Blume-a-thon #17: The Judy Blume Diary

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here

Hey, guess what-- this isn't a book at all. I ordered it online, and had trouble finding a copy in "very good" or "like new" condition, and when it arrived from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek, California, I found out why there are no "like new" copies of this book.
It's a diary. With an awesome picture of a hip Judy Blume standing in front of a wind machine on the back.
On the front cover of my copy, a kid has written: "My Potassium Diary." OK. Kid, if you're out there, please find me. Explain.
Is it a potassium diary because it's so wholesome? Judy writes in an intro:
The idea from this diary comes from my readers, who often say, I have no one to talk to-- no one to tell what I am really thinking and feeling. Sometimes, just writing down your feeling makes them easier to understand. 
This diary came out in 1981, the same year as Tiger Eyes, and not long after Judy Blume and censorship became almost synonymous.
You will find a quote from one of my books on every page of this diary, and each month there will be three photographs. These words and pictures may remind you of how you sometimes feel. You can write about that, or your family, or your friends, your happy times and your sad times.
When I was a kid I kept all sorts of diaries. I mostly wrote about my friends. As I got older I tried to be more of a "writer," putting in flowery language and making what I considered to be deep observations. I still have a lot of diaries. I guess I'll just add this one to the collection.
I love that Judy acknowledges the variety of feelings that kids have. All are valid to her, always. The petty jealousies of friends. Grief and pesky little brothers exisiting on the same page.
By this time she was a brand. She was famous. Kids were reaching out to her. And she was reaching back.
And yes, that's a picture of a turkey sitting on a football. I'm not quite sure what deep emotions I'm supposed to feel about that. Perhaps just delight.

Blume-a-thon #16: Tiger Eyes

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here

How had I never even heard of this book until this read-a-thon?
Tiger Eyes is amazing. It's a portrait of a family in grief, making a break for a new city in the wake of a father's death.
On the night that my father was killed, after the police and the neighbors had left, Jason and I got into bed with Mom. We'd left a light on in every room. The house was very quiet and I thought about how strange it is that sometimes quiet can be comforting, while other times, it becomes frightening. 
"What's it like to be dead?" Jason asked Mom.
"Peaceful," Mom said. 
"How do you know?" Jason said. 
"I don't really," Mom said."
It would be very easy to criticize this book for being overdramatic, for going for the easy emotions, if it weren't so well-written. More than one person dies in this book, and one of the deaths is sort of a tear-jerker. As a kid I read a few books about girls dying nobly of cancer, and I hated them. They seemed too manipulative, even for a sap like me.
How is it that Judy Blume nails ordinary experience every time? At the funeral, Davey is distracted by sweat pooling in her bra. In her new town, she's extremely anxious about fitting in, despite the fact that her father has just been killed. As humans tend to be, she is preoccupied by ordinary human things. She does not cry much.
I particularly like this book because of the symbolic weight it allows itself to carry. (Not a normal Blume trait.) There's the canyon that Davey stupidly hikes into without preparation. There's the atom bomb industry that dictates the lives of everyone in town. There's the non-urban, non-East-Coast setting-- refreshing after so many books that take place in New Jersey. Everything speaks to the alienation, the otherworldliness of grief. The total devastation. Davey may as well be on the moon.
Judy's son Larry (the inspiration for Fudge, and now a grown man and film director) will be making Tiger Eyes into a movie this year. I hope very much that it is awesome. I think it could be. I can't wait to see it.

Blume-a-thon #15: Superfudge

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here

In which Fudge becomes a middle child. In retrospect-- the kid he was always meant to be. Weird. Grabby for attention. Ridiculous. (I dedicate this paragraph to my wonderful middle-child brother Alex, who himself was pretty silly as a kid, but has turned out to be a smart and respectable and very quiet adult.) (Why am I dedicating paragraphs? Too much Judy Blume?)
Blume's comedic touch is perfect in this book:
Before the end of the week, Fudge asked the big question. "How did the baby get inside you, Mommy?" So Mom borrowed my copy of How Babies Are Made, and she read it to Fudge.
As soon as he had the facts straight, he was telling anybody and everybody exactly how Mom and Dad had made the baby. He told Henry, our elevator operator. Henry smiled and said, "That's a mouthful for a small fry like you."
I'm not a parent, but I imagine that reading these books to your own kids must be hilarious. There are these innuendos, of course, and a take-down of modern art, and a small and lovely scene where the two boys acknowledge that they only pretend to believe in Santa for their parents' sake. (Judy Blume has been censored many times for her taboo topics, but parents were in an uproar that she also "ruined Christmas" with this revelation.)
I also love the hidden adult plot in the novel: Mr. Hatcher quits his job at the advertising agency in order to move to the suburbs, find himself, become a man who loves the outdoors and old houses, and most importantly, write his big novel. In the margins of the tales of his kids, we see Mr. Hatcher flail and ultimately fail.
This is a weird thing to say, but what I've come to love about Judy Blume is the way she writes adults within children's books. These are not children's stories-- these are family stories told from the kids' point of view. When I was Peter's age, I was trying hard to figure out who my parents were. Everything they did seemed to be a secret I needed to figure out. Maybe I wouldn't have seen Mr. Hatcher in this book when I was a kid, but I see him now. And I want to give him a hug.

The Next Morning

Woke up and my blog traffic has completely exploded, thanks to my last post about Greg Tate. I'm sure I'll have tons of first-time visitors today-- so let me direct you to some old posts not about Judy Blume (my current huge project on this blog). Not that you have to go any further than the Tate post, but if you want to, here are some similarly-toned entries. Thanks for reading and thanks for visiting.

On great-aunts and the beach: Hospitality.

On birthdays: By Now.

On sea life and siblings: Pictures of Jellyfish.

On the hurricane: Powerless.

The Last Time

The last time I saw Greg Tate, I was eating lunch at an outdoor cafe in Hartford. The car he was in pulled up to a stoplight and beeped to get my attention. I looked up from my book and saw his face smiling at me from the passenger window. It was one of those first warm days a couple of months ago. "Hi Tate!" I said, waving. I knew the tumors were still on his vocal cords and that I would be doing the talking. "You headed to the hospital?"

He nodded, with a look on his face I've seen many times, but never understood. Could have been serious. Could have been amused at my extreme perkiness at the idea of heading to the hospital for cancer treatments. I had no idea what to say next, so I said the stupidest thing imaginable.

"Well... have fun!" He nodded again. The light turned green. He drove away. I couldn't see who was driving. His face was still in the window, disembodied almost, his eyes shifted back to the street and the direction he was going.

I thought, that was the last time I will ever see him.

The second-to-last time I saw Greg Tate, I helped him down a set of stairs in the back of the Mark Twain House. The fundraiser in his honor was ending and I'd been asked to sneak him out the back. My own Greg, my other half, held him on one side. I held him on the other. We are both very small and it felt wrong that our meek bodies would be required as a tool to make it down a few perfunctory steps. I don't remember how we held him, whose hands were where, if we even helped at all. I remember the growl and the sigh of his breath making its way over the cancer and up through his organs and out through a sound. The sound that was everything: the loss of dignity and the holding on to it. We sent him out into the parking lot, dimly lit, towards someone who loved him who'd brought the car around. We released our hands and he walked away.

