not something I'm ever going to write.
And I certainly never thought I would write historical fiction. And I don't think of this project as historical fiction because, of course, it's in my lifetime, but I realize that it actually took place a very long time ago in the fifties. And it's an idea that came out of the blue — very different from the way I usually get my ideas, which is I'll have a character or a situation in mind and it sits on the back burner inside my head for a very long time before that day when I feel I'm ready to sit down with it. This is an idea that came just like a bolt and it came with a plot and characters and I'm very excited about it.
I feel a little strange talking about it because there is no book yet, but I did spend several months last winter and spring doing research. Now, I have never had the pleasure of doing research and I've discovered it's fun. It's wonderful. I loved it. And then my friends, who do do research for each book, have said to me, "Yeah, Judy. The research is fun, but wait 'til you start writing the book and then tell us it's fun."
The lunar cycle
I don't like to think about writing books about issues; I like to write books about people, but people do have issues. And sometimes, often, I guess, the characters do come with their own issues. When I was writing Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, I didn't know everything. For me, the one thing I like about writing, maybe the only thing I like about writing I like the surprise in it.
I'm a writer who knows where she's starting and I know where I think I'm going. But I don't know anything that's going to happen in between. That's scary when you think about it. But I trust now that my characters will take me on this journey and I'll follow them on this journey. Certainly with Margaret, I knew that I wanted to write about puberty. I knew that I wanted to write about religion. It's hard to remember because it was a very long time ago and Margaret was certainly close to my own experiences in sixth grade.
I was young when I wrote that book and the child I was was still right there. You didn't have to dig very deep. She was right there. I identified completely with Margaret. I did a lot of the things that Margaret does. I talked to God as confidante. God and I had a lot of discussions about puberty because nobody else was talking to me about it. And maybe I liked it that way. My mother certainly never talked to me about anything personal, any issues of puberty or growing up. My father would, but it was so strange when he did.
I mean, I once asked, "What was wrong with my cousin?" I think I was nine. And my cousin said to me, "You'll find out when you're 13." And all the way home in the car (and it was a long trip home), I kept saying, "What will I find out?" I was so curious. "What will I find out when I was 13? What was Gracie telling me?" And when we got home, my mother said to my father, "You tell her."
My father was a dentist. Maybe my mother felt he had been to almost medical school and so he knew how to tell these things. And what he told me was such an odd story and what I came away with was when the moon was full — I know it was about a lunar cycle, but I didn't know anything about a lunar cycle. When the moon was full, this thing would happen to women all over the world at the same time.
I got this feeling that all women, when the moon was full, they would have their periods and this is what Gracie had. And when I was 13, it would happen to me. Well, it didn't. I mean, I was 14 — over 14 when it finally did. And I learned by that time that my mother was 16. And I guess eventually, I learned about these 28-day lunar cycles, but it made no sense to me when my father told me this story.
It was a nice story, but I didn't get it. I expected to hear werewolves, you know, "Whooo, whooo," and the moon would be full and this wonderful thing would happen — that I wanted to happen, I wanted to grow up. I mean, the fantasy of children is growing up and what will it be like? And I was very anxious.
How to Rid Your Schools and Libraries of Judy Blume Books
Following the presidential election of 1980, the censors came out — they came out of the woodwork overnight really. A.L.A., who tracked challenges to books, knew that overnight, literally overnight, the challenges, there were at least four times as many right away and, of course, that grew and grew.
I really didn't have any experience in the seventies with censorship or book challenges. It is true that when I gave three copies of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret to my children's elementary school in what — 1971 I think, the male principal of that school refused to have them in the library because he thought that menstruation was, I don't know what he thought. Well, I don't know what he thought about it, but he didn't want it in his school. Nevermind how many kids that school went up to sixth grade. Fifth and sixth graders were already menstruating.
Now I mean that seems to be so laughable, but that really, there were no organized attempts in the seventies to rid school libraries of children's books. When it started in 1980, I was a target of the censors. They wanted my books removed. It's always been interesting to me that they never come after books that kids don't read. They come after books that kids like as if to say, "If children like these books, we know there's something wrong with them. We know that these are books that we don't want children to read."
And it was organized. It was frightening and the publishers were not prepared for it. The school librarians were not prepared for it and if a parent ran into a library waving a book and saying, "Take this book out," in many cases the librarian gave in and took the book out because he or she also felt alone — as I felt alone isolated.
Now, what happened then was that I discovered the National Coalition Against Censorship, which was a young organization back then and also other organizations, but mainly for me it NCAC. And once I found them, I felt not alone. I felt together, we can fight this. I mean, it went so far as Phyllis Schlafly had a group called the Eagle Forum.
