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Judy Blume 1938–
American young adult and adult novelist. Blume is one of the most controversial authors today writing for young adults for her frank consideration of such topics as menstruation, masturbation, and teenage sexuality. Although her books are popular with young adults, having sold more than six million copies, many school libraries consider them inappropriate for adolescent readers. With the publication in 1970 of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Blume became a leading writer of teenage fiction. This novel has two themes: Margaret's preoccupation with the physical signs of puberty, and her search for a religious identity. Blume was praised for her accurate rendering of teenage dialogue and her warmly humorous treatment of a universal female concern, although several critics considered her descriptions of Margaret's bodily changes overly graphic. Forever …, with its detailed description of a first sexual encounter, is even more controversial. Blume does not moralize, although her books do emphasize the importance of social responsibility. Her books are set in suburbia, reflecting her own East Coast, middle-class background. While adults may criticize her work, citing her lack of depth and stylistic limitations, her popularity with young adults indicates that she has an accurate sense of their concerns. (See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 2, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)
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With sensitivity and humor, Judy Blume has captured the joys, fears and uncertainty that surround a young girl approaching adolescence [in "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret"]. Margaret Simon, almost 12, frequently chats with God, relaying all her problems concerning puberty and religion (she is the only child of non-religious, mixed-marriage parents). Margaret's story is any young girl's story, but when Judy Blume writes it there is an exception—it is directed toward each reader individually. (pp. 62-3)
Lavinia Russ, in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the January 11, 1971, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission of the critic, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1971 by Xerox Corporation), January 11, 1971.
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Karen Newman in It's not the end of the world suspects the worst when her father is absent from home for two days without explanation, but Karen's mother does not tell Karen and her brother and sister that a divorce is pending until they are having Sunday lunch in a restaurant with Mrs. Newman's sister and her husband. Stunned by the announcement, Karen resents her mother's failure to explain her father's absence earlier and the public place her mother chose to make the announcement. Karen's world disintegrates….
Karen resists the divorce, hoping she can bring her parents together again preserving the family unit Karen loves. Karen's brother Jeff seemingly accepts the pending divorce but it is he who forestalls it by running away from home just before Karen's father is expected to go to Las Vegas to gain his freedom. It's not the end of the world explores the deep anxieties adolescents feel when their home structure is uprooted….
[Judy Blume] does not try to solve Karen's problem, only present the aching uncertainty which Karen, and girls like her, suffer when their parents part. (p. 936)
John W. Conner, in English Journal (copyright © 1972 by the National Council of Teachers of English), September, 1972.
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Katherine had liked Michael when they met at a party, she was delighted when he asked for a date, and she knew it was only a question of time until they became lovers…. They are deeply in love, wholly committed. Forever. And then, due to parental insistence, Kath goes to work in a summer camp and finds she is attracted to another man. And that's it—the end of forever. No preaching (Blume never does) but the message [of Forever …] is clear; no hedging (Blume never does) but a candid account by Kath gives intimate details of a first sexual relationship. The characters and dialogue are equally natural and vigorous, the language uncensored, the depiction of family relationships outstanding. (p. 106)
Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), March, 1976.
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[Forever …] may be just the book to replace the now dated Seventeenth Summer even though it is officially coming out as an "adult" book…. Once the thousands of girls who grew to love Judy Blume when she led them through their first menstrual periods with Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret find that she is now offering to lead them through their first experiences with sexual intercourse, they will seek out the book regardless of whether or not we have it at school—which in this day of book banning and censorship struggles is unlikely.
One of the reasons that as an adult book about young love, Forever stands out in vivid contrast to the adult movies about young love is that if adults do read it, it will be adult women—not men. Instead of erring (or perhaps leaning is a better word) on the side of pornography, it errs on the side of romance. The boy and the whole affair is almost too perfect.
