Judy (Sussman Kitchens) Blume

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NAOMI DECTER [later NAOMI MUNSON]

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Miss Blume's works offer a child's-eye view of the trials and tribulations of life, and cover just about every social and emotional problem her readers are likely to encounter. It's Not the End of the World, for example, concerns a girl whose parents are getting divorced. The heroine of Deenie is a thirteen-year-old with curvature of the spine. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is about sibling rivalry. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is the story of a girl with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, trying to choose her own religion.

Miss Blume also writes about death, timidity, mob cruelty, and racial prejudice. But most of her books are in one way or another about sex. Her characters discuss their own sex lives or their parents'; they masturbate and menstruate; they worry about the size of their breasts and about kissing: they have wet dreams and they even have intercourse.

Given the sophistication of Miss Blume's material, her style is surprisingly simple. She writes for the most part in the first person: her vocabulary, grammar, and syntax are colloquial; her tone, consciously or perhaps not, evokes the awkwardness of a fifth-grader's diary….

If the prose often seems at odds with the subject, however, it is perfectly suited to Miss Blume's imagination and characterization. Plot in the Blume books follows a rather strict pattern. There is, first of all, a "problem"—social or emotional; then, a hero or heroine to define, and other children to participate in, the problem; parents to pay the bills, drive the cars, and occasionally give a word of advice; the odd trouble some sibling or doting grandparent. The problem is resolved through the child's own experience, and the book ends.

Miss Blume's stock melodramas are staffed by stock characters—the Right People (from the author's point of view) and the Wrong People. The Right People do and think the Right Thing, the Wrong People the Wrong Thing. One Right Person is virtually indistinguishable from another, and Wrong Persons bear a striking resemblance to other Wrong Persons. (p. 65)

These books are a perfect, if pint-sized, literary embodiment of contemporary enlightenment. They preach all the modern pieties and strike all the fashionable poses. They do so, moreover, with the rigidity of vision—and the social snobbery—that is the hallmark of their creed. There is in them no room for complexity of character, for conflicting emotions, or even for moral regeneration. Miss Blume's heroes never have an unacceptable thought; her villains, having once deviated from orthodoxy, are condemned absolutely to their villainy. And underlying everything is the sense that—whatever the issue—villainy is just the tiniest bit tacky.

All this, and sex to boot: Miss Blume has obviously found a winning combination. Her books not only cater to and reinforce the prejudices of her audience, they also answer a need peculiar to that community. For, quite apart from arousing and satisfying her young readers' prurient interest, the Blume books offer an ideal solution to the liberated parent who wonders how best to fulfill the uncomfortable duty of teaching his child sexual freedom. Judy Blume can safely be trusted to explain that everyone masturbates, and that it's the healthiest thing in the world—fun, too; that restrictions on youthful sexuality (especially female) are unhealthy relics of a repressed past; and that sexual intercourse is simply pleasurable and without consequence—as long as one is on the Pill.

The Blume ethic does not stop at erotic casualness. Miss Blume is as much a creature of her times and class spiritually as she is sexually. The consistent and overriding message of her...

(This entire section contains 922 words.)

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books—for which, predictably enough, she has received the greatest acclaim—is that the proper focus of one's curiosity and concern is oneself. Everywhere Miss Blume garners high praise for her "respectful," "realistic," and "accurate" depiction of children's preoccupation with themselves.

Realistic, respectful, and accurate she is—with a vengeance. So respectful is she that not a childish thought or feeling is too pedestrian to merit her attention; so realistic that not a detail of a child's life—from breakfast menu to sleepwear fashions—is too tedious to go unrecorded; so accurate that an afternoon with Katherine, Deenie, or Jill must seem to her readers like a few hours alone in front of the bathroom mirror.

That a few more hours in front of the mirror is the last thing a young girl needs is a thought that does not seem to have occurred to Miss Blume or her army of fans. Yet the happiest magic of children's literature has always resided in its ability to burst the narcissistic bubble. One can, and does, learn any number of things from the March family, from Tom Sawyer, and even from Nancy Drew—for all their retrograde sociology. One learns to recognize and respect courage and honor; one learns the value of humor; at the very least, one learns to appreciate and emulate the spirit of adventure. Above all, one learns that life is full of things one has never seen; one learns the habit and the rewards of lifting one's eyes from one's own navel to look out upon the world.

Miss Blume finds the navel a much more worthy object of contemplation than the world—which is clearly why, in a narcissistic age, her limiting and narrowing vision should be heralded for its honesty and praised for its realism. (pp. 66-7)

Naomi Decter [later Naomi Munson], "Judy Blume's Children," in Commentary, Vol. 59, No. 3, March, 1980, pp. 65-7.

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David Rees