Before Instagram exercise gurus existed to help us create our best bodies, and before Fitbits, there was Nancy Wheeler. No, this isn’t the Nancy Wheeler from cult Netflix show Stranger Things; the one I’m thinking of pre-dates this. Perhaps her advice, in the form of the mantra: “I must, I must, I must increase my bust”, rings a bell? Sure, it didn’t work, but who hasn’t at least heard of it?
The words belong to Judy Blume, and appear in her 1970 novel Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret, when Margaret’s new (and seemingly worldly and knowledgable) neighbour teaches her and her friends the chant supposedly guaranteed to help them develop faster.
Are you there God… and Blume’s other 28 titles have sold 85 million books over an impressive 49 year-long career, and her work has been translated into 32 languages.
Blume survived numerous attempts to censor her work, and her books, which have been enjoyed by several generations, have a huge fanbase. John Green (author of ‘The Fault in our Stars’) told the New York Times that Blume’s books “served as a kind of introduction to myself” and Lena Dunham has said Blume’s ‘Summer Sisters’ helped to inspire her HBO show Girls.
There’s no doubt Judy Blume is a remarkable woman, whose achievements are staggering. As she turns 80 on February 12, we celebrate her work and marvel at her popularity and worldwide appeal by hearing memories from eight women around the globe, from New York to Nairobi.
Vanessa, now 34, was living in Switzerland when she read Are you there God.. and Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself when she was 10 years old. For her, the books provided “a fun escape from my childhood challenges … with both parents being ‘foreign’ (Swiss-German and Iranian) and often feeling foreign myself.”
The sentiment of escapism is echoed by Nadia King, who read Are you there God..; It’s Not the End of the World; Blubber and Superfudge in Western Australia in the 1980’s. For Nadia, who has authored the YA novel ‘Jenna’s Truth’, she says she “found an escape from my worries between the pages of books. It was difficult moving countries especially being on the cusp of puberty” and that in Judy Blume’s books she “felt understood.”
Feeling understood is a common theme for fans of Judy Blume. Marie, 45, a Scientist and Entrepreneur, felt that Judy Blume “got me”. Reading Blubber in Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 11, Marie remembers relating to the main character as she was a victim of bullying: “Growing up in Canada as an ethnic minority at the time, I was bullied a lot in school.” Having a book mirror back, in some ways, her own situation, was a pivotal experience for Marie, who was able to realise “my own situation was not that different to other young girls.”
Young girls were, and are, a large percentage of Blume’s readership, although she has also written for adults, and not all her books are aimed at the female population. Nadia King recalls how one of the reasons she “was prepared for my period was because I had read Are you there God..”