I thought, that was the last time I will ever see him.

Hours earlier I'd looked him in the eye while telling a story in his honor for the fundraiser. That look was there; bemused or confused or angry, I didn't know. I didn't know him well enough to know. I told the story. I did some improv. I was called upon to be an emergency addition to a burlesque team (I didn't strip). There was act after act of variety show in Tate's honor.

During the show I thought, this is the last time I will ever see him.

I hadn't realized how bad the cancer was until I was there that night at the fundraiser. I didn't realize it until I heard his voice, what was once that huge sound that could cut through any conversation with its force. That voice was an automatic opinion. But when I heard it, early that day on the radio, I was shocked by how ravaged and shredded it sounded. Hearing it made me feel like a child somehow. I felt helpless and small, a spectator who can't swim, standing on a beach watching a ship crack in two.

Greg Tate was an actor, a director, and a founder of HartBeat Ensemble, the first group of people that made me believe and belong in Hartford. I'd been here a year and was waitressing at a brewery, completely unsure if anyone that I shared a single interest with was in this city. Another waitress told me that HartBeat needed help writing press releases. I wrote. I did it all over email, barely meeting the ensemble-- I got the facts. I made them into a story.

Eventually, one of the founders decided to take a leave of absence to get his master's, and I found myself at a dining room table with a huge man and his cat. This is my first distinctive memory of Tate: interviewing me with his roommates, who turned out to be his coworkers. I worked for HartBeat for a year, learning most of what I know about publicity: tell the truth. Respect your audience. Be kind to everyone and everyone will benefit. Tate was at once the roughest and the kindest; one of those people who truly said what he thought. When he gave me a compliment, I took it to heart. Same with criticism.

I made a huge amount of mistakes in that job. I stumbled through, figuring out one hundred percent of everything I had to do. I was overwhelmed. I was emotional. I was, in short, green as a leprechaun and not as lucky. And every member of the ensemble was more than kind to me. Kinder than I deserved.

There's a phrase I love-- I can't remember where I first heard it. "Everyone thinks they are the hero of the story." In HartBeat there are no heroes. Everyone is, in turns, a supporting character to everyone else. They are an ensemble in the truest sense of the word. At the end of my year there, I was miserable as I walked out, thinking: I hope this isn't the last time I see them.

Of course it wasn't. I saw HartBeat Ensemble, and Tate, so many more times. Tate always seemed quietly happy to see me pop up asking him to do some event at an improv show, or taking pictures at the Youth Play Institute as he helped some kids set up the tech. I saw him hug a lot of kids. I saw him laugh hundreds of times. He played the slave Jim in a staged reading of Huckleberry Finn and he loved and lived every word of the speech about treating your fellow person with respect.

Greg Tate died of cancer last night. It was fast. No one expected it to happen like this. No matter how many times I thought it might be the last time, I never wanted it to be. I have never wanted so badly to be wrong.

I was a supporting character in Tate's life, a person who popped up occasionally in large parties. For a while I thought this simple fact gave me no right to speak about his death.

But I feel tremendously sad today. This loss to Hartford, to the community, seems unbearable. And it is because he is a person who lived how I want to live: broadly. Wielding love in one hand and justice in the other. Doing what you believe to be right and being generous at the same time. I'm trying to think of specific examples but I can't. It was just who he was, how he lived. When you're a smaller figure in someone's life, and they in yours, you see them from further away: you are forced to see essence instead of minutae. He was a good person. He was the kind of person who let little kids draw around them with chalk. He was the kind of person who believed that doing a play in a park could change the world. He was the kind of person who believed that act was the change in the world.

The first time I saw a HartBeat play, it was Ebeneeza-- a Hartfordized version of the Dickens classic. Casting Tate as the Ghost of Holidays Present was almost too easy. He didn't have the sobering sternness of the past. He wasn't ominous like the future. He was just there: huge and hilarious and present.

EBENEEZA: You’re the ghost of the present?

GHOST: Soiently, but not just the present.  Holidays present.

EBENEEZA: But you’re not Clarence?


EBENEEZA: You remind me of someone.

GHOST: I remind everyone of someone.  Someone they’ve loved or who loved them.  That’s my job.  (HOLDING OUT HIS HAND)  You ready?

EBENEEZA: Can’t I just go straight to hell and by pass all the rest?

GHOST: It’s the magic night, lady.  

Dear Tate: you remind me of someone. Not someone specific. You remind me of the person I want to be.

You ask: you ready?

I answer: no. I'm not ready. Give us all more time to be supporting characters in your story. I don't want to be a hero and today, neither does anyone else.

GHOST:  Can’t stop this ball from rolling.  Too many spirits out there pulling for you. 

EBENEEZA: Spirits pulling for me?

GHOST: Yeah, you know, like at the end of Return of the Jedi with Anakin, Obi Wan and Master Yoda hanging on the hill, showing Luke the way, glowing and crap.

EBENEEZA: But why? 

GHOST: No one is beyond redemption.

EBENEEZA: You really don’t know Clarence?


EBENEEZA: Not bad. 

The ghosts, I always forget, are supporting characters. They say their piece; they get offstage. They tell the rest of us where to look. They usher us to the next place in our life. They hold us up for a moment, walk us down a flight of stairs, drive us to the hospital, ask one question. They are a face in a window that can't answer all of your questions before they drive away. They don't say this is the last time you will see me. At some point they vanish when we turn around to speak to them. It is usually at the moment when we realize what they meant to show us. When we call out for them, they are gone.

In the next moment, we realize how far they have brought us. In the next moment, we look around and realize we have to keep going on our own.

Blume-a-thon #14: Wifey

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here Wifey, Judy Blume's first book, begins with a man masturbating on our heroine's front lawn.

Sandy dropped to her knees, barely peeking out the window, afraid, but fascinated, not just by the act itself, but by the style. So fast, so hard! Didn't it hurt, handling it that way? She'd always been so careful with Norman's, scared she might damage it.

Oh, my!

There are many shocking things in this book, even for a wizened old adult reader such as myself. Affairs. Swinging. Diaphragms (the exact use of which seem just as dated as the menstruation belts in Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret-- they come in sizes? Was this a source of anxiety for women at the time, the size of your diaphragm? Someone please answer this for me.). Old flames. Gonorrhea.

But the most shocking and most delightful thing about this book is the fact that it is the first of Judy Blume's adult novels, and tons-- I mean tons-- of kids must have read it entirely by accident. I've already found two people in my office for whom that is the case. Published in 1978, teenagers must have gotten a fascinating eyeful then (and I'm sure this still happens today, from my experience with Summer Sisters and what those innocent beach chairs on the cover represented). There was backlash. Oh, was there backlash. Many said her career would be over and chastised her for not using a pseudonym.  Won't someone think of the children!

