Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies
February 12, 1938 -
1983 Ludington Award Winner
"Judy (Sussman) Blume." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photo © Sigrid Estrada; provided by Random House.
In the decades since she published her first book, Judy Blume has reigned among the most popular and controversial children's authors. Her accessible, humorous style and direct, sometimes explicit treatment of youthful concerns have won her many fans--as well as critics who sometimes seek to censor her work. Nevertheless, Blume has continued to produce works that are both entertaining and thought provoking. "Judy Blume has a knack for knowing what children think about and an honest, highly amusing way of writing about it," Jean Van Leeuwen stated in the New York Times Book Review. Newsweek writer Linda Bird Francke likewise reported that Angeline Moscatt, head librarian of the Children's Room of the New York Library, believed Blume "has a way of portraying human foibles in a way kids can relate to. In twenty years, I've never seen such a popular children's author."
Many critics attribute Blume's popularity to her ability to discuss openly, realistically, and compassionately the subjects that concern her readers. Her books for younger children, such as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Blubber, and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, deal with problems of sibling rivalry, establishing self-confidence, and social ostracism. Books for young readers, such as Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Deenie, and Just as Long as We're Together consider matters of divorce, friendship, family breakups, and sexual development (including menstruation and masturbation), while Forever. .. specifically deals with a young woman's first love and first sexual experience. But whatever the situation, Blume's characters confront their feelings of confusion as a start to resolving their problems. In Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, for instance, the young protagonist examines her thoughts about religion and speculates about becoming a woman. The result is a book that uses "sensitivity and humor" in capturing "the joys, fears and uncertainty that surround a young girl approaching adolescence," Lavinia Russ wrote in Publishers Weekly.
"Blume's books reflect a general cultural concern with feelings about self and body, interpersonal relationships, and family problems," Alice Phoebe Naylor and Carol Wintercorn remarked in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. But Blume has taken this general concern further, the critics continued, for "her portrayal of feelings of sexuality as normal, and not rightfully subject to punishment, (has) revolutionized realistic fiction for children." Blume's highlighting of sexuality reflects her ability to target the issues that most interest young people; when she first began writing, she "knew intuitively what kids wanted to know because I remembered what I wanted to know," she explained to John Neary of People. "I think I write about sexuality because it was uppermost in my mind when I was a kid: the need to know, and not knowing how to find out. My father delivered these little lectures to me, the last one when I was 10, on how babies are made. But questions about what I was feeling, and how my body could feel, I never asked my parents."
Nowhere is Blume's insight into character more apparent than in her fiction for adolescents, who are undeniably her most loyal and attentive audience. As Naomi Decter observed in Commentary, "there is, indeed, scarcely a literate girl of novel-reading age who has not read one or more Blume books." Not only does Blume address sensitive themes, she "is a careful observer of the everyday details of children's lives and she has a feel for the little power struggles and shifting alliances of their social relationships," R. A. Siegal commented in the Lion and the Unicorn. This realism enhances the appeal of her books, as Walter Clemons noted in a Newsweek review of Tiger Eyes: "No wonder teen-agers love Judy Blume's novels: She's very good. . . . Blume's delicate sense of character, eye for social detail and clear access to feelings touches even a hardened older reader. Her intended younger audience gets a first-rate novel written directly to them."
Blume reflected on her ability to communicate with her readers in a Publishers Weekly interview with Sybil Steinberg: "I have a capacity for total recall. That's my talent, if there's a talent involved. I have this gift, this memory, so it's easy to project myself back to certain stages in my life. And I write about what I know is true of kids going through those same stages." In addition, Blume enjoys writing for and about this age group. "When you're 12, you're on the brink of adulthood," the author told Joyce Maynard in the New York Times Magazine, "but everything is still in front of you, and you still have the chance to be almost anyone you want. That seemed so appealing to me. I wasn't even 30 when I started writing, but already I didn't feel I had much chance myself." As a result, "whether she is writing about female or male sexual awakening, and whatever other adolescent problems, Judy Blume is on target," Dorothy M. Broderick asserted in the New York Times Book Review. "Her understanding of young people is sympathetic and psychologically sound; her skill engages the reader in human drama without melodrama."
Blume's style also plays a major role in her popularity; as Adele Geras remarked in New Statesman, Blume's books "are liked because they are accessible, warm hearted, often funny, and because in them her readers can identify with children like themselves in difficult situations, which may seem silly to the world at large but which are nevertheless very real to the sufferer." "It's hard not to like Judy Blume," Carolyn Banks elaborated in the Washington Post Book World. "Her style is so open, so honest, so direct. Each of her books reads as though she's not so much writing as kaffeeklatsching with you." In addition, Siegal observed that Blume's works are structured simply, making them easy to follow. "Her plots are loose and episodic: they accumulate rather than develop," the critic stated. "They are not complicated or demanding."
