Forever. Deenie. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Blubber. Superfudge. If you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, you know these titles, along with the issues and rites of passage that some of author Judy Blume’s characters experienced. For many, Blume’s books are forever entangled with growing up.
Tiger Eyes, Blume’s 1981 book about how a young girl copes with her father’s sudden death, has been made into a movie directed by Larry Blume, Ms. Blume’s son, and will be shown at the Montclair Film Festival on Saturday, May 5 (there will be a Q&A session with both Blumes following the movie.)
In addition to the Tiger Eyes screening, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and the release of some of Blume’s books as e-books.
From her Key West residence, Judy Blume, who has sold over 82 million books, spoke to Tara Williams about her ties to New Jersey, censorship and turning Tiger Eyes into a film.
Q: You grew up in Elizabeth.
My parents were both born in Elizabeth and raised in Elizabeth. My brother and I were born and raised in Elizabeth, so we are definitely New Jersey people. And I lived in New Jersey until I was 37.
Q: Many of your books take place in New Jersey.
They certainly do, and the one I’m writing now actually takes place in Elizabeth in the ’50s.
Q: Can you share some details?
It’s a first draft, which means I almost never talk about it because it’s all in my head. Every day, I try to put something on paper. I’m approaching the end of the first draft and then in the next draft, I really start writing the book. I always say—and I’ve always said−“If I died during the first draft, people would think ‘ah jumbled’—nothing. She must have been crazed.” That’s how they’ve always come out.
Q: Do you come to New Jersey much?
When my mother was living I would come all the time—she died in ’86 or ’87. I do have a cousin who lives right down the street from right where I grew up….At least once a year (maybe twice) we get there—we always drive down the old block and check out my old house.
I have a very vivid memory of childhood and so I remember all of that. It’s funny. I was at The L.A. Times Festival of Books last week and it was a huge audience and people were standing up in front of the mikes—they were lining up in front of mikes. And this woman said, “Well, I remember your mother’s chocolate cake that she baked every Friday.” It was dark and I couldn’t see her and I said, “Who is this?” And she told me her name and it was someone I was friendly with from junior high on.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Never. I never knew.
Q: It just naturally evolved?
I don’t think I ever knew I could be a writer. We weren’t particularly encouraged to do creative writing in school….I never thought about it. But the stories were always inside my head—they were always living—the characters were there inside my head. From the time I was very small I was doing that, but I never wrote it down—that I had these people inside my head and these stories. And, of course, when I did start to write, they were not the stories that came out. They were a child’s version—very melodramatic, very exciting.
Q: On a recent interview, you mentioned you were “anxious” and “fearful” as a child, but when you wrote you were confident and fearless.
I would say that’s true.
Q: What do you think gave you so much confidence in your writing ability?
I don’t think it was confidence at all. I mean, I think I’m as insecure as any writer. I don’t know any writer who isn’t insecure. So I wouldn’t say it’s confidence. I would say on my part, in the beginning it was naiveté and fearlessness—I didn’t know enough to be afraid—what was there to be afraid of?
I was just sitting in a room by myself writing these stories. I didn’t know there was anything to be afraid of. In fact, in the ‘70s, the censors—like what—this is America, I didn’t even know we had censorship. In the ’70s there wasn’t a lot of it in children’s books, anyway. People were not as afraid of children’s books as they seem to be now since the ‘80s.
Q: What do think today’s environment (in terms of censorship) is like for your books?
Well, it’s not really about my books. It’s like what is it now in terms of books. This is what I think….
I remember when Harry Potter was published and my grandson had it and we were reading it to him—he was little. As it became popular, I remember thinking, Oh, just wait until the censors find out it’s popular and we’re going to see a tremendous amount of challenging of these books. Because they don’t come after books until children like them. Once they’re popular, like Harry Potter, like my books, like The Hunger Games now—this is what those who wish to ban books. They wait.
They wait to see—they don’t come after books—they don’t read all the books that are published and say, “No, no, no; children like this one so yes!” They wait until it becomes popular with children or some child brings it home and a parent says, “What is this?” That’s how it works; it’s ridiculous…we’re still dealing with that, and I don’t know if the time will even come back when we’re not dealing with it.
Q: I haven’t been tracking this issue as closely as you, but it doesn’t seem that censorship is as prevalent now than it was in the ‘80s—I could be wrong on this.
You’re probably wrong on that. The National Coalition on Censorship and the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Committee—they keep lists of these things.
Also, let’s remember that—and this is a really good thing—libraries for the most part—schools and libraries—now have policies in place, so when a parent comes in saying, “Take this book away,” a school that is prepared—that parent has to put in writing what he or she objects to—and then there can be hearings.
I was in Houston last week at the Texas Library Association and I sat with a woman who had a big thing at her school involving my book, Forever, in her middle school. And it went through three professional committee meetings with votes and each time it was voted by the school committee to be retained by the school library.