From what I can tell, Judy Blume did not give anything resembling a shit.  Just when the world got used to her dealing with complex topics for kids, she goes ahead and tackles a terrible marriage and infidelity. Unsurprisingly, this book is morally ambiguous to the core. I don't mean that Sandy, the heroine, has no morals-- I mean it is largely unclear what is right and wrong here. Her husband, Norman, treats her like a trophy wife (sorry, "Wifey," just as condescending as it sounds) and any feminist worth her diaphragm (yes? no? Someone help me here) would cheer for the epic divorce scene that never comes. Instead we are left with a weird marraige with improved communication. I found it both realistic and deeply depressing.

Judy Blume herself was married three times. She says in her 2004 introduction: "I was never married to Norman but I knew plenty of guys like him." In the end, Norman doesn't matter-- Sandy does. And while we're saddened to know that maybe Sandy stays in that marriage forever, we at least know that in 1975 Judy Blume struck out for a new life of her own. I believe I will be too afraid to ask her about this in my interview, but maybe I can get the gumption.

She says in her introduction: When I look at the book today, I can't believe how fearless I was in my writing. I mean, all those sexual fantasies and escapades! Maybe I just didn't know enough then to be worried. Maybe I really didn't care what anyone thought. 

May we all be so brave as to break out of the boxes that made us famous, Judy, may we all be so brave.

Blume-a-thon #13: Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here Sally J. Freedman sees Hitler. She sees him sitting on benches in her new neighborhood. She sees him talking with a friend. She writes letters to the police about him.

Dear Chief of Police,

You don't know me but I am a detective from New Jersey. I have uncovered a very interesting case down here. I have discovered that Adolf Hitler is alive and has come to Miami Beach to retire. He is pretending to be an old Jewish man.

Sally also is the director and star of self-written plays about alternate endings to her family's Holocaust story.

- I ran and ran and I've been running ever since... but not any more... I'm too tired.... too tired to run...

- It's all over now, Sally tells Lila. You're safe. I'm taking you home with me. You can share my room. My father will make you new teeth. He's a very good dentist. 

- How can I ever thank you? Lila asks.

- Don't even try... I'm just doing my job.

.... When they get home, Sally is a hero. There is a big parade in her honor on Broad Street and everyone cheers. The people watching from the windows in the office buildings throw confetti, the way Sally did when Admiral Halsey came home at the end of the war. 

This novel, which takes place in 1947, is at once the most autobiographical and the most tonally complex of Judy's books. It has the same uproarious voice of Sheila the Great, and on the surface makes light work of the horrors of World War II and its effect on the psychology of children.

But, being a Judy Blume book, it isn't really light. Its premise is so strong that I can't believe it had never occurred to me before: in the forties, for a nine-year-old Jewish kid, three things were at hand. A supervillan with a strange and confusing death; faraway families members of mysterious and almost exotic stories and dangers; and the ever-growing popularity of the movies. For a kid with any sort of imagination (so, every kid), this must have been a recipe for fantasizing of the darkest order.

Of course kids will fantasize about capturing Hitler. Of course they will go back in time and cross continents and rescue relatives they've never met, relatives who they've only heard of as beautiful and tragic figures. That's what kids do, and that's what children's literature does: it endows children with power. In this case, the author does not fantasize for the child. Sally is no Harry Potter and no Lucy in Narnia. Blume shows us her fantasy, and shows us older kids, other kids, adults-- rooted very much in the pain and healing of the real world-- trying to pull her through a normal fifth grade year.

Everything turns out fine for Sally, of course. She has a mother and father and brother who love her. In many ways this reads like any other Judy Blume book for pre-teens. But in another way, it's easy to love Sally's voice and hope that she gains the empathy her neighbors wish she had for the poor old Jewish man she has mistaken for Hitler.

We know she will find that empathy. We know she will, because that voice will grow into another voice who will write many, many books packed from page to page with empathy for kids everywhere.

Blume-a-thon #12: Forever

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here

I read this book in a bar, cover-to-cover, after work one afternoon. An acquaintance of mine walked in and said, "oh, hey, Judy Blume. One of my students brought in a book of hers for silent reading time and my principal pulled me aside and told me she really shouldn't be reading it. I think it was about sex."

"Had to be this one," I said, holding up Forever... (ellipses part of the title).

"We made love on the bathroom rug, but just when I was getting really excited, Michael came. I wondered if it would ever work out right between us."

Forever... is one of the most challenged Judy Blume books. At this point in her career, she'd only written books for children, and I'm certain that many kids and teenagers were shocked by the content they accidentally discovered in the pages of their favorite author's latest novel. A penis with a name, for instance. The slow and mature decision of our heroine, Katherine, to lose her virginity, read up on sexual health, and go on the pill. Shocking!

I recently recorded a podcast about the first in the Sweet Valley High series. Revisiting those books, I was struck (as no doubt you would be too) by their complete absurdity. There's nothing resembling real experience there, as much as I wanted my life to be that exciting when I was fifteen. Forever, on the other hand, burns not with lust but with familiarity. The ordinariness of teenage sexuality. The reason and logic of seventeen-year-olds. The self-righteous feeling of "I'm in love  and my friends don't understand since I'm an adult now." Oh, and also: "this is forever."

Any adult can see the writing on the wall, in those ominous ellipses. But I'd be willing to bet that a young teenager wouldn't. Everything seems like forever during that time-- or at least we want it to be. But of course it isn't. No matter how kind and sweet Michael is, and how reasoned and mature Katherine is, teenagers grow apart. That's as good a lesson as all of the other tidbits in this book.

I'm still friendly with my high school boyfriend, Dave. We rarely talk, but I like knowing that he's out there, happily married, taking a little bit of the love he practiced on me and giving it to someone much more deserving. It seems long ago that I believed anything would be forever. But you know what was? The feeling of giving myself entirely to another person, the joy of comforting another, of being always around for them, of the comfort of a physical touch. The knowledge that being an adult means making a vulnerable space within yourself, and that love is filling in other vulnerable spaces with good things instead of bad. That knowledge was forever.

Blume-a-thon #11: Blubber

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here When I was in elementary school I was largely left alone. Small and bookish, I was accepted mostly with indifference by my peers, who accepted me simply by their lack of rejection. I recall no schoolyard cruelties when I was very young. Only the squabbles with my close friends-- a completely different kind of childhood stress rooted in actually working out the differences in two personalities-- contributed to my social stress as a child.

But as I got a little older, it began to happen. In fifth grade a girl played a practical joke on me and laughed in my face in the lunchroom, and I sat silent as a whole new kind of tears rose up to my eyes, as if from my gut. I have no idea now if she was intentionally singling me out or if it could have been anyone, but the second I cried I took on my stance as a victim. I carried it through sixth grade and seventh grade, and then, desperate to keep my head above water, I started being a little bit mean to others. Not cruel. Exclusive. A follower. A silent witness to other people's meanness. I was a part of kicking a couple of girls off a 6-seat-only-lunch-table, and I will feel awful about it forever.