For three semesters I've used Blume's Are You There God?… in my "Children's Literature for Parents" class. The mothers love the book and nostalgically chuckle over Margaret's consternation about her first period. Then inevitably they begin to wish their own first period had been as one woman put it, so "satisfying." I suspect female readers will have a similar response to Forever. Those who have already experienced their first love will inevitably compare. In my generation nice girls clung doggedly to their virginity and our reactions are apt to be tinged with regret, i.e. we missed out on something truly beautiful. Girls still looking forward to their first love will revel in anticipation, though in real life it is highly unlikely that many of them will have a similar experience. (p. 90)
Alleen Pace Nilsen, in English Journal (copyright © 1976 by the National Council of Teachers of English), March, 1976.
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How the world turns. Twenty years exactly after Beverly Cleary's Fifteen … was first published, in which it took Our Hero 174 out of 175 pages to kiss Our Heroine, appears Forever … by Judy Blume … in which the first kiss is accomplished on page 3. By page 20 they're discussing virginity ("No boy had ever come right out and asked me …"), and by page 25 the groping has begun.
In fact, this story is about first-time intercourse, explicitly described, just as Fifteen was about a first, explicitly described, date. That's the change. Otherwise things haven't altered too much. Judy Blume's style has colloquial ease, humour and just enough romantic patina to give the everyday … a semblance of the desirable.
Certainly it is good to have sex written about without the embarrassment and pertness we've been used to in books for young people. But until there have been a number of Forevers I doubt that it will be possible to have a story in which the sex act is just one element in something more complex. I rather think we're still at the stage where the relevant pages will get thumb-marked from overly specific reading. (p. 149)
Pelorus, in Signal (copyright © 1976 Pelorus: reprinted by permission of the author and The Thimble Press, Lockwood Station Road, South Woodchester, Glos. GL5 5EQ, England), September, 1976.
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[Forever …] is a story as told by the adolescent heroine, about an affair with another seventeen-year-old that germinates, burgeons and finally goes to seed. As a narrative technique, talking straight from the adolescent's mouth can also act as camouflage for slack writing, not entirely avoided here. Although it may be in character for the narrator to rhapsodize about eyes that are "very dark, with just a rim of green and other times they sparkle and are greenish-gray all over", it is still no less tedious to read. So if the author does manage to catch the almost inexorable egotism of some adolescents at this age, it is at the cost of producing a dull novel about two very dull young people, told in prose of the same soggy consistency as the used tissues that play such an important part in the couple's post-amatory techniques.
But it is just in this area, perhaps, that the book either justifies itself or not; if it is sex that is wanted, there is plenty of it here…. Yet even as a fictionalized sex manual, Forever is nowhere near as explicit as other material available for everyone today, nor is it as erotic as, for example, that "jolly little story" Fanny Hill. In fact, it is not erotic at all: its protagonists couple and separate like two well-lubricated automata, and if this novel is remarkable for anything, it is in its ability to trivialize sex, something that so far no puritan has ever managed to, perhaps even intended to do. There is an absence of poetry or passion about this couple; an emotional impotence in the midst of perfect physical health. (p. 1238)
Nicholas Tucker, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976: reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 1, 1976.
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Sex, for all its sometimes gruesome oughts and shouldn'ts, never deserved Forever … …. Judy Blume takes more than just a peek at Kath and Michael making it in Summit, NJ. From first base all the way to home, we get the blow by blow. Kath loses her virginity with one qualm—she doesn't have an orgasm. 'Maybe it was the rubber,' Michael says. Maybe it was. Anyhow, they work it out (they love each other, don't they?): but satisfaction leaves tristesse and Mom and Dad think marriage is appalling at 18. Wasn't she lucky she was careful? Isn't it great they were both so well adjusted? Their friend Artie, a closet queer, tries suicide when vamped beyond endurance by raunchy Erica. That's good too: 'Now at least, Artie will get the kind of professional help he's needed all along.' Kath bops off with another guy, a better candidate for the deep relationship than sniffling Mike, who's taught her two positions—and love. (p. 644)
Anne Redmon, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 5, 1976.
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[Forever …] is a very explicit account of a teenage love-affair written in the style of a magazine story, peppered with the three dots that used to be left for the imagination to fill in although in this case nothing whatever is left to the imagination…. All the right messages are put over, about responsibility and birth-control and not having abortions and illegitimate babies, but all the same I think it is pornography and so a limiting rather than a widening of experience. It suggests patterns, it imposes expectations. (p. 335)
Dorothy Nimmo, in The School Librarian, December, 1976.
