To the unsuspecting eye, Judy Blume looks a lot like a sweet old grandma. If you saw her at the grocery store buying cookies, you'd assume she was preparing to spoil her grandchildren. If you saw her typing on a laptop in a cafe, you'd chuckle and think about how cute it is when elderly people embrace technology. If you saw her on the street, with her sassy short haircut and sparkly earrings, you might whisper to your friend, "Dang, that old lady has style!"
But if I saw Judy Blume on the street, I wouldn't just secretly applaud her fashion sense. I would emit a high pitched shriek, run up to her, say her name a minimum of ten times and then attempt to slightly calm myself down before telling her that she is my HERO. Because while she is actually a sweet old grandma, Judy Blume also happens to be a total badass.
Now, you might be wondering if we're talking about the same Judy Blume. Yes, she is the woman who wrote comprehensively about periods and training bras in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Yes, she is the author of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which launched a series of books about how annoying (and sometimes cool) siblings can be. And yes, she is the pioneer who dared to include birth control, premarital sex and Planned Parenthood in her 1975 young adult book, Forever... So much for that sweet old grandma image!
I was first introduced to Judy Blume's badassery in 1988, when I was nine-years-old. I spotted the cover of Just As Long As We're Together in the book fair catalog and immediately circled it in big pink marker. I mean, look at this thing:
Those girls are laughing! They're hugging! They're having the best slumber party ever! I couldn't wait to join them and maybe get my very own purple "Friends" sweatshirt. But as I began reading, I realized that this book isn't just about pillow fights and giggling. It's about that scary inbetween place of adolescence, when you're crushing on someone but also terrifed of them; when you're realizing that, against all odds, your parents are human beings; when your body starts doing things that are really, really weird. It's a confusing, awkward, absolutely hellish time, but Judy Blume took my hand and walked me through it with every page of this book. (She also introduced me to the hotness that is Jeremy Dragon, and for that, I will always be thankful.)
The honesty in Blume's writing is, in my opinion, the root of what makes her so enduring. She's not afraid to address the messiness of life, and in a genre that often leans toward the saccharine (The Baby-Sitter's Club) or the melodramatic (Twilight), her books still stand tall as pillars of truth. She tackled issues that most children's authors wouldn't touch in the 1970s - divorce, racism, teenage sex and the female body - and she did it all without a drop of condescension toward her young readers. Blume respects her audience, and rather than writing about issues for the sake of issues, she builds her novels around authentic characters with whom kids and young adults can truly identity.
I was impacted by Blume's writing at an early age, but it wasn't until I was older that I realized the true extent of her consequence. Not only does she write honest books for an audience that is often overlooked, but she has fought for her right to do so, as well as for the right of young people to read freely. Beginning in the 1980s, Blume's books fell under heavy attack for their frank portrayal of the teenage experience, although she encountered some negativity in the '70s as well. She writes:
There were few challenges to my books then, although I remember the night a woman phoned, asking if I had written Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. When I replied that I had, she called me a Communist and slammed down the phone. I never did figure out if she equated Communism with menstruation or religion, the two major concerns in 12 year old Margaret's life.
It's easy to laugh at the absurdity of would-be censors, but Blume understood the dangers inherent in book banning and dedicated herself to fighting for intellectual freedom. She didn't just defend her own books, she became an activist for all writers and all readers, unleashing her badass intellect and fearsome passion on groups that tried to repress, prohibit and control access to literature. She founded several organizations to fight book banning and remains one of the most vocal members of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Over thirty years later, her books are still a source of controversy, landing her on the American Library Association's "Most Challenged Author List" from 2001-2006 and most recently in 2010. That's some serious badass cred.
On her website, she writes:
Censors don't want children exposed to ideas different from their own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in the school library would be close to empty. I wish the censors could read the letters kids write."Dear Judy, I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am. That's why I read, to find myself. Elizabeth, age 13"
But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.
But thanks to Judy Blume, more and more of those young readers are winners. And so today, I'm honored to induct her into the Badass Hall of Fame. With over 80 million copies sold, translations in 31 languages and five titles on the American Library Association's "Most Challenged Books" list (Forever, Blubber, Deenie, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Tiger Eyes), the woman is a bona fide BAMF. She's a hero and an inspiration, and if ever I am lucky enough to meet her, I'll revere her as the goddess she is and bow down before her with these words:
"Are you there, Judy? It's me, Sarah."