It didn't last long-- I raced back to good friends, nice friends, very quickly, and they helped me accept that I would never be cool but I could absolutely be nice. We sat at a lunch table so long there were always empty seats for those who'd been booted off the six-seaters. I was happy for this redemption but I always carried the knowledge of how to be mean inside me. Sometimes I still fight it off.

Not long after writing Deenie, a short novel about a girl struggling with her mother's bullying her into a modeling career, Judy Blume tackled a topic we're still wrestling with these days. The bullying in this 1974 classic-- well, actually, I don't know how widely read it is, but it should be a classic-- is focused on two girls: one who's overweight and one with eczema. The narrator, Jill, is neither of these girls. Nor is she the cruel Wendy or the number one lackey, Caroline. She's just one kid floating in a middle-school world. But the first line is:

"My best friend, Tracy Wu, says I'm really tough on people. She says she wonders sometimes how I can like her."

From here on we get all sorts of judgments from Jill. Donna's got a thing about horses. Robbie doesn't laugh like a normal person. But mostly, her classmates are mean to Linda, an overweight kid who has the unfortunate assignment of reporting on whale blubber.

The rest of the book is Jill's descent into being a passive bully. First she does nothing to help Linda. She laughs along with the others, she participates in small ways. I'm not going to ruin the book, because it is absolutely worth a read, but Jill descends very slowly and very surely from complicit to cruel before our eyes. It is realistic because it is barely perceptible, particularly to the adults around them.

To stop bullying, we have to stop the bullies. Not in their tracks, but in their creation. We have to move our children more swiftly to empathy and kindness. Any good book about bullying, any that will make our kids better, will likely be from the point of the bully. We must see how our own cruel tendencies can come out and how fast they can turn on us. We must see how being an adult means not that we are angelic, but that we work hard to be conscious of how we treat people around us. Sometimes we all have to be reminded.

Blume-a-Thon #10: The Pain and the Great One

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here Just when you thought that Judy Blume was the master of young adult lit of the 70's-- that that was her niche, her jam, her corner of the world-- she goes and decides to write a picture book, just for the fun of it, and prove that she can look at a child's life from any perspective she chooses.

Actually, the text of The Pain and the Great One was originally published as a poem in the book version of Free to Be You and Me (side note: if you don't know what this is, please do yourself a favor and watch parts of the TV special on youtube. It is a glorious piece of 70's love and understanding), and like the rest of that project, gives a big hug to the idea that we're all different and have different perspectives on the world.

The Pain and the Great One is based on Judy Blume's kids, Randy and Larry, and the idea is simple: the grass is always greener in the other sibling's world.  The Great One (older sister) thinks her brother is treated like the family favorite, the baby:

I don’t understand how Mom can say the Pain is lovable. She’s always kissing him, hugging him, and doing disgusting things like that. And Daddy says the Pain is just what they always wanted. YUCK! I think they love him better than me.


She thinks she’s great just because she can play the piano and you can tell the songs are real ones. But I like my songs better even if nobody ever heard them before. My sister thinks she’s so great just because she can work the can opener, which means she gets to feed the cat. Which means the cat likes her better than me just because she feeds her.

This is a short book, but a lovely one. Sometimes all it takes to remind us that our point of view on the world is a relativistic one is a children's book. Our lives seem wonderful to others. Let's all try to keep that in mind.

The pain and the great one will be back at the end of this read-a-thon, so stay tuned! I've come to like them very much. Fluzzy, too.

Blume-a-Thon #9: Deenie

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here "Deenie is my jam," said the most fun person I know, a local television producer in Connecticut. This was several months ago, when I told her that Judy Blume was coming to the Twain House this summer. I had never heard of Deenie. It seems that everyone who's read Judy Blume has a different favorite. And everything I heard about Deenie signified it would be a Big Blume Book: scoliosis, back brace, masturbation.

I seemed to have entirely missed the teen-trauma set of Judy's books-- divorce, scoliosis (Deenie), and the upcoming novels on bullying, grief, and virginity. I was clearly into the "regular-girl" books about the stresses of female friendship, and the humor of the Fudge series. So I was wary, digging into Deenie, that it would be a cheeseball experience in the vein of Lowis Lowry. (Her characters always died of leukemia, as I recall. As a youth I found this manipulative.)

I don't know what I was worried about. Deenie's major issue is not scoliosis: it's that her mother is constantly reinforcing her expectation that she will be "the beauty" of the family while her sister will be "the brains." The scoliosis plot twist isn't used as a "woe-is-me-I'm-a-voctim" device; instead, Deenie's back brace is instead a physical tool to help her deal with and stand up to her mother's expectations.


The brace looks like the one Dr. Kliner showed us three weeks later. It's the ugliest thing I ever saw.

I'm going to take it off as soon as I get home. I swear, I won't wear it. And nobody can make me. Not ever!...I had to fight to keep from crying.

Just when I thought I was going to be okay Ma started. "Oh, my God!" she cried. "What did we ever do to deserve this?" She buried her face in a tissue and made sobbing noises that really got me sore. The louder she cried the madder I got until I shouted, "Just stop it, Ma! Will you just stop it please!"

Dr. Kliner said, "You know, Mrs. Fenner, you're making this very hard on your daughter."

It's rare for a Blume parent to be entirely unsympathetic, but Deenie's mom is. I'd find it unrealistic, but then my memory snaps back to a friend's mom saying things like "if you burp in public, how will you ever get a boyfriend?" These moms are out there.

As a girl who fell much more on the "brains" side of this dichotomy, I was pleased to see brainy old Helen standing up for herself late in the novel.

"Oh're impossible! God didn't give me a special brain. You made that up. And you almost convinced me, almost did.... I used to tell myself it didn't matter if I wasn't pretty like Deenie because I have a special brain and Deenie's is just ordinary....but that didn't help didn't help at all....because it's not true!"

Helen turned around and looked at me. Then she did the craziest thing. She ran to me and hugged me and cried into my shoulder. "It's not your fault, Deenie...don't let them make you believe's really not your fault."

I started crying too. Helen doesn't hate me, I thought. She should, but she doesn't. We both cried so hard our noses ran but neither one of us let go of the other to get a tissue. And right through it all, Ma kept talking. "I wanted better for you," she said. "Better than what I had myself. That's what I've always planned for my that so wrong?"

I will close on this lovely observation from the website Jezebel-- a great website for Judy Blume fans who are all grown up:

"Deenie's not conceited, she's just passive—a very minor flaw that, as Blume knows, in the long run can have far more dire results than excessive self-regard (which, unfortunately, kinda works in one's favor). Ironically, it's Deenie's brace that frees her from the invisible brace her mother was setting up for her, an adolescence locked into a role that would have derailed her growth as a real person."

