Letters come in huge padded envelopes, sometimes as many as 2,000 a month. Mostly they are from girls; usually they are 9 to 14 years old and what they are writing about is their deepest doubts, their most painful problems, their darkest fears.
Dear Judy, I have only one question for you. I’ve really been depressed lately and well, do a lot of teens think seriously about suicide? Because I do a lot. I was wondering if a lot of teens really consider it. --Noreen, age 16.
Judy Blume got her first such letter in 1971, a missive from a 13-year-old girl in Long Meadow, Mass., writing about “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” one of Blume’s early novels. It was “very exciting,” Blume remembered, and it was also the beginning of what grew to be a steady flood of mail, sometimes from entire classrooms of school kids, just as often from a single child, writing alone, too troubled, confused, sad or scared even to commit his or her thoughts to a diary.
Dear Judy, If I was going to write a book I would write a book about a boy named Teddy. He would be a kid in fifth grade that everyone hated. He would have all kinds of problems with other people and then one day he thinks, I don’t like being teased, so I’m going to do something about it! So he does. But I don’t know what.
--Teddy, age 10.
Blume saved the letters, recognizing that, with about 30 million readers of her 14 mega-popular books for young people, she had become a kind of cult figure for much of young America. Not some hip Ann Landers, exactly, but definitely a trusted outsider: a grown-up who seemed more interested in understanding than in judging. Sibling rivalry, fights with friends, drugs, sexuality, divorce and obesity: The letters ran the gamut of teen-age miseries. Sometimes they told of unthinkable burdens: incest, serious illness, rape.
“Why do they write?” Blume asked. “I’ve been trying to figure that out. I think it’s that they identify with the characters in my books very strongly. So many of them write that reading one of my books is like being with a good friend. They have a feeling that I will understand.
“Also, I’m safe because I’m removed. They know that in trusting me, it’s not going to backfire on them. I’m not going to tell on them.
“There’s that removal,” Blume said. “I’ve never really had a kid come up to me and confide in person the way they do in letters.”
Dear Judy, From now on you’re going to be getting a lot of letters from me. I’m going to tell you everything that’s on my mind. Things that I can’t tell my parents or my friends. You don’t have to answer every letter. I know you’ve got other things to do. I just like writing to you. It’s like talking to a friend.--Kelly, age 13.
All these years, Blume had been seeing that each letter got an answer, sometimes a sort of “I understand” response, but often a more detailed, more personal reply based on her own experience as child and parent. Correspondence with one girl, now a college student, has spanned seven years. Sometimes her letters, “in the tiniest, most meticulous little handwriting,” filled as much as 10 pages.
“She was writing because she was just a writer and she had so much to get out,” Blume said. “She shared all her growing-up years with me.”
Or there is Laura, the name Blume has given the youngest of nine children in a small factory town in Maine, another of her more frequent pen pals. Laura has been writing to Blume for the better part of three years now.
Dear Judy, Hi! I’m a 14-year-old junkie and I hope to be a famous author someday. In all your books I could find a part of myself, either now or when I was younger. But I’ve been wondering if you’ve realized how much times have changed. Hardly anyone I know is a virgin. I know a lot of kids just say things like that to impress their friends but I also know it can be true. I could tell you some stories that would pop your eyeballs out of their sockets, but I won’t. You probably wouldn’t understand or relate to some of the things I’ve been through, such as smoking pot since the age of 10. I’ll keep reading your books, hoping to find something by you about some real problems. See ya!
--Laura, age 14. Blume agonized before deciding to put the letters in a book. After all, she felt a deep sense of responsibility to these kids who had poured their lives out to her. She worried about violating confidence. Finally, in agreeing to assemble “Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, $17.95), Blume came to see the project as a way to help not only the kids, but also to educate their parents.
“When I got the idea for the book, I thought it was just for the children,” Blume said. “I thought it was a way to show all these children who are feeling so alone that they are not.
“But then when I started to put it together, when I tried to find a way to tie all the letters together with the narrative, I seemed to be talking as an adult to other adults. You know, what I think I’ve got here is a book that is geared more toward the parent, something that says ‘here is what it’s like to be young, these are the things that all the kids have inside them.’ ”
Blume’s hope is that parents will see the importance of becoming allies to their kids. “You have to let the kids know you’re on their side,” she said. “You can’t make it perfect for them, but you can make them understand.”
Blume encourages dialogue, even about the most distasteful of topics, reasoning, “The way they learn to handle problems when they’re young is the way they’re going to handle them when they grow up. All those feelings of inadequacy--you know, ‘why don’t people like me?'--that colors the rest of your life.”
Part of what made it possible for Blume to write the book was her decision to channel all royalties from “Letters to Judy” to the Kids Fund, the nonprofit, charitable and educational foundation Blume set up five years ago. In a sense, the fund and the book were cousins, since “I started the fund in response to the letters,” Blume said. Her plan was to set up a central repository that would provide grants for the special needs and concerns of children. Last year, the fund distributed grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to 12 diverse organizations across the country.
