Nicholas Tucker describes a developing relationship between critic and author
My first encounter with the best-selling American writer Judy Blume took place in 1976, when I reviewed Forever, still her most notorious novel. It describes a brief affair between a seventeen year old heroine and a boy of the same age, and was neither brilliantly written nor mere slop and gush. But rather than give a mid-way judgement, I reacted prudishly to the unfamiliar sexual frankness in the story, and perhaps a little jealously too, remembering my own inhibited, unadventurous adolescence. It was, I wrote loftily in the Times Literary Supplement, `A dull novel about two very dull young people … who couple and separate like self-lubricated automata. ..’ The characters are so flat one might almost be in a sexed-up Enid Blyton plot – 5 go on an orgy, perhaps. But at least Enid Blyton sometimes dealt with feelings; a better analogy might be a so far missing link in the Janet and John reading scheme: Come and have sex!
Mine was only one of many hostile reviews that Miss Blume’s books have attracted over the years, yet soon afterwards I began to develop an uneasy conscience, particularly when her hardback British publisher told me I had played a part in blocking any quick take-up of the paper-back rights over here. In addition, my own children had now read Forever, and it clearly had something both they and their friends wanted, since it was widely lent out. This immediate interest in Miss Blume’s work is nothing new, especially across the Atlantic. A children’s bookshop owner in Canada told me around that time about a successful visit from the author, resulting in a capacity audience of young readers listening to every word with close attention. I also found that my own memories of Forever did not simply disappear in favour of better books reviewed since. It did, after all, contain some authentic-sounding dialogue, and the story itself, with its down-beat ending and clever mixture of adolescent idealism and cynicism, was better than I had stated.
When her next two books came out, It’s not the End of the World and Then again, maybe I Won’t, I was anxious to be more open-minded. Writing for New Society, I praised her ability to see things from a teenager’s point of view which, `plus a fluent, colloquial style, makes it easier for her to cover a range of adolescent preoccupations in a way that appears unforced’. This time, I did not object to the descriptions of voyeurism, wet dreams and various other sexy passages. I also gave my own students who were studying children’s literature Miss Blume’s powerful story Blubber, and while they were critical of it in parts, most found it extremely readable. Its theme of pointless, cruel bullying in a junior school was well realised, bringing back uncomfortable memories not only of specific incidents of the same type, but also for a whole atmosphere of potential daily insecurity, once an inseparable part of being young and small.
I also liked her latest novel, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, published over here last Summer, and this time, reviewing it once again in the Times Literary Supplement, felt I owed her some apology. After commending her professional skill, I concluded, `Critics such as myself, who have condemned her writing in the past for its sensationalism, may like this present novel’. Curiously enough, the only reservation I felt about it now was that children themselves may find parts of it a little dull, since all the incidents it described were determinedly domestic, with none of the sexual high jinks of former years.
I hope this did not give the impression that I now welcomed Miss Blume back into my critical fold precisely because she had omitted more explicit material in this story. On the contrary, I wish I had praised her more for those earlier novels popular with children but which most critics disliked, since this division between the distaste of adult reviewers and the needs of young readers has always been the key to the different responses she provokes. Adult critics, for example, can be excused for finding the technical detail Miss Blume uses to explain and describe period pains, masturbation and so on somewhat tedious. Young readers, though, are often bursting with curiosity not about the facts of life merely as an academic exercise, but also how, when, where, with whom, how often and anything else that can be thrown in of a reasonably detailed nature. They also want to know how these things work in a personal context, and where better to read about them than in a novel containing adolescent characters themselves very ordinary and therefore easy to identify with?
This was just the type of information Miss Blume handed over in Forever and other novels, and young readers were duly grateful.
As well as heart-beats and sparkling eyes, there were discussions of contraceptives, the use of tissues in heavy petting sessions, vaginal discharges (‘Just clear … that’s normal’.) and what noises people make when they climax. Negative adult reaction to this, I suspect, is not simply based on a distrust of sensational `problem’ novels aimed at the young. There is also a deeper rejection of the whole concept of childhood as a time for intense sexual curiosity. Never mind that Freud first suggested this possibility nearly a hundred years ago, and that the dialogue in every school playground and the words and pictures on every school lavatory wall still support such a generalisation. It remains a side – though not, of course, the only side – to childhood we do not much want to think about, and children’s writers who meet such interest at least half-way have to accept the aggressive critical consequences. How else can one explain the venom Miss Blume has so often attracted, with less competent authors dealing with different topics never suffering from the same disapproving criticism?
