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..”
Karen, a 34 year-old Phd student and mum to a 7 month old baby, can relate to Nadia’s comment. She read how Margaret practised putting on a Sanitary Belt (later editions changed this to sanitary pads) in Are you there God.. when she was in her early teens and living in Hong Kong. In reading Blume’s books, Karen “learned about the trials and tribulations of a girl going through puberty and (discovered) that I wasn’t alone.”
The feeling that there are others out there, who are like you, was certainly felt by Kavita, 35 years-old. Reading Just as Long as We’re Together; Deenie; Superfudge and It’s Not the End of the World when she was about 9 years old and living in Nairobi, Kenya, Kavita found comfort in following the stories of Blume’s unconventional family set-ups. Kativa explains that “as the daughter of the only divorcee (or so I thought) in our community, I could relate to the characters struggling with the shape and notion of what a family ‘should’ be like.”
Helping young readers see themselves reflected in books has been a huge part of Blume’s appeal. Robin Stevens, 30, who was 13 and living in England when she read Summer Sisters (one of Blume’s adult books, which Robin “quickly realised I should not have been reading”), feels Blume “is a hugely important voice for young women”, and explains how this voice has been influential in her own career as an author. Robin reveals that the characters in her own books “aren’t always likeable or right, but I hope they’re always real - and I think part of my fascination with that kind of realism comes from authors like Judy Blume.”
Astrid, 33, remembers this realism in Are you there God.., recalling how “it was exciting to read something that felt real and about a girl who was around my age,” when she was 11 years old and living in New York City. Now working for a children’s charity, Astrid feels that it’s important for young people to “read a variety of books, as it encourages them to be curious about the world around them” and that books have the power to “offer real views into how other children experience life.”
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Judy Blume’s work certainly offers a window into various kinds of childhood and adolescent experience, and it is this raw honesty that Allison Tait values in Blume’s writing. Living in the Northern Territory, Australia, when she was 8 years old and read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and the Fudge series, Allison, now 48 years-old, asserts that “if you want to write successfully for kids, you can’t talk down to them.” An author herself, Allison pays tribute to Blume’s legacy, saying: “she’s a writer who’s been read by an entire generation - if not two or three - of modern-day writers.”
In not shying away from complex subjects, and by offering honest portrayals of life at its messy best, Judy Blume was and continues to be a hugely popular and influential author. It’s likely that more generations will continue to enjoy her books, and though she is not yet retired, we hope she has a break on her birthday, puts her feet up and has some cake. Nancy Wheeler, the original exercise guru, may not approve. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing.
Tash Warren-James is a freelance writer, counsellor, singer-songwriter and (most recently) a mother. A bit of a nomad, she grew up in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and now resides in beautiful Queensland, Australia.
You can follow the author interviewees above:
Nadia King: https://www.nadialking.com
Robin Stevens : robin-stevens.co.uk
Allison Tait: https://allisontait.com/the-mapmaker-chronicles-books/