Anyone who’s crossed my path knows how I feel about Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 classic, Harriet the Spy. If not, I’ll tell you this: I’ve read the book at least 300 times, collect vintage editions, and have more Harriet paraphernalia (journals, coasters, framed prints, pins) than most sellers on eBay. And if I were to get a tattoo…?
Yes, my love borders on obsession (“I’m your number one fan!”), but I will grudgingly admit that I have room in my heart for other middle-grade books. Or, to be specific, a middle-grade author: The one and only, Judy Blume.
For many readers of MG fiction, particularly those who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, Judy Blume is an author of iconic proportions. She’s a rock star. A legend. The woman we all want to know. The woman we think we do know, because she knows us. Our darkest secrets, our wildest dreams. Judy just…gets it.
A 2009 collection of essays entitled Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume corroborates this theory. In the book, twenty authors wax poetic about their childhood literary idol, sharing fond reminiscences and quoting lines from Blume’s books verbatim. Clearly, there’s something about Judy Blume that touches readers profoundly, and it’s easy to see why. Making the awkward leap from childhood to adolescence—along with the physical and emotional changes that accompany puberty—is unspeakably difficult. But again, Judy gets it. Every time.
The first Judy Blume novel I read, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was purchased at my local bookstore, in midtown Manhattan, with my allowance. My purchase set me back $1.25, which in those days could buy you a pack of gum and a Dynamite magazine. But still, I wanted that book. How could I not? The word ‘period’ was printed on the back cover, in black and white, for all the world to see! Not only that, the novel was about a flat-chested only child whose name began with the letter M. Sold, and sold!
The minute I got home, I raced into the living room, curled up in an overstuffed armchair, and began to read. And then I got to page 85: Norman Fishbein’s party. Philip Leroy was blowing mustard through a straw (“Watch this, Freddy!”), when Mrs. Fishbein came downstairs…. And then Laura went back to work.
Yes, pages 86-116 were missing. My carefully chosen book with the word ‘period’ on the back cover was defective! But what was I supposed to do? I needed to finish that book!
Naturally I begged my mom to let me go back to the bookstore, and naturally she said yes. (This was the late 1970s, remember, when kids were as free range as organic-farm chickens.) I returned with a perfectly intact copy, resumed my position in the overstuffed armchair, and finished the book. (Spoiler alert: Margaret gets her period.)
After Margaret, more Judy Blume titles followed: Deenie, which deals with scoliosis, first crushes, and a frank discussion of masturbation (which, most likely, would never make it onto the page today); Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, about 12-year-old Tony Miglione who has wet dreams and out-of-the-blue erections (ditto); It’s Not the End of the World; which centers on divorce; Iggie’s House, which addresses the ugliness of racism; and Blubber, which tackles bullying. I read Blume’s other titles—Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself; the Fudge books—but they didn’t grab me the way Margaret and the others did.
And then I read Forever.
Whoa! This is a young-adult title, so for the purpose of this post, I won’t dwell. Let’s just say this: After reading the book, I knew I could never name my kid Ralph.
Over the years, I read hundreds (thousands?) of middle-grade books, but I always returned to Judy Blume. I returned to her again while I was writing my debut MG novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean. Not to steal Judy’s ideas (heaven forefend!), but to learn from the master. No one writes dialogue like Judy Blume or gets into a character’s head the way she does, with pitch-perfect authenticity. And she makes it look so effortless! How does she do that? I longed to ask her.
And then I got my chance… at the ophthalmologist’s office.
I was sitting in the waiting room with a dog-eared copy of Time, when who should walk in but the Queen of MG herself! As Margaret would have said, I almost died. My first instinct was to grab Judy (or should I say, Ms. Blume?) in a bone-crushing hug, but that would have bordered on Annie Wilkes territory. No, I needed to exercise restraint. So I watched her every move from behind my magazine. First, she checked in with the receptionist. Then she sat down. Then she rifled through her purse, searching for her phone or maybe some Tic-Tacs. But why would Judy Blume need a Tic-Tac? Chances are, she brushed—and flossed—with great care before her appointment. Maybe she just needed a tissue.
Stop, Melissa, I told myself. You are being exceptionally creepy. Why not go over and introduce yourself? Tell Ms. Blume how profoundly her books have influenced you, as a reader and a writer? Or simply say, “I love your work.” That’s what you’re supposed to say to famous actors, right?
But I couldn’t do it. Invading Judy Blume’s privacy was not something I was willing to do, no matter how much I loved her. Even literary icons need to get their eyeballs dilated in peace. So I left her alone, even though it killed me.
Maybe I should have said something—or given her a Kat Greene bookmark (now, that’s not creepy!). But disturbing my childhood literary idol in the ophthalmologist’s office? Not happening.
That’s not to say I’ll never see Ms. Blume again. Chances are, I will, especially if my eye allergies are acting up, or if I have conjunctivitis or a stye. And when that day comes? I’ll smile and thank her for everything she’s done for the kidlit community: as a writer, as a bookseller, as a crusader against censorship, and as someone who just… gets it.
Then again… Maybe I won’t. 🙂
MELISSA ROSKE is a writer of contemporary middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, Melissa interviewed real ones, as a journalist in Europe. In London, she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest, and got certified as a life coach. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017) is her debut novel. Visit Melissa’s website, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.