Another classic down the hatch. Oh, and the masturbation? Totally minor. Totally secondary to the bigger questions at hand. Totally ordinary. Just like it is in real life.

Blume-a-thon #8: Otherwise Known as Sheila The Great

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here I once went up to the top of the high dive at our public pool and refused to jump off. The lifeguard, probably a high schooler, tried to tell me I had to jump, but I didn't. I sat down on the board and scooted my way back off, then walked down the ladder. This was completely against the rules, but my fear of the height was greater than my fear of the lifeguards. Already soaking wet from the day of the pool, I skedaddled down to the side and make it seem like I'd already come out of the water from my big jump by the time my best friend surfaced from her jump. I didn't lie, per se, but I definitely did not say anything about being too scared to jump.

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a great book. I'm going to go out on a limb here-- heights or no heights-- and say this one is my favorite so far. At this point in her writing life, Judy Blume had started to hit the comedy nail on the head. With Sheila, she finds the perfect balance between a comedic tone and the everyday fears of real kids.

Sheila is afraid of spiders, thunderstorms, swimming, and dogs-- but she still lives with the joy and boldness of any ten-year-old kid. She's all bravado, a completely unreliable narrator. If I had a kid who was afraid of things, I'd read them this. Actually, in the end, I am still a kid who's afraid of things. And actually, I have a significant amount of bravado as well. Recently I found myself jumping off a twenty-foot platform into a lake. When I got to the top I didn't want to do it. I turned to walk back down the ladder-- but the shame of not completely the jump was worse than the fear of just jumping. I stepped off. I jumped. I was still afraid. I hit the water. I lived.

Sheila does not overcome her fears by the end of the book. She has to deal with them over and over. She learns to swim just a little, she gets a puppy. She lives in the world with her fears. She takes tiny, tiny steps towards being less afraid. That's what we all do every day. Thanks, Judy, for pointing that out.

Blume-a-thon #7: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here I am an oldest sibling. Always quiet and rather, in my opinion, reasonable, I was sometimes blindsided by the mischievous energy of my brother and sister. My brother would hide in racks of clothing in the department stores; my sister punched my father's secretary in the face for calling her "cute."

Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is sincerely hilarious. Something about the deadpan delivery of poor old Peter Hatcher, eldest sibling just trying to live through another day in the company of the tyrannical Farley Drexel Hatcher (nickname: Fudge, age: four, occupation: casual anarchist).

I read this book as a kid (of the seven I've tackled so far, I've read five-- an even better track record than I expected), and while the classic turtle-swallowing scene stands out for pure shock value and tragedy, there were some other exchanges that had me laughing out loud this week.

"Yes, Dribble's a turtle. My turtle," I said in a soft voice.
"See.... see," Fudge whispered. 
"They can all see," I told Fudge. 
"Nice turtle," Sam said. 
I wondered why he wasn't afraid this time.
"What does Dribble do?" Jennie asked.
"He doesn't do anything special," I said. "He's a turtle. He does turtle things."
"Like what?" Jennie asked.
What was with this kid, anyway? "Well," I said, "he swims around a little and he sleeps on his rock and he eats."
"Does he make?" Jennie asked.
"Make?" I said.
"Make a tinkle?" "Oh, that. Well, sure. I guess so."
Jennie laughed. So did Sam and Fudge. 
"I make tinkles too. Want to see?" Jennie asked.
"No," I said.
Guess what happens next?
Having spent four or five summers as a camp counselor for kids age 3-5, I can assure you that this is exactly how things go wrong fast. You think you're having a normal conversation and WHAM: a kid is peeing in place. It happens more than you'd like to think.
There are so many great moments in this book: the return of "eat it or wear it," originally used as a punishment, late in the novel; serious statements like "I will never forget Friday, May tenth. It's the most important day of my life," from poor Peter; tidbits snuck in there for older siblings like "I got the message. It was like buying the shoes and like at Dr. Brown's office. They were going to use me to get Fudge to do what they wanted him to do. I wondered how anybody would ever manage my brother without my help." It all seems carefully and realistically constructed-- which is why I was shocked to read on Judy's website that she did not revise it at all.
I suspect these comic anecdotes, built up from her years as a mom to Randy and Larry, came pouring forth. There comes a time when you just have to laugh at (and with) your little kids. Otherwise, the insanity might get to you.

Blume-a-thon #6: It's Not the End of the World

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here At a certain point in a Judy Blume read-a-thon, the reader is tempted to start referring to the books as "the period one," "the teen sex one," "the racism one," and now, "the divorce one."

It's Not the End of the World was published in 1972, right in the middle of the "divorce revolution." Due in large part to the no-fault divorce laws that began to go into effect in 1970s, the divorce rate doubled. (With that, a Stanford study shows, domestic violence rates and the female suicide rate plummeted. Go feminism!) It's Not the End of the World must have felt at the time like both a realistic novel, and a frank portrayal of divorce's effects on children.

Responsible as ever, Judy Blume first sets out to demonstrate the effect of an unhappy marriage on children. We read from Karen's point of view as her parents burst into tears over small conflicts, and then argue in the other room.

"No, I won't! You never looked at me as a person. I have feelings... I have ideas... did you ever stop to think about that?"
Amy ran into the kitchen then. She was crying. Uncle Dan picked her up and held her to him. 
"Now you listen to me," Daddy shouted. 
"No!" Mom hollered. "I'm tired of listening to you."
"And I'm tired of the whole business. You don't know what you want. You never did. And you never will! Because you never grew up! You're still Ruth's baby!"
There was an awful crash in the living room then and I ran in to see what happened. One of Mom's best china babies was on the floor, smashed, like the mocha-icing cake. 
"That's how you settle all your problems, isn't it?" Daddy said with a terrible laugh. "Just like a two-year-old."
Mom started to cry. She bent down and tried to pick up the pieces of her antique. I think it was the first time she ever broke anything she loved.
In this scene, we really get a glimpse of Judy's future writing about adult women. It's as if all of her books take place in one whole, real world, and the perspective is constantly rotating. We know that Karen's dad is right. We also know that Karen's mom is right. Tragically, there is really no clear answer or resolution to these conflicts, no hero in this story. There is only Karen watching as her brother Jeff withdraws, her parents fall apart, and her little sister, Amy, provides unwanted comic relief ("he has pimples on his face. that's zits if you don't already know") as little kids are wont to do.
At this point, certain habits and motifs are beginning to show up in Judy's work. Grandparents are again on hand to actively participate in the child's life, just like Margaret's grandma coming to visit from New York and Tony's grandma retreating to her bedroom. Friends are starting to show up based on circumstance, and on those circumstances real friendships are made. Karen befriends a girl named Val whose mother has been divorced for a little longer than Karen's, and takes the newly distraught Karen under her wise pre-teen wing. These relationships ring true: this is how real friends are formed when we're kids. Some kinds of friends have experienced our pain just a bit before us, and by seeming worldly-wise helping us they help themselves. I'd also be remiss if I did not mention that the portrayal of the cat, Mew, as a vitally important comforting presence, is so realistic that I missed my own childhood cats Muffin and Pumpkin deeply while reading this book. Holding a cat and crying: there's nothing like it.
And how real is this fear? I feel this every day:
I have started to mark my days again. I am back to C-. I just had an awful thought. Suppose there aren't any more A+ days once you get to be twelve? Wouldn't that be something! To spend the rest of your life looking for an A+ day and not finding it.
Judy Blume did not get divorced herself until 1976. I am curious, of course, why she wrote about it so far before her own separation, but that doesn't really matter. The truth is probably something like this: divorce and its children were probably saturating the media at the time. As the comforting, realistic writer who children could turn to, perhaps she felt she needed to address it honestly. I'm sure there were many kids who were glad she did.