Maintaining a strictly neutral moral tone, unless acceptance is synonymous with approval, this story of young love [Forever …] is surely the frankest exposition we have yet had from America. True, it is "a novel for young adults" and the protagonists are in their later teens, but it will without doubt be pored over (or pawed over) by younger readers….
Judy Blume's aim is serious and responsible enough and her revelation of young love is probably typical of many relationships today…. But, however sympathetic towards adolescent problems Judy Blume is, I am left wondering how Forever … will really help its readers. The young tend to follow the life-style of their peers: will Katherine and Michael's affair help to impose yet another imprimatur on casual sex? It may well minimise a sense of guilt but will it encourage the need for firm and satisfying relationships? Perhaps the final irony is in the title of the book itself…. (p. 49)
The Junior Bookshelf, February, 1977.
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There is little plot and even less point to [Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself]; the writing lacks the wit and insight of her earlier books, and the rare moments of humor are aimed at adults. Sally's obsession with Hitler, while certainly plausible and understandable, does not fit smoothly into the context of the book, and is often unnecessarily violent in its expression. For example, one of Sally's daydreams goes as follows, "Hitler … gets his knife and slowly slashes each of her fingers … her blood drips onto his rug … 'Look what you've done, you Jew bastard,' Hitler cries hysterically. 'You've ruined my rug!'" It seems almost painfully obvious that this is autobiographical, but in exorcising the demons of her youth, Blume is ignoring her eager audience and forgetting what she does best. (p. 59)
Diane Haas, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the May, 1977 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co., A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1977), May, 1977.
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[Witnessing the awkward, then tender, reunions of her parents in "Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself," Sally] feels the impact of their need for one another without fully understanding what it means. It's a reminder to all of us that there's a time when children know the facts of life without understanding them. Beyond that, the book is largely a chronicle of Sally's adjustment to a new life, of wishes and nervousness and fun, and the author's memories of the 1940's.
Interestingly, Mrs. Blume herself has become a much discussed subject of the sub-teen culture she writes about. Kids read her books with a blushing curiosity once reserved for certain words in the dictionary, parts of the Bible and naughty passages in Hemingway. They know they will find some frank discussion of prurient matters like breasts and menstruation. Some of her readers may also have read [Erica Jong's] "Fear of Flying," yet they reread "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." It's evident her appeal goes beyond sexual frankness: She must be conveying a certain emotional reality that children recognize as true. Portnoy may complain all he wants, but kids will go right on needing reassurance that there is a time of slow awakening, of normal curiosity and confusion about what they are learning and feeling. And this is soft at the core, not hard.
While Mrs. Blume's book is teeming with social value, its redeeming literary qualities are less conspicuous. Her characters are so recognizable they don't matter. She describes the 40's in a banal shorthand that misses a good chance to describe what it was really like growing up then. Just as my generation thinks of the 20's as bathtub gin and Clara Bow, I worry that the next generation can be bought off with Margaret O'Brien and Murphy beds.
Julia Whedon, "The Forties Revisited," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 1, 1977, p. 40.
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A huge, unquestioning audience awaits any book by the author of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. But even Judy Blume's young teenage fans may find [Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself] hard going in places. Blume still captures the anxieties and dreams of her heroines, but an uneventful winter in Florida for a 10-year-old from New Jersey fails to bring Sally close to the reader. The year is 1947, and Sally's preoccupation with Hitler's atrocities among the Jews (including some of her own relations) is a potentially important theme, but it is trivialized by poor taste and unnecessarily ghoulish fantasies. To further weaken the novel, Sally's own Jewish family is surprisingly stereotyped. Sally Freedman is described as autobiographical, which may account for its rambling attention to trivia and its inconsequential plot. The resulting novel is too long and too slow-moving for the age group and certainly lacks the sympathetic spark of Margaret. (p. F4)
Brigitte Weeks, in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1977, The Washington Post), August 14, 1977.