Miss Goody Two-Shoes
“I don’t want to come across as Miss Goody Two-Shoes,” she said, “but (the Kids Fund) was a way for me to give back to the kids some of what they had given to me.
“And they’ve given me a lot--my success, for one thing, both emotional and financial.”
Blume’s success story is by now fairly legendary. A dentist’s daughter from Elizabeth, N.J., Blume grew up an avid reader whose primary ambition was to marry, have children and live happily ever after. She did the first two, but a divorce after 17 years of marriage at least temporarily shook up the prospects for the latter.
“It was terrible for five years,” Blume said of her relationship with her ex-husband and their two children. “It took five years for us to get over that and treat each other kindly.”
But even before the divorce, even behind the facade of happy suburban housewife, Blume was writing all the while. After 2 1/2 years of rejection slips, her first book, “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo,” was published in 1969.
“There I was,” she remembered, “this young woman with two babies who was looking for some kind of creative outlet, I guess.”
The fans and fame that followed were something Blume could never have anticipated. “You don’t write with the idea of ‘maybe I’ll get famous,’ ” she said. “It’s more like ‘maybe I’ll get published.’ ”
But Blume’s renown, in any case, grew slowly. Recently she recalls asking her son Larry, now a 23-year-old film maker, what it was like growing up with a working mother in a time and place where nobody’s mother worked. “I didn’t know whether to kill him or hug him,” Blume said, “because he said ‘I never thought you were a working mother.’ ”
With her notability came notoriety as well. As the author of realistic fiction for young people, Blume is also among the most banned writers in America today. Regularly, her books are pulled from library and school shelves, in large part because of what is termed “strong language” or “inappropriate content.”
The latter charge, Blume contends, translates specifically and incontrovertibly to one thing: sex.
Legion of Readers
Blume is tiny, certainly much smaller than many in her legion of loyal readers. Her bones are fine and her brown eyes lively. She is 48, relatively soft-spoken and prone to expressing opinions based largely on having spent nearly five decades on a sometimes crazy planet. Sitting in her penthouse high above the Hudson River, her legs tucked under her in a living room filled with light and the totems of her last beloved home in the Southwest, it is hard to imagine questioning Blume as she insists, “I am not controversial!”
While her own belief is that “much of this has been blown up by the media,” Blume does acknowledge that the banning of her books reflects a strong tide of reaction.
“I think today it has to do with the religious right,” she said. “And I don’t know what anybody can do about that.”
If she is threatening to some people, Blume said, “it’s all sex and language.” Just the other day, for example, “I had somebody scream at me on a radio talk show because in ‘Blubber’ I had used the word--and he spelled it--D-A-M-N.” On other occasions, she said, “I heard mothers arguing about ‘Deenie'--they believe masturbation is a sin. They said I was instructing their children in masturbation.”
Blume’s conflict with such critics stems, she believes, from a basic disagreement about child-rearing. “They somehow believe you can control your child’s life,” Blume said. “I was once on a show with a woman who said ‘We own our children and we control them and we have the right to tell them what to think.’ Now I would say there is no way to control another human being, and that it’s much better that no matter what it is, whatever it is, you talk about it.”
Kids today are living in a world where families have changed, where all the rules have changed, Blume said. “And parents are so afraid. I wish they wouldn’t be so afraid to talk about certain subjects because they don’t have the answers.
“It’s OK to admit you make mistakes,” Blume said. “It’s OK to say ‘I’m sorry’ to your kids. That doesn’t have anything to do with authority.
“And it seems to me now that I have no more children to raise that what is important about raising children is helping them learn to make decisions, letting them know, ‘I’m here, I’m here for you, I care and I’m on your side.’ ”
The Hardest Book
“Letters to Judy” turned out to be the hardest book Blume has written. “I would never, ever do anything like it again,” she said. “I’ll never write nonfiction again. It’s much harder.”
In fact she is 80-plus pages into her next novel, with the manuscript carefully stashed in the freezer of an otherwise near-empty refrigerator.
“Someone told me that if the house burned down, this was the safest place for things to be,” she explained, producing a plastic-wrapped sheaf of typewritten pages. A label menaced anyone who might confuse it with, say, old meat. “PUNISHABLE BY DEATH IF THROWN AWAY,” the bundle was marked.
“I’m so anxious to get back to work,” Blume said, as if “Letters to Judy” had been more labor than work. “In a way I guess it’s good because I feel very fresh again with this book,” Blume said.
Still, Blume will continue to correspond with Laura, with Tracy and Jessica and Melissa and Daniel and Ben and all the others who have come to rely on her.
Dear Judy, Whenever I have a fight with somebody I sit right down and write a letter to you. I don’t always send it but it makes me feel better just to write it.
--Jennifer, age 11.