Another way in which Blume achieves such a close affinity with her readers is through her consistent use of first-person narratives. As Siegal explained: "Through this technique she succeeds in establishing intimacy and identification between character and audience. All her books read like diaries or journals and the reader is drawn in by the narrator's self-revelations." "Given the sophistication of Miss Blume's material, her style is surprisingly simple," Decter similarly commented. "She writes for the most part in the first person: her vocabulary, grammar, and syntax are colloquial; her tone, consciously or perhaps not, evokes the awkwardness of a fifth grader's diary." In Just as Long as We're Together, for instance, the twelve-year-old heroine "tells her story in simple, real kid language," noted Mitzi Myers in the Los Angeles Times, "inviting readers to identify with her dilemmas over girlfriends and boyfriends and that most basic of all teen problems: 'Sometimes I feel grown up and other times I feel like a little kid.'"
Although Blume's work is consistently in favor with readers, it has frequently been the target of criticism. Some commentators have charged that the author's readable style, with its focus on mundane detail, lacks the depth to deal with the complex issues that she raises. In a Times Literary Supplement review of Just as Long as We're Together, for example, Jan Dalley claimed that Blume's work "is all very professionally achieved, as one would expect from this highly successful author, but Blume's concoctions are unvaryingly smooth, bland and glutinous." But Beryl Lieff Benderly believed that the author's readability sometimes masks what the critic calls her "enormous skill as a novelist," as she wrote in a Washington Post Book World review of the same book. "While apparently presenting the bright, slangy, surface details of life in an upper-middle class suburban junior high school, she's really plumbing the meaning of honesty, friendship, loyalty, secrecy, individuality, and the painful, puzzling question of what we owe those we love."
Other reviewers have taken exception to Blume's tendency to avoid resolving her fictional dilemmas in a straightforward fashion, for her protagonists rarely finish dealing with all their difficulties by the end of the book. Many critics, however, think that it is to Blume's credit that she does not settle every problem for her readers. One such critic, Robert Lipsyte of Nation, maintained that "Blume explores the feelings of children in a nonjudgmental way. The immediate resolution of a problem is never as important as what the protagonist . . . will learn about herself by confronting her life." Lipsyte explained that "the young reader gains from the emotional adventure story both by observing another youngster in a realistic situation and by finding a reference from which to start a discussion with a friend or parent or teacher. For many children, talking about a Blume story is a way to expose their own fears about menstruation or masturbation or death." Countering other criticisms that by not answering the questions they raise Blume's books fail to educate their readers, Siegal likewise suggested: "It does not seem that Blume's books . . . ought to be discussed and evaluated on the basis of what they teach children about handling specific social or personal problems. Though books of this type may sometimes be useful in giving children a vehicle for recognizing and ventilating their feelings, they are, after all, works of fiction and not self-help manuals."
Even more disturbing to some adults is Blume's treatment of mature issues and her use of frank language. "Menstruation, wet dreams, masturbation, all the things that are whispered about in real school halls" are the subjects of Blume's books, related interviewer Sandy Rovner in the Washington Post. As a result, Blume's works have frequently been the targets of censorship, and Blume herself has become an active crusader for freedom of expression. To answer those who would censor her work for its explicitness, Blume replied: "The way to instill values in children is to talk about difficult issues and bring them out in the open, not to restrict their access to books that may help them deal with their problems and concerns," she said in a Toronto Globe and Mail interview with Isabel Vincent. And, as she revealed to Peter Gorner in the Chicago Tribune, she never intended her work to inspire protest in the first place: "I wrote these books a long time ago when there wasn't anything near the censorship that there is now," she told Gorner. "I wasn't aware at the time that I was writing anything controversial. I just know what these books would have meant to me when I was a kid."
Others similarly defend Blume's choice of subject matter. For example, Natalie Babbitt asserted in the New York Times Book Review: "Some parents and librarians have come down hard on Judy Blume for the occasional vulgarities in her stories. Blume's vulgarities, however, exist in real life and are presented in her books with honesty and full acceptance." And those who focus only on the explicit aspects of Blume's books are missing their essence, Judith M. Goldberger proposed in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom. "Ironically, concerned parents and critics read Judy Blume out of context, and label the books while children and young adults read the whole books to find out what they are really about and to hear another voice talking about a host of matters with which they are concerned in their daily lives. The grownups, it seems, are the ones who read for the 'good' parts, more so than the children."
Blume, too, realizes that the controversiality of her work receives the most attention, and that causes concern for her beyond any censorship attempts. As the author explained to Maynard: "What I worry about is that an awful lot of people, looking at my example, have gotten the idea that what sells is teenage sex, and they'll exploit it. I don't believe that sex is why kids like my books. The impression I get, from letter after letter (I receive), is that a great many kids don't communicate with their parents. They feel alone in the world. Sometimes, reading books that deal with other kids who feel the same things they do, it makes them feel less alone." The volume of Blume's fan mail seems to reinforce the fact that her readers are looking for contact with an understanding adult. Hundreds of letters arrive each week not only praising her books but also asking her for advice or information. As Blume remarked to Steinberg in Publishers Weekly, "I have a wonderful, intimate relationship with kids. It's rare and lovely. They feel that they know me and that I know them."
