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Nerdette

Judy Blume And Kwame Alexander On The Books That Shape Childhood

From Superfudge to Summer Sisters, author Judy Blume’s books have defined the childhoods of generations of readers. Her newest book, In The Unlikely Event, is now out in paperback. 

Listen to the full interview above. The podcast also includes a conversation with Newberry Award-winning writer Kwame Alexander, who crafts books for reluctant young readers. 

This is a condensed and edited version of an interview with Nerdette hosts Tricia Bobeda and Greta Johnsen. 

Greta Johnsen: Your books are so central to childhood for so many of us. What did you read when you were in those formative years?

Judy Blume: You know, I read what was available. I liked to read. By the time I was 12, I was reading the adult books in my parents’ bookshelves, and I'm grateful to them for never having judged what I was reading. Reading was a good thing in my house, so no matter what you were reading, that was great.

Tricia Bobeda: Do you remember what any of those titles were?

JB: Oh yes, I definitely do. I remember my first favorite book was Madeline, which I found in the library when I was about four years old. I loved it so much that I hid it, I didn't want my mother to take it back to the library, because I thought it was the only copy in the world.

When she said, “Where is that book?” or however she would have asked me, I was like, "I don’t know." To this day I feel guilty that I stole a library book, so I buy as many copies of Madeline as I can to make up for that.

I remember The Adventures of Augie March, which had a steamy scene in it that I kept going back to. I remember to this day that there was an eagle involved...

TB: In the steamy scene?

JB: There was an eagle, yes. There was something about an eagle, or you know, I could be all wrong. It might have been some other bird, but I think it was an eagle.

TB: That sounds very patriotic.

JB: I even read the Fountainhead. I even read Ayn Rand. I'm sure I didn't know what I was reading, but I liked those stories because I was curious about the adult world, and nobody told me anything, and so I satisfied my curiosity a lot by reading those books.

GJ: It's so funny to think about how often you didn't quite understand. So often that is what happens when we're kids reading above our grade, where the stories are complex enough that you don't quite know what's happening, but you know that it's important and that you will understand it eventually.

JB: Yes! I mean, otherwise you don't keep reading, you know. You don't read unless you're involved. I mean, if you don't have to read the book for school, you're reading because you want to read. If you don't like it or don't get it, you put the book down, but there was enough in these books to keep me going.

TB: Judy, I feel like I'm a little bit like you, where I was using books pretty early on to try to get an understanding of what the adult world was like. I was always very eager to be a grown up. I had no use for being a teenager. I found it confusing and would rather just skip ahead. And it feels like our culture now encourages an extended, if not indefinite adolescence. Do you think that’s true?

JB: I don't know if that's true. I think when it comes to reading, often people who have grown up with a certain kind of YA (Young Adult) book, they want to continue reading that, which means a single viewpoint… And I'm not putting down YA books. I'm just saying that they're fine, I would have loved them, a lot of them probably, but I don't like to see older people who are so stuck on that kind of book that they can't move on to other kinds of books. I want them to try a lot of things. And some of the books are so good--you know, [like] Sherman Alexie--I put that in the hands of a 14 year-old the other day, and I just knew that I was doing him a favor, I just knew that he was going to love this book.

GJ: Judy I have to tell you... it's funny to hear that you hid Madeline because I hid Forever.

JB: You hid Forever for other reasons.

GJ: I did hide Forever for other reasons! That is very true. You know, I grew up reading Superfudge--I know Tricia did too-but it was really Forever of all of your books that made me think, like, “Oh my God, what is this?”

JB: Yes, well, how old were you, do you think?

GJ: I was 16.

JB: What! You were 16! Wow, okay.

GJ: It was right around that time when I was starting to figure all that stuff out. Because Forever is one of your books that really stuck out for me, I went back and reread it just recently and it was so fascinating to read it as not a 16-year-old girl.  

JB: And what did you come away with?

GJ: Well, when I first read it, it's about this young woman who falls in love with a boy for the first time and starts to have these beginning sexual experiences, as I was at that time. And I was in love with this boy, and I kind of thought I going to be with him for the rest of my life, as does this young women in the book. And that doesn't happen to be the case. And you know, I think so much about this story that is that it's okay that it's not forever, right? And I remember when i read it as a 16-year-old thinking, "Well, that's silly Judy. This IS forever."

JB: You wanted them together, right?