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Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret … is about menstruation and religion, in that order. Margaret Simon, aged twelve, has two crushing anxieties on her young shoulders: when will she begin to menstruate? and in which church will she, born of Jewish father and Christian mother, find the official seat of the God she chats to so cosily in moments of stress? The story is inconsequential. The book consists largely of the endless body-obsessed prattle of Margaret and her friends, and as such will prove irresistible to readers of her age. Alas, the generation gap yawns wide. The adult reader quickly becomes satiated, to the point of nausea, and is left with the sad conviction that here is a book of scant worth. Its candour overreaches itself and Margaret's private talks with God are insufferably selfconscious and arch. Much of this could be forgiven if it were funny, but the odd incident apart, it is not. (p. 383)
Ann Evans, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 7, 1978.
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Are American children exceptionally articulate about their problems, I wonder? I find it hard to imagine a group of small girls here anxiously discussing a longed-for puberty in the way the heroine of Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret does, though the author assures us that she is recalling her own pre-'teen emotions. At all events, this comedy depends on the discussion which Margaret, who is rising twelve, holds with the rest of her gang about menstruation and chest measurement and (in the same breath) about religious faith…. One or two scenes provoke at least a smile—notably, the scene at Norman Fishbein's party where a handsome schoolmate, idol of the little girls, forgets his manners; but for many tastes the book may seem cute and sentimental. (p. 3325)
Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, May, 1978.
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Margaret is 12 years old and has just moved with her parents from New York to Farbrook, New Jersey. She soon makes friends with three other girls and they call themselves 'the four PTS's' (Pre-Teen Sensations). They share secrets, gossip on the phone for ages, and worry about acquiring busts, boyfriends, bras and their periods…. Basically, [Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret] is a very funny book with plenty of incidents to keep a girl, and only a girl, reader of 11 or 12 amused—such as how you actually kiss a boy once you have him alone…. However, there are features of the book which are over-stressed and detract from the author's easy handling of most of the topics she covers. I refer to the excessive, almost obsessive, concern with a girl's period. Perhaps the physical details given could have fitted into the structure of the novel naturally, but when the author rhapsodises about the wearing of a sanitary napkin, the effect is banal in the extreme, and disbelief is total. Suddenly a sensitive, amusing novel has been reduced to the level of some of the advertising blurb in the 'confidential' section of a teenage magazine. You can carry didacticism much too far. This is the only novel by Judy Blume I have read so far, but I certainly want to read more, if only to find out whether she gets the balance right in them. (p. 22)
George W. Arthur, in Book Window (© 1978 S.C.B.A. and contributors), Summer 1978.
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One hesitates to speculate on what the theme of the next book for the pre-adolescent market will be for a writer whose muse seems to be Haim Ginott rather than Calliope. One can be assured, however, that it will mirror what people have been talking about lately in Darien and Short Hills and San Fernando, that it will be rendered with a cheerful, reassuring suburban sameness, and that it will have the same relationship to a truly significant exploration of social problems that a Stanley Kramer film does.
It's no secret that kids like Blume books … but it's doubtful that the novelty of her themes alone is responsible for her popularity. After all, this kind of "realism" has become the cliched substance of Norman Lear situation comedies, and Judy Blume's books are really old-fashioned by comparision with, say, Norma Klein. In spite of the many, tiresome allusions to Bloomingdale's, these are not really trendy books and the values they promote are very much those of mainstream, Middle America.
Nor does it seem that Blume's books, or any other "problem" novels, ought to be discussed and evaluated on the basis of what they teach children about handling specific social or personal problems…. Their success depends on the author's handling of narrative techniques and their meaning and educative value is embedded in those same techniques. To discover the key to Blume's popularity, one has to look beyond the realistic trappings and didactic intentions of the "problem" book to a closer study of why her narrative techniques work especially well with children. To understand what her books really teach children, one has to understand the way in which these techniques are used to communicate a style of experiencing and perceiving the self and the world and a definition of what it means to be a pre-adolescent child in suburban America.
As is often the case with popular fiction, Blume's books are successful for what they are not as much as for what they are. That is, her books are not very demanding and they make for the kind of easy, rapid reading that children like to relax with. Since all her books are told through the voice of a child narrator, the vocabulary is necessarily limited and the sentence construction basic and repetitious.