Blume-a-thon #5: Freckle Juice

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here When I was a kid there were two things I wanted very badly and for no reason: freckles and curly hair. This desire stemmed solely from whatever gene sets off random bouts of envy in children.

Freckle Juice will take you half an hour to read and is a great Cliff's Notes to Judy Blume's style and concerns. Boy wants freckles. Boy falls for freckle-based prank. Boy makes best of it, with the help of an adult who knows when not to push kids too hard. (I like these adults that often show up in Judy's novels. I expect she's this kind of parent herself.)

In this little book (seven year old Julia would call this a "chapter book," because it is divided into dramatic chapters, each about four pages long), Judy Blume starts moving into the comic world she'll plow right into when we hit Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. She's a loving authorial mother to poor old jealous Andrew. She takes his concerns and his jealousy seriously, and then she makes him have a sense of humor about himself. Would that all kids could!

I never got my freckles. It took several years of getting terrible sunburns to realize this would never happen. I gave up on curling my hair, too. Once in a while, though, I put on the Freckle Juice of the adult woman: I make my eyelids darker and my eyelashes longer, my cheeks pinker, my lips brighter. But it usually ends up rubbing off from the wind going by the Vespa, an unexpected rain, the sweat of a long day, or rubbing it off by accident from sheer stress. Freckle Juice and curling irons wear off. And then we've got to live with and laugh at what's underneath: our normal selves, just as jealous and silly as when we were kids.


Blume-a-thon #4: Then Again, Maybe I Won't

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I'll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here My brother is very quiet and often indecisive. He's now twenty-five, so he's settled into adulthood as a kind and thoughtful introvert, but when he was a teenager the rest of my family said more than once, "Alex, what do you want? This or this? What's your plan? What are you going to do?"

There is a distinct lack of writing about boys who are not leaders. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.) As a kid I read a lot about boys who survived alone in the wild, trained dogs, performed magic, solved mysteries, and otherwise took charge when adults were gone. I loved-- and still love--reading boy-centered books, because cool stuff tended to happen. You could wash up on shore with a black stallion and tame it to be your own. I was into that sort of thing.

I never read Then Again, Maybe I Won't until this project, and I was surprised at how real the character's internal struggles felt to me. As in the case of Margaret, Tony is subjected to the drama of his own body, his parents' moving (moving is often the biggest event in a child's life, and is a frequent catalyst for change in Blume's books), issues of class, and some stressful friends. Nocturnal emissions are the least of his problems. His best buddy shoplifts, his parents have recently become New Money, and his grandmother is retreating to her bedroom on a permanent basis. All of this makes Tony angry and occasionally he resists.

So I said, "Maybe she'd get some fresh air if you'd let her go back to doing the cooking."
"How would that look to the neighbors?" my mother asked. "Like she's the maid or something!"
And I said "who cares about the neighbors!"
"Grandma's worked hard all her life," my mother said. "Now it's time for her to take it easy and enjoy herself."
"She doesn't act like she's enjoying it," I argued. 
"Of course she is! Doesn't she love the color TV?"
"How do I know?" I said.
"Well, she watches it all day doesn't she?" My mother bent over to pick a piece of lint off the carpet. 
Besides the occasional confrontation with his mother, Tony is largely passive. He has a fantasy of what he might do to correct the immoral actions of others around him, but he by and large ends up talking himself out of it with a dismissive "Then again, maybe I won't." This indecisive mental move is used for everthing, positive and negative, and eventually Tony's mind is so torn up he starts having anxiety attacks. When he catches his best friend shoplifting he thinks:
I was furious. I mean really furious! I wanted to punch Joel in the nose. I wanted to mess up his angel face-- to see the blood ooze out of his nostrils and trickle down his chin. I wanted to look him in the eye and say, "I've had it with you, Joel! You stink! Who do you think you're fooling? You think I'm afraid to tell the manager, don't you! Well, I'm not!" Then I'd beckon with my finger and call "Sir... sir....."
.... my picture would be on the front page of the Rosemont Weekly... 
Soon after I would be beaten up in the boys' bathroom and left bleeding on the cold floor. My attackers would never be caught and I would live in fear forever...
When we left the store Joel was still smiling but I was doubled over in pain.
This is a very true and simple story: Tony does not know what to do, so he does nothing. Things eventually resolve without his actions or non-actions playing much of a part. But he is there, all along, watching, weighing, deciding what to do. Or then again, what not to do. It's a reminder that the introverts around us are as affected by events as those of us screaming, crying, and blogging--they just might be holding it in, working it out on their own. I think many more boys have this experience than just Tony and my brother. If I ever have a boy, I'll keep it in mind. Before I send him out into the woods with a Hatchet and an eagle, I'll ask him what he thinks. And I'll listen.
Then again, maybe I... just kidding. I definitely will.

Blume-a-Thon #3: Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

I have a distinct memory of reading Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret in my newly-painted pink bedroom, closing the book in the middle of a chapter, walking straight across the hall to my mother, and asking her something about periods. She responded frankly and we talked about it for a minute, and the I went back to reading the book. I don't remember what I asked my mother-- certainly by then I knew the basics, the where, how, and why of the thing-- but girls are much more concerned with when will it happen? Who will I be afterwords? What will it feel like? And, most importantly, will it hurt and how badly?

It is cruel, in retrospect, for this rite of passage to come completely out of your control. It could be anytime in about a five-year span, at the beach, at school, at home, in your sleep (if you're lucky). Unlike bat mitzvahs and school dances and first kisses, there is nothing you can do to speed or slow or personalize the process. Your body just does something, and you get the credit. Congrats! You're a woman now.

Judy Blume is one of the only people, in my mind, to truly accept and dramatize this waiting. If you haven't read it, Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret encompasses one sixth-grade year in the lives of Margaret, Nancy, Jane, and Gretchen. In its pages it contains a huge amount of little moments that ring true to any twelve-year-old-girl, such as:

"My mother went to the counter and told the saleslady we were interested in a bra. I stood back and pretended not to know a thing. I even bent down to scratch a new mosquito bite."

Yup. That was me, every time my mom took me anywhere that was deeply important to me. Moms. How do they always know what to do, even when we're completely silent on the matter?

