God, I loved Judy Blume. Even though she was a middle-aged American lady by the late 1980s, while I was a skinny schoolkid from New Zealand, I felt like she really got me. Her books were so matter-of-fact, covering themes from bullying to sex to puberty to friendship to divorce, and treated the challenges of youth with respect and understanding. Clearly I'm not the only fan; her books have sold over 85 million copies and been translated into 32 languages.
However, her upfront writing style has also caused plenty of ruffled feathers amongst conservative teachers and parents, who lobby to have her books banned. As a result, Judy also spends a lot of time and energy trying to protect the freedoms of writers and readers. Fortunately my own mother was open-minded and encouraged me to read widely. Hence any visitors to my house in the late '80s and early '90s would've seen books by Judy Blume, Stephen King, and Virginia Andrews on full, brazen display.
Adolescence is undoubtedly a complicated time, with childhood discarded but the responsibilities of adulthood still looming ahead in the distance. You're still living at home and going to school each day, but things have changed. It's a time of asserting independence, of boredom and frustration, fluctuating hormones, testing boundaries, figuring out who you are and what you want. It's a time of extreme self-absorption and lying around in your bedroom listening to gloomy music and feeling nihilistic and misunderstood, fretting about the opposite sex, friendship dramas and homework. It's a time of feeling ugly and clumsy, with a changing body and pimples and braces. But (looking back) it's also a magical time of discoveries and new experiences and late nights and crushes, friendship necklaces and sleepovers, and no real responsibilities.
Through it all, or at least from ages 10-13, I was reading Judy Blume books. Here are just some of the things I learned along the way:
1. Relationships aren't perfect
Even though I was just 12 when I read Forever, and there were certainly no boys knocking on my door at that point, I learned the useful lesson that my first 'proper' relationship would most likely be awkward, clumsy and short-lived (it was; sorry Nigel, but it was), but a life-changing experience nonetheless that would make future relationships even better.
2. Three's a crowd
If you've read Just As Long As We're Together, you'll remember that the friendship of long-time buddies Rachel and Stephanie gets a little shaky when new girl Allison enters the scene. Is it possible to have two best friends? Yes, if you can handle the dynamics. But when there's an odd number involved, as I learned the hard way in Standard 4, it's not easy to keep everyone happy.
3. Kids can be really f***ing mean to each other
Blubber is an example of how quickly one nasty comment can spread, and also eventually backfire on the perpetrator. And this was in an era before smartphones and social media! The story of Jill and Linda shows how children target differences and perceived weaknesses, as well as the damage and loneliness bullying causes. My school had a Lord of the Flies vibe going on, and teachers mostly turned a blind eye. I survived by keeping my head down and my mouth shut; there was definitely no 'leaning in' happening at that point.
4. Periods are much-anticipated and then sort of anticlimactic
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret might be a mouthful of a book title (maybe AYTGIMM is better for brevity) but it covered some weighty subjects for pre-teen girls: trying to fit in, buying your first bra (what an awkward experience that was... double-A, anyone?), and waiting for your first period as a sign you're 'becoming a woman'. Then getting that long-coveted period and realising it's actually just a pretty uncomfortable, messy ritual that will be repeated every four weeks until pregnancy 20 years later.
5. Jumping and shouting won't actually increase anyone's bust
This is from Margaret, again. We tried this at school, dancing around and chanting: "I must, I must, I must increase my bust!" I must... but I didn't.
6. Sometimes life gets in the way of your goals, but challenges can work out for the best
In Deenie, the eponymous character is pushed by her mother to become a model, but instead discovers she has a curvature of the spine and has to wear a god-awful back brace for the next four years. Bummer! However, in a way the brace becomes a good thing because it sets her free from all the pressures and barriers she faced before. The book also alludes to masturbation (the horror!) and has featured on American literature "challenged" lists from people who want it banned because no one should even think about sex, let alone read about it.
7. Boys are going through a lot too
Not only is Judy Blume brilliant at communicating what is going on inside young girls' minds, she has also written books featuring boys as the main characters. I found it very useful for gaining some insight past their gruff exteriors – because the boys I knew certainly weren't talking much in my tween years, and then they vanished entirely once I started at a girls' high school.
Then Again, Maybe I Won't introduces us to Tony, a 13-year-old boy who is uprooted when his family suddenly gets rich and they move to a swanky new area. Tony witnesses the world changing around him while he's just trying to fit in and avoid embarrassing erections in front of his class. Now that is one problem I was relieved not to have.
Which Judy Blume book was/is your favourite?