And the Eagle Forum printed a pamphlet that was handed out at public places, at supermarkets. And it was a pamphlet called How to Rid Your Schools and Libraries of Judy Blume Books. And my secretary sent away for these pamphlets and got them, so I saw them. And you didn't have to read the book. No, it just told you what to do. It gave you maybe specific words or passages.
But in those days, librarians didn't even have there were no policies in place and so if a parent came in, you didn't have to put this complaint in writing. Today, of course, policies are in place in most cases. I won't say all, but in most cases. If a parent complains, that parent has to fill out the complaint in writing. The complaint will then go before a professional group who will look into this. In some cases now, children sign petitions and explain why this book is important to them.
That doesn't mean we're not having many, many, many cases of book challenges — just look at the list. A.L.A. keeps a list. N.C.A.C. keeps a list. And there it goes and I believe that it all has to do with fear. What started with the extreme religious right, it's contagious and we have the PC groups on the left who want books removed and everybody in between. If you removed all the books that people complain about, there would be nothing good to read.
Communicating through literature
If we want kids to love to read, we have to have a wide variety of books for them to choose from. And fear has to be fought because fear is what it's all about. I think it's fear of not wanting to talk about certain things with your children; it's fear that if my child reads this, my child will know about it. If they know about it, it might happen — as if it won't happen without your children reading about it, and this has to do with puberty, sexuality. But especially fear of new ideas fear of ideas that maybe different from yours.
But if you can get to the place where you talk to your kids about anything, then you won't have to be afraid of what they're reading. You can read it, too. I always think that's a really good thing. My daughter and I always communicated through books. She was very private; I'm not. She was very private and there were things that maybe she didn't want to talk to me about, but through books, we could talk about these things. We still share books. She's the mother of my 18-year-old grandson and she and I are still sharing books. "Did you read this one?" "Oh, read that. I think you'll really enjoy it." It's wonderful to communicate through literature.
It's really interesting because when I started to write, I felt that the books that I were writing - and I'm talking about Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret Then Again, Maybe I Won't Deenie — I felt that they were very private books. And they were books that I imagined a child would curl up with alone. And they would never be used in schools. And when they started to find their way into schools, I was a little bit like, "Oh! Oh!"
Now I think it's great. I love it! I think though, if a teacher reads Blubber aloud to a fourth or fifth grade class — good, that's good. But you have to be ready, as a teacher, to talk about the characters, the incidents in that book. You have to be ready to bring it all out into the open.
I used to correspond with a teacher — he was a fifth grade teacher. And he wrote to me and he said every year he started out reading Blubber to his fifth grade class. Through all the years that he taught, he never had an incident in his classroom where a group of kids victimized another kid because it was out in the open and if anything started, it was in the open; they could talk about it.
Then came a time when he was ordered to remove Blubber from his classroom and other books along with it, not all of them mine. And he's not teaching anymore and this to me is a real shame that someone who was a wonderful teacher is not teaching anymore because he was told that he couldn't use the books that he wanted to use, that meant something to the kids in his class.
My uncle My favorite, wonderful Uncle Bernie taught English in the same high school that I attended, but I couldn't have him because I was his niece and I know I missed out on something wonderful. But I also had a wonderful English teacher in high school and he encouraged us to be creative and never laughed at us, but laughed with us.
And had some wonderful books on his reading list that we could choose from. His name was Al Komanshane (ph.). And we wrote ballads in that class and I still remember. I loved writing ballads so much that I kept writing them. I can still sing of them, but no, I won't. I sat at the piano and I played those ballads and just enjoyed the process so much and also loved some of the books that I read in that class — books that we weren't all reading together as a class book, but because of that list that he gave us, books that I discovered, writers that I discovered.
The question that makes authors cringe
Kids always ask me, "Well, how do you get your ideas?" Of course, the question that makes all of us cringe. And older ones will ask, "Where do you find your inspiration?" Well, inspiration's everywhere, but there's nothing wrong with being inspired by something you've read. That's great! Why not be inspired by something you've read?
I mean, when I was starting out, I went to the library and I came home with armloads of books and I would divide them into piles. "I don't want to write books like these. These are boring. I do want to write books like these." I was inspired by Beverly Cleary. I loved those books. They inspired me. I was inspired by the earliest books of E.L. Konigsburg because at that time, she had only written her first few books. Nothing wrong with that.
I was at Yale the other day talking to a group and they weren't English majors. I mean, it was just a group of young people who came to hear me, obviously people who grew up reading my books. And one of them said, "But every time I start to write something on my own, it sounds like something I've read." And I say, "You know what? We all start out that way. It takes time to find our own voices. Nothing wrong with imitation, the highest form of flattery." And through that, you will eventually, if you're lucky you will find your own voice and your own way of telling stories.
The writing process: torture, typewriters and editors
The editorial relationship is so important. I don't know where I would be today without Dick Jackson who was my first and most significant editor. He took me from Iggy's House and Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won't all the way through Here's to You, Rachel Robinson. I think that was the last book we did together. So a lot of books, forever, many of my favorites of my own books.