But despite the popular fact that this book directly addresses the anxieties girls have around periods, bras, boob development (we must, we must, we must increase our bust), seven minutes in heaven (I'm suddenly wondering if the continued prevalence of this game is entirely due to the prevalence of this book), the complex world of female friendship, and boys in general, the real subject of this little novel is religion.

Margaret is half-Jewish and half-Christian, but since religion detroyed her parents' relationships with their families, she is raised as "No religion." (Her words.) She prays-- see the title-- conversationally, asking for no one to find out she's put six cotton balls in her training bra. She embarks on a quest, a school project to find out what church and temple are really like, and she talks to God about these things with a sincere directness that rang true to me, and, I suspect, to a lot of other young girls.

Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just came home from church. I loved the choir-- the songs were so beautiful. Still, I didn't really feel you God. I'm more confused than ever. I'm trying hard to understand but I wish you'd help me a little. If only you could give me a hint God. Which religion should I be? Sometimes I wish I'd been born one way or the other.

Her parents and grandparents, as in all Judy Blume books, are drawn carefully and with complexity. They have adult conversations right over Margaret's head, with some lines I'm sure I did not understand when I was ten:

(Margaret's father, raised Jewish, angrily explaining why his wife's Christian parents suddenly want to visit after a decade of estrangement:) "They want to see Margaret! To make sure she doesn't have horns!"

Margaret thinks, during another adult conversation: "I didn't want to listen anymore. How could they talk that way in front of me! Didn't they know I was a real person-- with feelings of my own!"

Judy Blume is the first author whose name I remember knowing. These books were written by a person who had given them quite a lot of thought. She had a lot of answers, Judy did, and she wasn't afraid to ask a lot of questions without answering them.

It's easy to talk about puberty-- or religion-- or friendship-- or love-- or school-- to just about any woman you are close to. It's easy to think about these things, and how they affect our lives, one at a time. But we often forget as adults, when the years start to run together and our resolutions are singular and often small ("this year I'm going to lose twenty pounds," or "this year I'm going to get a promotion"), that when you're twelve, everything happens at once. You move to a new town and your body changes, your friends change, your religion is called into question, you start kissing people, your grandparents and

your parents have all sorts of expectations of you. Every school year, you remake yourself, willingly or unwillingly.

Nothing really happens in this book. There is no divorce, no drama, no death, no magic, no breakups. But it doesn't need them. For a twelve-year-old girl, just living through the year is a story all its own.

Blume-a-thon #2: Iggie's House

30 Days to Judy Blume's arrival at The Mark Twain House & Museum. I continue to be thrilled. Let the Blume-a-thon continue!
   Iggie's House, published in 1970, is Blume's first real chapter book. Told from the perspective of a young white girl in the New Jersey suburbs, the story describes the series of events in a neighborhood when the first black family moves to town.
   Winifred is a precocious, curious tomboy, desperate for companionship after her best friend (Iggie) moves across the world to Japan. Think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. But, while there are many Scouts in the world-- children who haven't completely codified the ideals and ideas of previous generations-- there are far fewer Atticus Finches. Winnie's parents vascillate between acceptance and rejection of the new family.
   "Listen to me, Winifred," Mrs. Barringer argued. "These people must have known they'd have problems to face when they moved here." 
   "Well, why don't you help them solve their problems?" Winnie screamed. "I don't see how you and Daddy can just sit there day after day doing nothing. Are you against the Garbers?"
   Mrs. Barringer did not reply.
   "Well, are you?" Winnie asked again.
   "No, Winnie," her mother answered in a calm voice. "We are definitely not against the Garbers."
   "Then why don't you do something?" Winnie repeated.
   "Because it really isn't any of our business, Winnie. Your father and I don't believe in getting mixed up in other people's lives. These things will work themselves out. Daddy and I are not crusaders."
   "What do you mean crusaders?" Winnie asked, baffled.
   "That's what you are Winnie. You're a crusader. Always finding a new cause and them jumping right in to fight for it. You're like Mrs. Landon in a way."
  Of all of Blume's books, this early work has the closest relationship to Twain. Winnie is Huck Finn less than a hundred years in the future: a white kid grappling with race in her community, and in her own head. Winnie (very realistically) is not color-blind-- instead, she considers the Garbers an exciting addition to her community, as well as an opportunity for her to prove how open-minded she herself is.
   The best aspect of the book is the variety of reactions of the Garber children to Winnie and their other neighbors. One of them reacts exactly the way the reader might.
  "Thank you Lord for sending the Garber family this Great Do-Gooder, Winifred. Now that she's discovered us, she's going to save us, Lord. All by herself! After after we're gone, Lord... then she'll be able to tell everyone how she's had black friends. Now isn't that wonderful! I ask you Lord... isn't that just too..."
   But Blume doesn't use one particular character as a proxy for entire subset of the population. Another of the Garber children acts as a mediator between the frustrated, sarcastic Herbie and Winnie herself.
   "Look, all Herbie means is he doesn't think you'd be so interested in us if we weren't black. He doesn't want to be used by somebody who thinks it's groovy to have black friends."
   These passages, and many more, rang true to me as an adult. Without much literary hand-holding, Blume sketches out a whole community of people dealing with issues of race. For each new character, large and small, there is a slight difference in perspective. Mr. Garber wants to move away and live in a less hostile environment; Mrs. Garber wants the family to stand their ground. Winnie's parents change their minds over and over. There are no clear conclusions in the book, and no clear winners, either.
   It is extraordinary to think that books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are about children grappling with race in circumstances that most of their real-world peers will never come close to. Faking your own death and floating down a river? Witnessing a rape trial? I love these books, but they are almost like fairy tales brought to us to show us something larger. But Iggie's House is a series of ordinary moments in the late 1960's, starring a truly ordinary girl. She must navigate these waters without a raft; she must put her neighbors and family on trial without a lawyer. These are the real thoughts we have had to face as a nation, and these are the conversations that we are still reluctant to have.
Judy Blume will speak at the University of Hartford as a fundraiser for the Mark Twain House on June 21st, 2012. Tickets at

Read This Twice

I met Professor Susan Kress in the most normal way possible: I took her Fiction 211 course in the second semester of my freshman year at Skidmore. I knew deep-down, I think, that I would end up as an English major, having given so much of my life over the years to the reading of books on beach blankets and in front of living room fires. I was eighteen or nineteen and I wanted badly to be in the dramatic-sounding 300-level classes, but first I needed to take Fiction. Professor Kress was everything the movies had led me to expect from a college professor: British and kind, delighted with her students and her subjects, clear in her expectations. I could practically feel myself becoming the intelligent, dashing young academic I so desperately wanted to be.

