Celebrating Judy Blume—Her Work and Impact—on Her 80th Birthday

Authors Jacqueline Woodson, Rachel Vail, and others spoke about the influence of Blume's novels during a birthday event at New York's Symphony Space.
Margaret, Sheila, Peter, Fudge. These legendary Judy Blume characters became friends to generations of readers, including some who grew up to become writers themselves. Blume turns 80 on February 12 and, in her honor, a group of contemporary writers gathered at an event dubbed "Judy Blumesday"  on Sunday, February 5 at Symphony Space in Manhattan.

Photo by Segrid Estrada.

The panel discussed  their favorite Blume books, how they related to the universal challenges and horrors of growing up that Blume put on the page, and her impact on their work. “For all of us who read [Blume’s work] and grew up to be writers, there is that imprint of her teaching us that young people have struggles and their struggles are valid,” said Jacqueline Woodson, author of National Book Award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming and the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (who happens to share the February  12 birthday with the guest of honor). Blume validated these struggles through moments an adult might not have seen as significant, said Woodson, “but, to us, was everything,” For this kid-focused event, attended by children and adults, Woodson was joined on the panel by Rachel Vail, author of Well, What Was Awkward;  Soman Chainani, who wrote "The School for Good and Evil" series; and illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi, who created the new covers for Blume’s books and updated interior illustrations for some as well. Blume herself took the stage later in the afternoon. Before that, though, she sat in the wings and listened to actress Colby Minifie from TV series Jessica Jones read an excerpt from Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great when Sheila describes the fear and against-all-odds accomplishment of taking her swimming test. It was a great example of the essence of Blume’s books and shows why they resonate, according to Vail. “There are so many moments like that,” Vail said. “Moments of real, real struggle and how it really feels to be growing up, and the challenges that we face that feel like we might die any second.” One of those struggles, of course, is puberty, a subject Blume tackled with humor and often painful realism. “My clearest memory, of course, is relating to Margaret on being flat-chested,” said Woodson, whose first Blume book was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. “It was sixth grade where everybody seemed to be developing around me.” Woodson felt a deeper link to the character as well. “I remember finding a mirror in the character of Margaret—a girl who was just struggling to understand who she was in this gaggle of friends, for one thing, and [who was] also moving to a new place,” she said. While most people think of Blume’s books as part of a girl's rite of passage, Chainani reminded people her books and inspiration are not gender specific. His favorites were Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. “Reading a book about somebody who comes out guns blazing with a bad attitude, I was like, ‘Finally, somebody gets it,’” Chainani said, referring to both novels. “So often we read books of adults preaching to kids and giving this warm feeling of what kids are supposed to be like. Reading Judy Blume obsessively while growing up, you got what a real kid feels like.” The Judy Blumesday event was presented by the Thalia Kids' Book Club, which hosts book discussions between children’s authors and their readers. Each event includes a creative writing project, and this one was no different. The kids were given a prompt and five minutes to write, after which some of them shared what they had written. Later, they were able to ask Blume questions. One young girl asked about Blume’s original inspiration to write and what inspires her now. “Inspiration comes from different places,” Blume said. “At the very beginning, it was my need. I had to do it. All these stories were inside me and they had to come out, and until I let them out, I was getting sick all the time. Once I started to let them out, then I was well. I don’t think anybody writes unless they have to,” she said. “You don’t write because you say, ‘Oh I think it would be fun to write,’ because it’s not. You write because it’s inside you and you have to do it.” As for her current inspiration, “I would say just coming to a group like this,” she said. “Every time I hear a group of writers talking or listen to you reading what you’ve written in five minutes, that’s inspiring. Wherever you can find your inspiration, boy, grab it and hold on to it.” Woodson found inspiration, in part, from what wasn’t in Blume’s books. “Reading Judy’s books and not seeing kids of color in them made me want to put those kids of color on the page,” Woodson said. “I think that Judy was writing about the experiences she knew and a black girl reading them was inspired to write about the experiences I wanted to see on the page.” Fans might have to rely on these contemporary writers using Blume’s work to fuel their own, because there is no new novel on the way, she said. “I’ve written for 50 years—5-0 years,” said Blume, who prefers to spend her time these days introducing readers to the work of authors she loves at her local bookstore in Key West, FL. “That’s a lot of years of writing. There is something brewing inside my head. It’s a small something, something different. I would not write another novel, because that takes a very long time. The last book took me five years, and when you’re having your 80th birthday, there are other things to do.”

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