And he taught me by asking me questions about my characters. He taught me to dig deeper and deeper and apparently he works different with every writer he's ever worked with, but for me, it was always questions and his questions unleashed whole new places to go. And well, he was just wonderful. There's no way I could ever thank him. I've worked with many other editors since then and each one works in a different way.
With Summer Sisters, I have Carol Barren to thank for making that book work or making that book happen — that's a book that almost killed me. That was the most painful book I ever wrote — three years and 20 something drafts, literally. And that was the book that made me say, "I will never, ever do this again," and I really meant it.
I was 60 when that book came out and I thought, "It's time to stop." Now it's 10 years later and I'm really going strong, so I'm glad for that, but editors are very important to the process. My process is a strange one and the way that I explain it to kids Well maybe it's not so strange. maybe I just think it's strange. The first draft for me is pure torture — there's no question about that.
I had so much inside me. I had so much creative energy and I needed to let it out so badly that the first few books I think just poured out, but that was then. And for many, many, many, many years now, I have found first drafts to be torture, to getting something out. Once I have a first draft out, then I like it. I like the rewriting. I'm a reviser more then a first draft writer.
And the best always comes out when I have pencil in my hand and I'm working on the first draft and it just, good things will start to happen, second, third, fourth, fifth. So I tell it to kids this way that for me a first draft is getting the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, is having that big piece of wood or cardboard and cutting out all these little pieces and mixing them all up.
And the second draft is trying to put them together and then I have to sand them down and make them smooth. And then I paint them wonderful colors and then I have to polish the whole puzzle so it looks really pretty and finished. And I go through at least five drafts. It's a little harder to keep track of now that I work on a computer.
When it was a typewriter — yes, I did write on typewriters. Some people don't even know that. My son recently saw carbon paper — onion skin from carbon paper. He's 46 years old and he was sitting with my grandson who's 18 and he said, "Look, Elliott! Look," he said. "This is what they used to do," as if it was 3,000 years ago. And to them, of course, it is.
But anyway, since I work on a computer and I have for many, many, many years, it's much harder to keep track of how many drafts you're really going through because you keep doing it over and over. That's not good. It was better and I'm trying to encourage myself to go back to get through a draft get through another draft and to do that, I'm now printing out on three-hole paper and putting it in a notebook so that I can keep track of the drafts as they go. And I think that's much, much better for me. I was getting lost in wasting paper, reams of paper. So this is much better, the way that I did it when I started out using a typewriter.
New generations of readers
Reading was so important to me and I so wanted my children to love reading that when my daughter was born 48 years ago and she was in a little infant seat, I would read to her in her little infant seat. So I don't know if that's why she became the world's greatest reader, but I read to my kids all the time, but not as much as we then read to my grandson.
My grandson truly grew up, you know it's another generation, truly grew up being read to just constantly — memorized books, listened to books on tape, just loved it. And I can remember lying down on the bed with him when he was about to go to sleep and we would bargain. He would say, "Seven books," and I would say, "Four books." And he would say, "Six books," and then we would agree on five books and he was always asleep of course by the time we got to the fifth book.
He even spoke like a book at one point. He said, "What would like for lunch today," Nonie said. "I would like peanut butter," Elliott answered. So it was great. It was great. Books were very important to him. But like a lot of boys today, he went through a little period there where he was less interested in books and more interested in electronics. But if you just leave the books around for them, they will come back to them. And he has read some very good books lately, I'm happy to say.
Excerpt from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
Hi, I'm Judy Blume and I'm reading from my book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Chapter 1: the Big Winner.
I won Dribble at Jimmy Fargo's birthday party. All of the other guys got to take home goldfish in little plastic bags. I won him because I guessed there were 348 jellybeans in Mrs. Fargo's jar. "Really, there were 423," she told us later. Still, my guess was closest.
"Peter Warren Hatcher is the big winner," Mrs. Fargo announced. At first I felt bad that I didn't get a goldfish, too. Then Jimmy handed me a glass bowl. Inside there was water and three rocks. A tiny green turtle was sleeping on the biggest rock. All the other guys looked at their goldfish. I knew what they were thinking. They wished they could have tiny green turtles, too.
I named my turtle Dribble while I was walking home from Jimmy's party. I live in an old apartment building, but it's got one of the best elevators in New York City. There are mirrors all around. You can see yourself from every angle. There's a soft cushion bench to sit on if you're too tired to stand and the elevator operator's name is Henry Bevelheimer. He lets us call him Henry because Bevelheimer's very hard to say.
He knows everybody in the building. He's that smart. He even knows I'm nine and in fourth grade. I showed him Dribble right away. "I won him at a birthday party," I said. Henry smiled. "Your mother's going to be surprised."