I would be the smartest. I would be the headiest. I would hold forth on the most obscure of topics. In Fiction we bought two books: the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The syllabus listed a bunch of stories, a reaction-journal we were supposed to keep, the final paper assignment, and one surprising command: read each story twice. "Read each story twice," I remember Professor Kress saying. "Once to find out what happens. And once to find out how the writer made it happen." This is probably not an exact quotation, of course-- it's been ten years since that class, and my memory has made some adjustments. But I remember how surprising I found this assignment to be-- there was no way to enforce it, and weren't we such good academics now that we'd really get most of what we needed to get upon the first read?

I also remember her adamantly insisting that we mark up the books, something I had not done to these sacred objects before now. For all of my life, I have been a dutiful student. I took my fifth grade teacher's command, "Keep writing!" as a mandate. Every time a teacher said I was good at something, or should do something, I did it.

So in Fiction 211 I embarked on the double-reading assignment very seriously. I read everything twice. I read Turn of the Screw twice, too, maybe three times, figuring out how it worked. At Susan's insistence, for the final assignment, I re-read my journals twice and wrote an analysis paper on how my literary criticism skills had changed throughout the course. Although she asked us to turn in our final exams without our names on them so that she could grade them without bias (a truly noble thing to do), I cited myself using the MLA format and therefore used my last name all over the essay (a truly stupid thing to do). She had asked us to document, academically, how our opinions had changed, how our readings had changed, how we had changed.

I'm writing this because she's retiring this week from Skidmore, where she was a Dean for the last few years. This morning I pulled out my Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, which I have carted around many states and countries over the past ten years. It's not only a book. It is marked up with a sharp pencil. It says '"Restricted third person!!!" "Ha" and "Trains = ?" on many pages. In several places it says, in all caps, with underlining: FORESHADOWING! In the Turn of the Scew, I made such groundbreaking discoveries as "ghosts: real?" My handwriting I can only describe as thrilled. My nineteen-year-old-self is slashing across the pages, finding clues, hunting treasure, making meaning, starring things, making stars, drawing wild and unbridled constellations of little ideas all across the pages.

Susan and I crossed paths in my sophomore and junior years, where she gave credence to all sorts of discussions I wanted to have about the nature of education and how to make it more student-centered. For such an obedient student, I wanted to be wild, I wanted to be self-guided, I wanted to be rebellious. She listened. She organized a lecture, "Why Read Closely," and though this should not be a position that needs to be defended, she defended it valiantly and I still remember sitting in the audience agreeing. I became the Student Representative at the English Department Staff meetings and banged my fist upon the table many times.

Then, in my senior year, I decided that based on my interest in how education works and my love of literature, to write an academic thesis for the English department on portrayals of educational experiences in literature. I read Jane Eyre again, particularly the parts where she's made to stand in the yard in front of all the schoolgirls. I read Hard Times. I had a whole list of children who were miserable in school, dutiful and tortured, or wild and punished. Susan was my advisor. I sat in her office and spoke rotely about the damages of rote education. I reported on the tyranny of reports. I kept my appointments to analyze the dangers of structured time.

"It seems like your heart might not be in this, Julia," Susan said to me one afternoon in her office.

"What?" I said, looking up from my stack of well-organized research materials.

"You'll have to spend a lot of time on this. It may as well be something you love," she said, or something like that.

I don't remember the exact words. But I remember the feeling. She was winding my brain like a clock and it had finally clicked into gear with my heart. She told me, or maybe I suggested, that I should drop my thesis with her and instead write a book-length project of travel essays that I was working on with another professor. That class-- Travel Writing with Linda Simon, another illustrious one-time English department head-- I'd taken without any need for credits (I was actually over my credit limit and was auditing several courses at once, grasping onto every second in the academic world before I had to launch myself into the real one). I walked out of Susan's office and into Linda's and by the end of the afternoon I had a new thesis, halfway done already, and a new advisor. By the end of the year I graduated with department honors. By summertime I was enrolled in an adult education course in Creative Nonfiction, a year later I was accepted into one of the best Creative Nonfiction programs in the country, two years after that I walked out with a Master's in the subject, this year I began running writing programs at the Twain House, and today I run a reading series where I encourage writers of all ages and experiences to try and say something true about themselves. Something they care about. Not something they think they should care about. I see these events as a straight line, taught as a tightrope, with Susan holding one end saying "walk away from me."

We don't get to live our lives twice. We all know this. It is not a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story; it is not an editable blog post. It is a book we write and then re-read over and over, obsessing over what we did and why we did it and how we made it happen-- or truthfully, how others made our lives happen for us. I do not mean to diminish individual achievement, but sometimes people do exactly as they're told and the plot gets moving.

Many teachers want to have an effect on unusual, or disobedient, students. But a truly great teacher is aware of the impact she has on those of us who will do exactly as she says. Susan was marking up the pages of my story as fast as I was writing them, underlining things, saying: what does this really mean? Is that what you meant to say? Change it now while you still have time. It wasn't what I meant to say, and she knew it. It wasn't what I meant to be. She saw the foreshadowing: that I loved to read, that I loved to write. That I was taking extra writing classes simply for fun. That I read things twice: first because I want to know what happens, then because I want to know why. And that I was applying the same process to my essays.

My teachers have not changed my life; they have written it. Or at least some topic sentences, from which I write the paragraph. It is an awesome responsibility, to be such a ghostwriter. Susan would probably say that I did it myself all along, that there are no ghosts in this story. But-- I might counter-- in Turn of the Screw, we never really know one way or the other if the ghosts are real. A close reader can find evidence of both conclusions. I've read it several times.

Writing Workshop at The Mark Twain House

Dear writers: I thought I should probably alert you to a cool writing program at the Mark Twain House. (Full disclosure-- I work there, but it's so relevant to Syllable I just couldn't let it slip by.)

Next weekend, we're having a Writers' Weekend. Here's the schedule:


Friday 4/20: Keynote Lecture by Lewis Lapham

Saturday 4/21: Food, workshops, and lectures all day long!

Eighteen panels, talks and workshop sessions. No fewer than two winners of the Connecticut Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award holders will be participating in sessions at the Weekend: Lary Bloom, longtime editor of Northeastmagazine, columnist, author of many books, and sage teacher of writing at the Mark Twain House and many other places; and Bessy Reyna (Memoirs of the Unfaithful Lover), the beloved Cuban-born poet who has been called "a clear-eyed guide to the world we see but don’t see" by Martin Espada.

Among the authors slated to lead 50-minute sessions on Saturday are Susan Campbell(Dating Jesus), Susan Schoenberger (A Watershed YearSuzanne Levine (The Haberdasher's Daughter), Denis Horgan (Ninety-Eight Point SixCindy Brown Austin (By the Waters of Babylon) and Wendy Clinch (The Ski Diva).

There will be sessions on blogging, the business of getting published, and new forms of storytelling unleashed by the existence of the Internet.

The cost of the Writers' Weekend for participants is $100. This includes the Friday night reception and lecture, all Saturday sessions, a box lunch and the Saturday night closing reception. Participants will also receive a voucher good for a tour of the Mark Twain House at any time. Space is limited, and advance registration and payment is a must: Call 860-280-3130 to register.

So will I see you all there?

-- Julia