GJ: Yeah, absolutely.

JB: I get so many letters that say, "Can't you write a sequel to that book and get them back together?” I mean, that's what kids want.

GJ: But yeah, reading it now, it's like, "Of course they weren't supposed to be together. That was a really great first experience for her, and she will move on to continue having great experiences throughout her life.

JB: We hope so.

GJ: That's the 31-year-old version of me looking back on the 16-year-old version of myself, for sure.

JB: Well that's a positive version. I think that's good.

TB: Do you still hear from young people as they're reading your books for the first time?

JB: I do, and it is more email now. It's definitely more email, which changes it some. Because, you know, when kids were picking up paper and pencil and pouring out their hearts and guts, it was a much more personal kind of letter. You mail it off to this fantasy person and you will never have to face this person at the breakfast table, and so it's okay to tell her everything. But in email, I think kids are smart, they're a little bit more careful.

TB:  If I was to write you a letter, I think it would have been as wish fulfillment that you were my aunt. Like the most excellent, coolest version of an aunt, that you can tell the stuff you’re uncomfortable talking to your parents about, who seems to really get you, who hasn't forgotten what it's like to be an angsty teenager. Do you feel like when you read these letters that you're sort of everyone's aunt?

JB: if you were in the UK you would say are you an agony aunt. Do you know what that is? That's someone who gives advice in a column, You write your problems to that person, and that person writes back about your problem. When I heard that at first, I was absolutely horrified. No, I don't think of myself as either an agony aunt or an aunt. I'm an adult who maybe has a connection to kids, maybe to the kid I was.

TB: Who are some the other examples of people who you've heard from over the years that really stick in your memory?

JB: Well there have just been so many. I remember a young guy who said that he had a girlfriend and it was like Katherine and Michael in Forever. She broke up with him, he wanted to die, then he read Forever, and he realized that his life was not over.

TB: That's good, that's important. We need fiction to sometimes give a road map for those experiences we are having for the first time, or haven't had yet.

GJ: Do you have any idea how many letters you've gotten?

JB: No, no I have idea how many I've gotten. Lots. I can just tell you, when they were snail mail letters...I have boxes and boxes and boxes of them, and I went through them to do Letters to Judy. I went through many, many, many big cartons of letters.

And then there were some kids who wrote to me for many years until they were grown up and I still hear from them sometimes.  

That's very satisfying, to know they were troubled kids, and they needed something, and writing to me helped them, and I would always write back. Some of them fill up a whole carton, their letters.

TB: It's interesting to think about the fact that, so often in your books, the things that the characters are going through don't involve dragons, or fighting other kids to the death in a Hunger Game, or vampires, or monsters.

JB: No, they don't. It never would have occurred to me to do that then. I mean, everything was so cyclical when I started writing.

I wrote about what was interesting, which was real life, and a lot of us came of age, then, writing in the 70s. Norma Klein, Richard Peck, Norma Fox Mazer, Harry Mazer... there were just a lot of us, and they provided my kids who were young teens in the 70s with a lot of wonderful reading experiences, and so I'm grateful to all of them.

I mean, there were no series books then. Series books were so out. If anybody tried to write a series book or a rhyming book, then that was not the way to go. The 70s were all about reality, and some people want to read about fantasy, but there was no fantasy that was being written then.

My husband and I often talk about our collection of the Wizard of Oz books, because both of us owned the whole series and both of us are still angry that our mothers gave our Oz books away after we left home. We say what a collection we could have too, two first editions of each one. So I did like those books although I will tell you that I was never really that much into fantasy. I had so much fantasy of my own inside my head, but it was a fantasy life that was based on real life. They were more Sally J. Freedman kind of fantasies. So I didn't fantasize about dragons or fighting other kids to the death. And there's nothing wrong with that. I mean my husband and I listened to the first Hunger Games book on a long road trip and we couldn't stop and we pulled the car into the driveway we got home and we just sat in the driveway until it was finished. It was good storytelling.

TB: You've said that In the Unlikely Event is your last book, is that still true?

JB: I think is my last long novel. In the Unlikely Event took five years between all of the research and the writing. Now we've just opened a bookstore and it's great fun to sell books and to put them in the hands of other people and to talk books and reading. I'm loving it. So, I'm not going to say that I'm never going to write anything because who knows what will have to come out. I never know. But I don't think that it's going to be a five year project.

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