What happened was the superintendent of schools came in and he personally removed it.
This woman fought a valiant fight—to have a teacher or librarian stand up really for his or her readers that way—it’s not just our books that person is standing up for—it’s the intellectual rights of her young readers. And she knew in her school there were kids who were already pregnant in middle school—I think there were 3. She felt this was a book that should be read and should be talked about.
Q: What do you do to fight censorship?
Well, I’m on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship and I’m talking more and more with newer, younger writers now about there’s no such thing as a safe book.
If you think you can go into a little room and write a book that no one will ever challenge—I don’t care if it’s a picture book—if somebody wants to find something in a book, they will find something in any book.
So, write with passion and write what’s deep inside and kick that censor off your shoulder, just the way you have to kick your critics off your shoulder when you go into that room. You can’t worry about things.
I guess that’s what I mean by being fearless in your writing. That doesn’t mean that you’re not trying to write the very best books that you can write because especially when you’re writing for young people, they deserve the very best stories, books, characters.
In fact, the younger they are, the better it should be.
Q: Do you think your readers for your young adult books have changed much since you started publishing in the ‘70s?
I have to correct something. I am not a young adult writer—I never have been. There was no category of Young Adult when I wrote Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I thought my audience was 10 to 12. I was never writing YA the way there are YA books today about teenagers for teenagers. I don’t like to label books, but my books were what is now called middle grade novels—that’s what they were and that’s what they still are.
And I think they’re being read younger and younger and I think that’s okay. The important thing is that kids read. If they’re interested at nine in reading Margaret then I say fine, that’s great….
I read all over the place that my career has been in YA writing—it has not been. Forever would have been published YA today, yes. Tiger Eyes might be published very young YA today, I don’t know. But those are the only ones.
Q: Tell me about Tiger Eyes and why you allowed this book to become a film.
That’s easy. Someone came to us and said, “We can finance a movie based on one of your books. Which one would you like to do?”
I always knew Larry (Blume’s son and the film’s director) wanted to do Tiger Eyes because he loves it and is passionate about it; because it’s visual; because it’s set in a place that’s different; and because somehow (this came later), we were able to translate “Davey’s” inner voice into images.
The actress playing “Davey”—Willa Holland—is absolutely incredible in her beauty; in her expressive face—it’s a face I never tire of looking at…She really is “Davey”; she really gets inside “Davey”…she’s just wonderful.
Q: I read in a recent interview that while you were writing Tiger Eyes it brought back memories of your father who died suddenly.
I was not aware of it while I was writing it. I was very aware of it while we were filming it. Surely, it must have been cathartic writing it, but I don’t remember feeling that.
I was telling a story. Yes, I was a young girl who adored my father, who died suddenly from a heart attack while I was with him. “Davey” was with her father when he was shot and killed and I was the one (with her father when he died.)
He was the nurturing, non-judgmental parent and I knew wasn’t I lucky to have him. And to lose someone like that when you’re quite young yourself, it’s very tough.
It wasn’t until we were working on the movie–I saw the movie and oh my God, I was hit by it, it was such a force.
Maybe because I’m old enough now to look back and see that—maybe I didn’t want to while I was writing it….
It’s not a children’s movie….There’s no language in it; there’s no really any sexuality in it, but there is a girl coping with her father’s death and eventually you see what happens when she allows herself to remember it….It’s a very romantic film, in a longing way….
Q: When you write books like Tiger Eyes do you think about how these books might help people?
No! I don’t think you should think about that at all when you’re writing fiction. With your characters, they’re leading you most of the time; you’re going on a journey with them. You’re trying to tell their story as well as you possibly can.
Q: What was it like working with your son, Larry, on Tiger Eyes?
It was a thrill—it was wonderful. We worked together once before on Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great when he was 25 and I was 50—we’re exactly 25 years apart.
And after that, I said, “Neither one of us is old enough, ready or mature enough to handle this.”
But, at 46 or something and I was—I don’t know—I think I had my 70th birthday—it was whole different thing.
We worked together as creative partners, not mother and son, but as Judy and Larry…
And so, it was a thrill. The writing of it—that was the most difficult part. The filming of it was my favorite part. Casting, filming—I loved it.
I was on the set every single moment of every single day. If you said to me, “Here, do you want to go make another movie and all you have to do is be on the set every day and it’s going to be so much fun because we have the best crew in the world and we have a wonderful cast for you—would you like to do that instead of writing a book?”
I would probably say, “Yes, yes, yes!” because you know what you’re going to do every day you wake up and it’s really early and you get into these clothes…it was very exciting.
The Montclair Film Festival opens tonight and runs through Sunday, May 6. UPDATE: Tiger Eyes is SOLD-OUT. There may be a limited number of tickets released to the rush-line the day of the screening, 15 minutes before showtime.