What I learned reading Judy Blume for the first time as an adult

When I was little, I discovered very early on that books were magic. I learned that they were worlds unto themselves and they contained all the power one could possess in the world. There was magic and laughter, sadness and heartbreak, all that’s both good and bad in the world. And while I understood that, it obviously wasn’t until I was older that I realized books had some of the best lessons you could want or need.

Today, the writer of some of the most important lessons young (and even adult) readers should learn, Judy Blume, releases her newest title In the Unlikely Event. Set in 1987 New Jersey, protagonist Miri Amerrman thinks back to the first time she was in love at 15 and the destruction that happened to her community 35 years earlier. It recalls a time in history that Blume herself experienced and weaves together loss, heartbreak, love and hope between generations in the classic Judy Blume style.

I never read Judy Blume. I know, I know. I was met with serious confusion when I told a few people a couple of months ago that I was reading my first one, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, for the first time. It was like I was some literary pariah. I had to get my stuff together and get a move on.

What I learned from reading her work as an adult was that despite her work coming out so many decades ago, much of the subject matter is actually fairly relevant to today’s society. It was as if reading them was like reading something that had just come out. I have since read a handful more and it totally threw me for a loop.

When I was reading Blubber, I was amazed at how perfectly it captured bullying as it is today. Jill is in a group of friends that she would rather go along with rather than stand up to. When the queen bee decides to call a heavier girl “Blubber,” Jill follows suit. The entire class ridicules the poor girl. Once Jill stands up to Caroline, she is the new target and everyone attacks her every move. It shows both sides of the situation; the aggressors and the victim. It was shocking to see how cruel she wrote the kids but then I realized that this problem is bigger than ever now. It saddens me that kids and even adults can be so cruel sometimes and that we haven’t made much progress on that front.

It was the same when I read Iggie’s House. Although it was a different time and we have made progress, the story of Winnie befriending the new family living in her best friend’s house still has some relevance today. In the story, Iggie is fascinated by the black family that has just moved in. She doesn’t see color, she just sees a new set of friends. But there are obstacles. She’s unsure of how everyone else will react, and soon their friendship is met with resistance. It was particularly resonant given all that has happened in the past year, with, most recently, the protests in Baltimore.

The same can be said for Forever. Although it doesn’t have to do with race, it still has to do with a somewhat taboo subject: losing your virginity. In the book, Katherine gets her first boyfriend, Michael. She falls in love with him and decides that she wants to be with him forever, and decides she’s ready to have sex with him. She takes the necessary precautions and goes on the pill, ready for the big moment. This one upsets me a lot, because of how the conversation about sex changes if you’re a girl or a boy, a thing that Forever explores. It reminded me that there is no time that you’re “supposed” to lose your virginity. Everyone has their own speed, and that’s OK.

Which leads me to Deenie. In this story, Deenie’s mom wants her to be a model. She’s pretty, so shouldn’t she be one? That’s only logical, of course. But her gym teacher feels she needs to visit her doctor. When she does, she discovers that she has scoliosis and must wear a brace for the next four years. Not only does her mother feel personally betrayed, but Deenie is frantic that no one will be attracted to her and she won’t feel comfortable with herself.

Judy Blume is frank and realistic and plain in her meaning. There’s no beating around the bush or figuring anything out. She’s honest and engaging. Plus, her books are so absorbing, they go by quickly. You’ll be done with them before you know it. I still have a little ways to go to get through her titles, but I am enjoying myself along the way. Her stories open up conversation and that’s important.

I’m sorry that it took me so long, Judy Blume. I’m a fan now, even if it took me a long time from middle school to finally be one.

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