Like any girl who came of age sometime in the past forty years, I credit only one woman with providing for me a true education: Judy Blume. When I was seven, I overheard my cousin and sister discussing a book that mentioned “periods”. I begged them to explain and when they wouldn’t, I asked my uncle (that alone should indicate that I truly had NO idea what a period was). He gave me a lengthy lecture on ovaries and uterine lining and I left pretty confused and more than a little grossed out. My mom was next in line, and she told me, “It’s when a girl goes to the bathroom and there’s blood in her underwear,” or at least that’s the gorgeous image I was left with.
Of course, just a year or two later, I was devouring every Judy Blume book I could get my hands on, including a used copy of Wifey that I had to fish out of the trash after my mom confiscated it. All at once, Judy Blume became my imaginary best friend. Any question I had about growing up, puberty, bullying, friendships or sex was answered by one of her books. Every female child born in this country should be given her entire bibliography the second they emerge from the womb. Feeling pressure to be a mean girl? Check out Blubber, about a girl who inadvertently allies herself with bullies. Life throw you a medical curveball? Try Deenie, a book about the prettiest girl in the school who finds out she has to wear a back brace. Considering going all the way with your boyfriend? You obviously need to read Forever before you do the deed.
I can mark the milestones in my life with the milestones I read about in Judy Blume books, and I am so grateful to her for not only making it okay to talk about difficult, controversial issues, but for writing about them in a beautiful way. Here are a few of my favorites:
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
So theoretically, this is a novel about a girl struggling with the fact that she was raised with no religion. Her father’s Jewish, her mother’s Christian, and she wasn’t brought up one way or the other. There’s definitely a lot of religious exploration going on – Margaret talks to God (duh) and explores both church and synagogue life – but for nine year old me, this was a book about bras and periods and all the stuff I was so friggin’ curious about but had no idea how or what to ask. Margaret’s interest in her and her friends’ changing bodies, and her desire to grow up, get her period, and wear a bra, were so familiar to me but not anything I felt I could talk about. This is such an honest depiction of what it’s like to be a middle school girl. Also, a history lesson (if you find an early edition) – who knew menstrual pads were once attached to belts?!
Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself
Interestingly, this is not one of the Judy Blume books I hear discussed very often. Maybe because it’s far less salacious than some of the others, or maybe because in it Judy addresses more serious issues like anti-semitism and racism, but regardless, this was definitely one of my favorites growing up. The story features a ten year old girl (Sally) who moves from New Jersey to Miami in 1947. There she discovers racial segregation and believes Adolf Hitler is living in her apartment building. Sally is extremely imaginative and loves “adventure”, so there’s a sweetness to her story and her struggles to understand troubles in her parents’ relationship, her brother’s illness, and, of course, the politics of the world around her. Spending time with Sally meant entering her dream world of made-up stories and half-understood grown-up experiences. Plus she taught me the value of eavesdropping, whether it’s at dinner parties or on the apartment building’s shared phone line, a necessary skill for any aspiring writer.
Like I said, this is the book to read if you are thinking about having sex for the first time, but it’s also the book to read if you are thinking about boyfriends, girlfriends, relationships, growing up, high school, intimacy, birth control, love, or any other human issue. Katherine is a high school senior who falls in love for the first time and navigates the tricky waters of how far to go, when to lose her virginity, and how to handle having such a serious boyfriend at a young age. This was an extremely controversial book because it’s considered Young Adult, but deals very honestly with sex. Of course, I ate up Katherine’s drama with a spoon, because I was nowhere close to having a boyfriend, let alone having sex, and I got to live through her. Notice a theme here? Judy’s protagonists might be living life alongside you, but they can also be one step ahead of you, the cool older sisters offering advice and experience at every stage.
Technically a grown-up book, I read this one summer at camp when I was in middle school and cried into my bug juice for a week after I was done. A total female-friendship-fantasy, the story surrounds Caitlin and Victoria, who spend every summer together at Caitlin’s Martha’s Vineyard house. The house is a ramshackle thing with sand everywhere and no rules, and the girls run barefoot and hitchhike and generally come of age as the summers pass. Of course, as they change, their friendship changes, but for all its problems, to this day I hold it in my mind as one of the ideal female friendships depicted in literature. The girls experience everything together, from puberty to first times, heartbreak and betrayal, and that may sound soapy but if it is it’s in the smartest, most believable way. This book is gut-wrenching. Read it if you haven’t already, and then give it to your best friend, and then read it together, and then read it alone again. N.B.O., Vix.
Just As Long As We’re Together
I saved the best for last. This is my absolute favorite Judy Blume book, maybe because it’s the one I read and related to the most. As I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen, I read this book so many times I used to be able to recite the entire first chapter from memory, monologue-style, and of course I did so, alone in my room all the time. “Stephanie is into hunks…” Okay I’ll leave it at that. The story surrounds Stephanie, who’s always been best friends with Rachel (see: Here’s To You Rachel Robinson) but when new girl Alison Monceau hits the scene, a torrid friendship love-triangle for the ages is born. Meanwhile, Steph is going through tons of other changes – moving houses, gaining weight, developing, and dealing with her parents’ increasingly evident separation. This book hits all the marks – smart, touching, funny, real – and then some, and your stomach will twist at the oh-so-accurate depiction of evolving female friendships in middle school. Remember that fun time? Stephanie’s denial over the state of her parents’ marriage is particularly poignant, and even children from happy, healthy families will be able to relate to the powerlessness she feels in the face of so much change. Read this book now if you haven’t already, and then call me and we’ll organize a staged recitation of the text in its entirety.
Honestly, every single book Judy Blume has ever written could be considered one of my favorites. I’m salivating in anticipation of the upcoming feature-film version of Tiger Eyes and silently sending please-please-please wishes in Judy’s direction that she’ll finally write a book from Alison Monceau’s point of view. We should all thank our lucky shiny stars every single day that books like these were and continue to be written, so that young girls feeling alone in the world can know that there are others just like them out there, leading the way or following closely behind.