You Know, Maybe We Should Want to Write Like Judy Blume

Monday, June 6, 2011

Yes, this is another @WSJ post.

Judy Blume is a name that anyone who writes for kids/teens (or anyone who was, at one time either a child or a teen) should be familiar with. Hers are some of the stories I grew up on, and they are some of the stories that inspired a love of reading, which led to a love of writing. She was cited in "that article" as the nostalgic "why don't they write like this anymore" writer from back in the day. The one, lamented the article writer, whose style of writing could no longer be found.

Maybe, in all the research that should have gone into the article, but somehow didn't quite make it onto the page, the writer could have popped over to Ms. Blume's website. Right at the top, there's a lovely tab with the word "CENSORSHIP" crossed through in red. Click it, then read the words there in light of the complaints issued in the WSJ article.

I'm going to quote a couple of things here and if, by some quirk of fate Ms. Blume should happen to stumble across this post, I hope she won't mind.

First, I give you this:

I felt only that I had to write the most honest books I could. It never occurred to me, at the time, that what I was writing was controversial. Much of it grew out of my own feelings and concerns when I was young.

Guess what? This feeling is the same one shared by those of us who write MG and YA lit today. We write because of the concerns and feelings experienced by the young. Those concerns have changed, so literature has changed to meet them.

Then there's this:

But in 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, seemingly overnight, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read, but what all children could read. Challenges to books quadrupled within months,

Which means, that at the time her books were published, she was the one, not Andrew Smith or Jackie Morse Kessler, having that bewildered parent stare at her books with disgust for what they represented. The banner of wholesome, decent YA lit of a bygone era that the WSJ would like us to imitate was someone decried as warped and wrong and leading children into places children shouldn't go. She was the one parents wanted out of their kids' hands, and yet, she's the one, now that those parents are grown up, who they want their children to experience.

There's a pattern here that may be difficult to see from the perspective of someone staring up at that wall of books you don't recognize from your youth. The writers you cherished as children and teens are the ones who didn't toe the line and regurgitate the stories your parents read; they were the ones who stripped the paint off and let you see what was real and what was fake. They were the ones who were less interested in "writing for kids" than they were "telling stories".

Ms. Blume has this little note posted on her site, that says, succinctly, what every writer who participated in #YAsaves was trying to get across:

Dear Judy,
I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am.
That's why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13

It's a human tradition. Stories are passed down and new ones are spun to hand off to the next generation so the chain keeps going. When you try and pull back on the chain, you snarl the line. That tradition of storytelling and communication is what shapes the next generation, and when you refuse to incorporate new experience into the tradition, then you condemn those who come after to a future of the mistakes you've already made. You deny them the chance to learn from those who came before so they can make things better for themselves and their own children.

Kids look for information, and they look for truth. You can't protect children from dark things by pretending they don't exist, and exchanging the windows in your house with mirrors won't make the world outside conform to whatever reality you create within your own walls.

If you visit Ms. Blume's page, and I hope you do, then pay attention to not only the links on the left side of her "censorship" page, but also take care to read her closing statements:

But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

Yep. When I grow up, I want to write like Judy Blume, and I hope the rest of you who stick your toes into the waters of YA lit do, too.

6 Chiming In:

Jen said...

Beautifully said, Josin! As a kid of the eighties I remember that Judy Blume's books were "controversial". Luckily my parents had no problems with me reading them. And they were wonderful, extraordinary books about such ordinary things that all teenagers were struggling with.

Judy Blume made my confusing adolescence just a little bit easier. And that's what good YA does, and should continue to do.

Brent Wescott said...

I posted a comment on your previous post in order to show my smartness about Judy Blume. Then I read this post, and you're clearly more smarter. :) I think ever since I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I've wanted to write like Judy Blume. Thanks for this post.

Taymalin said...

Superfudge was one of my favorite books as a kid. I was oddly attached to the myna bird. I should reread the book, the bird is one of the only things I remember about it.

JP Kurzitza said...

Bottom line, and this can't be disputed, YA (girls) fiction is far too graphic and depressing than it should be. And let's be honest, at least half of the authors spewing the tired and over-saturated themes of Vampires and suicide and depression and blah, blah, blah, are all gravy-training and jumping all over the "what's hot and what sells" bandwagon.

I don't have a problem trying to make a few bucks here and there, but selling-out to make a buck is sad. A great story doesn't need to be dark, Gothic, and depressing to be poignant and relevant.

Dear Judy,
I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am.
That's why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13

This is the saddest point of all, and actually works against your argument. The above letter just illustrates how fragile a young teen's psyche truly is. And if things are equal, why would we want them to sway towards the darker, lonelier side of life, rather than a lighter, happier side?

Isn't there enough darkness in our world already?

Unknown said...

I loved Judy Blume when I was a kid. Funnily enough, my parents never paid much attention to what I read, it was my teachers that I had to deal with. They never liked what I chose to read.

Josin L. McQuein said...


I can and IS being disputed. Regularly, coherently, eloquently and logically. That was the entire point of YAsaves.

It may seem dark to you, but to someone who's already living in a pit? It's the first hint of light. It's the idea that things can get better and that they aren't alone.

People who try and cover the truth alienate those experiencing dark things by reinforcing the idea that the horrors inflicted on them should be hidden, shouldn't be spoken of, should be shameful. That's transference of guilt to the victim and it's flat out wrong.

Someone else worth paying attention to is Sherman Alexie, who was called out for his "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian". In his rebuttal to the WSJ article he says it as only a survivor can: They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

If you've never experienced it, then be thankful for that blessing, but understand that you have no perspective on the issues which millions of teens (1 in 5) face every day. Trying to convince someone whose life is lived beyond pitch that a book where someone picks herself (or himself) up after rape or lives through the depression that turned her (or him) into a cutter, a bulimic, and anorexic, is "dark" only makes them tune you out because they know you don't know enough about their life to understand such stories give them hope.

Belief that literature is too dark isn't a bottom line at all. It's a glass ceiling writers have been trying to shatter for years.

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