Her plots are loose and episodic: they accumulate rather than develop. They are not complicated or demanding and the pace is sometimes sloppy, as in Blubber, where Jill's change of heart seems too sudden and contrived. She has a repertoire of stock minor characters—the annoying older or younger sibling, the steadfast friend—who can be counted on as plot machinery or for comic effects. In the tradition of children's books, parents are kept harmlessly out of the way. And in the vein of recent American children's books, these parents are usually well-meaning but ineffectual characters whose efforts at communication are often comic failures.
On the other hand, Judy Blume is a careful observer of the everyday details of children's lives and she has a feel for the little power struggles and shifting alliances of their social relationships. She knows that children can be cruel to one another and that they are deeply concerned with peer group judgments. She can be funny in a broad, slapstick way, as in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, but her humor is more often based on regarding her characters with cloying adult irony. (pp. 72-3)
Blume's most characteristic technique and the key to her success is the first-person narrative: through this technique she succeeds in establishing intimacy and identification between character and audience. All her books read like diaries or journals and the reader is drawn in by the narrator's self-revelations. Creating the illusion that one is having an intimate conversation with a close friend, the first-person narrative succeeds especially in children's books because children enter so readily into a partnership with fictional narrators and because they tend to experience books as extensions of other types of personal relationships. (p. 74)
What strikes one immediately about Blume's narrators is the sameness of voice…. Essentially the same voice speaks to the reader in Deenie and Margaret, in all of Blume's books, in fact, and the effect of this sameness on the child reader is probably reassuring, like discovering an old friend in a new neighborhood.
Blume's choice of first person narrative and her didactic intentions make it imperative that her characters be perceptive and self-conscious and that they continually draw conclusions from their experience…. Blume's narrators are always cogitating, earnestly trying to be honest to their own feelings and to discover meaning and truth in the world: one has the sense that they will grow up to be characters in a John Fowles novel.
None of this can be taken very seriously as an accurate description of the mental processes of pre-adolescent children: kids of this age are beginning to become self-aware but this is too formulated, too pat, and thought crystallizes too readily into truism to be convincing. What seems important to note here, however, is that self-consciousness is offered as a model for children to identify with and that self-awareness and the awareness of other people's feelings are presented as goals in themselves.
Self-consciousness and self-awareness, however, can turn rapidly into self-absorption. Blume's books are remarkable in the number of narcissistic incidents they portray: Margaret examining herself in a mirror, Tony's masturbation, and so on. The pattern of such incidents suggests that they are fundamental to Blume's conception of the pre-adolescent child's nature.
One of the disturbing results of this preoccupation with the self is the loss of tangible intimacy with any concrete thing or object: the texture of lives lived in a specific, particular place is missing. Although the geography of the world of Blume's books is rather limited—Jersey City, Radnor, the urban or suburban Northeast—these places exist only as proper nouns, generalized abstractions. For all the reader knows about the sights and sounds and smells of these places, they might as well be Omaha or Anaheim. To put it another way, Blume makes Any Place into No Place, a talent which should not be confused with that of, say, E. B. White, who can turn Any Place into Every Place, an idealized but vividly realized setting. (pp. 74-6)
In the end … Judy Blume's books are impoverished because she fails to establish a vital relationship between place and character. She creates no place for her characters to inhabit except the self, and more importantly, no world for her readers to live in. Things are not encountered by her characters; they are understood through intellection and rationalization.
In traditional children's literature, characters went out into the world, encountered it on non-subjective terms, and came to self-awareness in situations and through social actions which were meaningful in themselves. In Blume's novels, the quest turns inward, self-awareness becomes a goal and not a product, and actions are valuable only in so far as they authenticate the feelings of the narrators. This may be good training for life in narcissistic, self-absorbed, suburban America but, in the long run, it is poor nourishment for the imagination of children. (p. 76)
R. A. Siegal, "Are You There, God? It's Me, Me, Me!: Judy Blume's Self-Absorbed Narrators," in The Lion and the Unicorn (copyright © 1978 The Lion and the Unicorn), Fall, 1978, pp. 72-7.
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