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Judy Blume was banned from the beginning, but says 'It never stopped me from writing'

Writer Judy Blume poses for a portrait at Books and Books, her non-profit bookstore in Key West, Fla., on March 26.
Mary Martin
Writer Judy Blume poses for a portrait at Books and Books, her non-profit bookstore in Key West, Fla., on March 26.

It's been nearly 50 years since some of Judy Blume's books were published, but that doesn't mean they aren't still getting banned. In March, Florida's Martin County School District removed her 1975 novel Forever, which deals with teen sexuality, from its middle and high schools — a move she calls government censorship.

"They're trying to pass laws about what we can think, what our kids can think, what they can know, what they can talk about," she says. "There's legislation going on right now that says that girls in elementary school are not allowed to speak about menstruation. ... I mean, where are we? What country is this?"

When Blume began writing for pre-teens and teens in the '70s and '80s, young readers devoured her novels, which spoke to their hopes and anxieties. Her 1970 book, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., told the story of an 11-year-old girl who worried that all the other girls were getting their periods, developing breasts and starting to wear bras — but she wasn't. (That book, too, has been banned in various outlets, including, in the 1970s, at the primary school that Blume's own children attended.)

Blume says having her books banned is a "very emotional" experience — particularly when she was just getting started. "I was a new-ish, young-ish writer and it was hard to take," she says. Still, she adds: "It never stopped me from writing."

In the new documentary Judy Blume Forever, she describes how she went from trying to fit in the role of conventional suburban wife, homemaker and mother to a literary superstar. At one point, Blume was receiving 2,000 letters from young readers each month — many of whom were pouring their hearts out to her.

Now 85, Blume remains a beloved literary figure. After years of turning down offers to adapt her book, she agreed to allow filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig to bring Margaret to the big screen. She says the process, and the resulting film, have far exceeded her expectations.

"I was on the set for five weeks and got to know a lot of the actors, young and older. But even that didn't prepare me for what I saw when I first saw it on a big screen in a theater with an audience," she says. "It was just beautiful."

Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson play mother and daughter in <em>Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. </em>
Dana Hawley / Lionsgate
Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson play mother and daughter in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

Interview highlights

On how she first learned about menstruation

I was about 9 years old and we had family in Queens, N.Y. We lived in New Jersey and we went to visit for the day. And my older cousin Grace wasn't feeling well. And I kept saying, "What's wrong? What's wrong?" And she said, "You'll find out when you're 13." And all the way home, I kept saying to my father, "What will I find out when I'm 13? I want to know what I'll find out when I'm 13. What will happen?"

And so when we got home, my father took me on his lap. He's the one. He's the parent, the designated teller of truths. But when it came to telling me about menstruation, I came away from this discussion believing that at a certain time when the moon was full, all women all over the world were having this wonderful experience. And so when I would look out the window and it was a full moon, it was like, "Aha, I know what's going on." I didn't really understand the lunar cycle that he was trying to explain to me. He made it harder, I think, than it should have been. He tried his best. He always tried his best. So that was how I first learned.

On discovering feminism and breaking out of her housewife role to take a writing class

That class was in the '60s, and it was at my alma mater, NYU, and it was a continuing education class on writing for kids through the tweens. And it spoke to me because that's what I was starting to do. Nobody can understand this today, but that was such a big thing in my life that every Monday I was going to get on a bus and go to New York City and I wasn't going to be there for supper. And my first husband was going to have to deal with the kids and he took them out someplace for spaghetti or hamburgers. But he did it and he put them to bed. They were asleep when I came home. That was kind of the first thing I did ... for me and something that I needed to do, and I did it.

On deciding to leave her first husband

He's dead now. He was a good and loyal person. But it seemed that he was from another era and he wasn't stepping up to the plate to the new era of the '60s, and he didn't want me to either. He wanted me the way I was when we met and married. He wanted me to stay his little wifey and he didn't mind that I was writing. This was before I was even published. He didn't mind it as long as it didn't interfere at all with his way of life. That dinner would be ready when he came home. And I was expected to take care of the kids and run the household. And he was the one who was earning the living.

On having young fans open up to her about the details of their lives, while her own children were more reticent

I wasn't a perfect mother. I wasn't the mother that all of those kids thought I would be if only I could be their mother.

It's easier to tell somebody who's not at the breakfast table the next morning, somebody you might never meet, somebody who might not even be real, but you believe that she is. I wasn't a perfect mother. I wasn't the mother that all of those kids thought I would be if only I could be their mother. ... I wanted desperately to be the kind of parent that my kids could come to. And sometimes they did. Sometimes they did. ....

We could talk about characters in other books, because talking about characters is so much easier than talking about yourself or your mom. So, it's not "me and you." It's "Karen and her mother" or, you know, it's another character and her parent. And so we were sometimes able to do that. It got harder when they were mid-teenage years. I mean, those are hard years.

On being 85

I never expected to be 85. I grew up in a family where [none of] my father's siblings (there were seven) ... lived to be 60. So I always thought I would die very young. And I think I was in a hurry because I thought I would die young. ... With the books, one book after another, after another, I had a lot to get out. And it really wasn't until I met George, and we're together 43 years, I think. And I got personally very happy that I let up on that. I no longer worried that it was going to be tomorrow or the next day and that I had more time to enjoy life.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.