I also now believe that the other main complaint about Miss Blume, her selective focus on adolescence as a time for personal problems, is again based on a similar adult unwillingness to face up to the fact that children have always been interested and sometimes knowledgeable about the more seamy side to life, even from a comparatively early age. Bullying, divorce, dead parents, phobias, racism and savage sibling rivalry, for example, all crop up in various Blume novels. Actual experience of such things is not common to all children, yet the affluent New Jersey environment she writes about, with its family break-ups, drug abuse and psychological stress, is certainly a world that more rather than fewer middle class children are getting to know about, either at first or second hand. Naturally there are many other things still happening in childhood that make pleasanter reading, but as with sex, one cannot blame children for wanting to find out about the more dramatic behaviour they may be witnessing around them, even if this means choosing novels that offer a fairly one-sided picture of life in the suburbs. Ignoring these issues does not make them go away for some unfortunate children, nor does it mean that others will no longer want to test themselves out in their own imaginations against such upsets.
Not every children’s novel that deals with sex and/or personal problems can be justified simply because these are things children feel curious about. Cliche-ridden, falsely-perceived formula novels remain bad whatever situations they describe, and there have been a number like this mostly from the USA and lately from Britain as well. Miss Blume does not come into this category; her dialogue is spare and individual, her jokes are often funny, and the resolutions to her stories are neither sentimental nor fashionably depressing. We should be encouraged that so many children read her, so still choosing books in preference to TV or video at various moments in their lives. There are obvious faults in her writing, and she does not produce novels that both adults and children can share and treasure. But this should not rule out appreciation of her as a serious and successful writer for children, should it?
Graduate, mother of two, approaching thirty, living in suburban New Jersey with the husband she met at college and aspiring perhaps to one day being president of the PTA: that was Judy Blume in the late sixties. Then she signed up for a course in writing children’s books – one evening a week in New York – and things were never the same again. Her first book, Iggie’s House, about a black family in an all-white neighbourhood – written during the course and one she doesn’t like much now – appeared in 1970, and others followed quickly.
Judy Blume’s books have aroused anger in parents, anxiety in librarians and passionate commitment from her readers – 20 million copies sold and 2,000 letters a month arriving at her publishers. Adolescence, its preoccupations and anxieties – getting (or not getting) breasts, starting (or not starting) to menstruate, wet dreams, sexual curiosity, being overweight, friendship, families, divorce, lack of confidence – these are the stock-in-trade of many Blume novels where her central characters are 12 or 13. For older readers, Tiger Eyes explores grief and loss and the moral ambiguities of violence, and Forever… is an explicit and anti-romantic description of teenage love and sex. Her latest book to be published here, Starring Sally J Freedman As Herself, about a ten-year old, is set in 1947 – the most autobiographical yet she says.
Fourteen years on from Iggie’s House Judy Blume is a best-selling writer by any standards. With two marriages behind her and her children launched on the world she lives now in Manhattan, enjoying `a second adolescence’, a happy and successful woman. In an interview she gave to The New York Magazine she reveals something of the impulse behind her writing. `I hate the idea that you should always protect children. They live in the same world as we do. They see things and hear things. The worst is when there are secrets, because what they imagine and have to deal with alone is usually scarier than the truth. Sexuality and death – these are the two big secrets we try to keep from children, partly because the adult world isn’t comfortable with them either. But it hasn’t kept kids from being frightened by those things.’
(published in hardback by Heinemann and in paperback by Piccolo unless otherwise stated)
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Gollancz, 0 575 02433 X, £5.95; 0 330 26244 0, £1.25
0 434 92882 8, £4.95; 0 330 26329 3, £1.25
0 434 92883 6, £4.95; 0 330 28003 1, £1.25
Gollancz, 0 575 02144 6, £5.95
0 434 92884 4, £4.95; 0 330 26682 9, £1.25
It’s Not the End of the World
0 434 92881 X, £4.95; 0 330 25689 0, £1.25
Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great
0 330 26051 0, £1.25
Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself
0 434 92886 0, £5.95; 0 330 28279 4, £1.50
0 330 26602 0, £1.25
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
0 330 26211 4, £1.25
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t
0 434 92880 0, £4.95; 0 330 25690 4, £1.25
0 434 92885 2, £4.95; 0 330 26954 2, £1.25
Nicholas Tucker lectures in the University of Sussex and is a well-known reviewer and writer about children and their books. His most recent book The Child and the Book is published by Cambridge University Press (Paperback, 0521 27048 0, £6.95).