In 1986 Blume collected a number of these letters from her readers and published them, along with some of her own comments, as Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You. The resulting book, aimed at both children and adults, "is an effort to break the silence, to show parents that they can talk without looking foolish, to show children that parents are human and remember what things were like when they were young, and to show everyone that however trivial the problem may seem it's worth trying to sort it out," wrote Geras. "If parents and children alike read 'Letters to Judy,'" advice columnist Elizabeth Winship likewise observed in the New York Times Book Review, "it might well help them to ease into genuine conversation. The book is not a how-to manual, but one compassionate and popular author's way to help parents see life through their children's eyes, and feel it through their hearts and souls." Blume feels so strongly about the lack of communication between children and their parents that she uses the royalties from Letters to Judy, among other projects, to help finance the KIDS Fund, which she established in 1981. Each year, the fund contributes approximately $45,000 to various nonprofit organizations set up to help young people communicate with their parents.
Over the years, Blume's writing has matured and her audience has expanded with each new book. While she at first wrote for younger children, as Blume's audience aged she began writing for adolescents and later for adults. Nevertheless, Blume is reluctant to classify her works according to age group, as she disclosed in her interview with Steinberg: "I hate to categorize books. . . . I wish that older readers would read my books about young people, and I hope that younger readers will grow up to read what I have to say about adult life. I'd like to feel that I write for everybody. I think that my appeal has to do with feelings and with character identification. Things like that don't change from generation to generation. That's what I really know." "I love family life," the author added in her interview with Gorner. "I love kids. I think divorce is a tragedy, traumatic and horribly painful for everybody. That's why I wrote Smart Women. I want kids to read that and to think what life might be like for their parents. And I want parents to think about what life is like for their kids."
Banks commended Blume not only for her honest approach to issues, but for her "artistic integrity": "She's never content to rest on her laurels, writing the same book over and over as so many successful writers do." For instance, Tiger Eyes, the story of Davey, a girl whose father is killed in a robbery, is "a lesson on how the conventions of a genre can best be put to use," Lipsyte claimed. While the author uses familiar situations and characters, showing Davey dealing with an annoying younger sibling, a move far from home, and a new family situation, "the story deepens, takes turns," the critic continued, particularly when Davey's family moves in with an uncle who works for a nuclear weapons plant. The result, Lipsyte stated, is Blume's "finest book--ambitious, absorbing, smoothly written, emotionally engaging and subtly political." And even when Blume returns to familiar characters, as she does in the series starting with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge, her sequels "expand on the original and enrich it, so that (the) stories . . . add up to one long and much more wonderful story," Van Leeuwen remarked in her New York Times Book Review article about Fudge-a-Mania.
Blume's 1993 novel Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, a companion volume to her 1987 Just as Long as We're Together, "is a typical Blume novel," according to Voice of Youth Advocates reviewer Wendy E. Betts, containing many of the author's "usual trademarks: readable prose, casual but effective use of detail and an interesting mix of child and adult characters." The narrator is an overachiever experiencing mounting internal pressure as her snide older brother returns from boarding school to torment her; problems with friends and increasingly difficult schoolwork combine to push her to the breaking point. Reviewers praised Blume's depiction of the protagonist's stressful family life. "Blume is honest and fair about contemporary family life, passing out neither blame nor sermons," observed Roger Sutton in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Here's to You, Rachel Robinson's appearance finds the author "back near the top of her form," according to Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper.
"Judy Blume is concerned to describe characters surviving, finding themselves, growing in understanding, coming to terms with life," John Gough noted in School Librarian. While the solutions her characters find and the conclusions they make "may not be original or profound," the critic continues, ". . . neither are they trivial. The high sales of Blume's books are testimony to the fact that what she has to say is said well and is well worth saying." "Many of today's children have found a source of learning in Judy Blume," Goldberger contended. "She speaks to children, and, in spite of loud protests, her voice is clear to them." As Faith McNulty similarly concluded in the New Yorker: "I find much in Blume to be thankful for. She writes clean, swift, unadorned prose. She has convinced millions of young people that truth can be found in a book and that reading is fun. At a time that many believe may be the twilight of the written word, those are things to be grateful for." The St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers essayist concluded that "Blume continues to breach old barriers and blaze new trails, an achievement of which few contemporary authors of books for any age group can boast."
Born February 12, 1938, in Elizabeth, NJ; daughter of Rudolph (a dentist) and Esther (Rosenfeld) Sussman; married John M. Blume (an attorney), August 15, 1959 (divorced, 1975); married third husband, George Cooper (a writer), June 6, 1987; children: (first marriage) Randy Lee (daughter), Lawrence Andrew; stepchildren: (third marriage) Amanda. Education: New York University, B.A., 1960. Religion: Jewish. Memberships: Authors Guild (member of council; vice president, 2002), Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (member of board), National Coalition Against Censorship (member of board), Key West Literary Seminar (member of board). Addresses: Home--New York, NY. Agent--William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10022.
Writer of juvenile and adult fiction. Founder of KIDS Fund, 1981.
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