Judy Blume Kicks Off ALA Annual, Talking Censorship and Thanking Librarians

In a keynote conversation to open the conference, Blume discussed decades of fighting for free speech and a lifetime of loving libraries.

ALA Annual kicked off on Friday in Chicago in a most appropriate way for these times—a conversation with Judy Blume.

In a discussion with Simon & Schuster senior vice president and publisher Justin Chanda, Blume talked about why she wanted to attend the conference this year, the differences between book banning attempts in the 1980s and today, and her lifetime love for libraries and librarians.

When Blume was growing up, her mother took her to the public library in Elizabeth, NJ, every week.

“She let me sit on the floor and take the books off the shelf,” she said of being four years old in the library. “I chose them, I smelled them. I loved the smell of them. I loved the pencil with the stamp on it. I wanted to be a librarian so I could have a pencil with a stamp on it. … It was a fabulous thing when they stamped your book.”

She played librarian at home as a child then watched in delight as her daughter added pockets to the backs of her books and played librarian herself.

This year, in her travels, Blume heard ALA executive director Tracie Hall speak a few times and was “overwhelmed.” As Blume remembers it, she went up to Hall, introduced herself, and asked if she could please come to ALA. “I said, ‘I want to come to ALA and thank the librarians,’” Blume recalled.

Yes, Judy Blume asked if she could attend ALA Annual. Hall, of course, didn’t just grant her permission; she also got Blume on board to deliver the opening keynote. Seated across from Chanda, the legendary author brought her message to thousands of librarians in Chicago.

“If ever there was a chance to say thank you, this is the year,” Blume said. “This is the year to do it and tell you how much we appreciate you and give you our support.”

She gave a shoutout from the stage to SLJ “Scales on Censorship” columnist Pat Scales, a former middle and high school librarian and former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

Pat Scales and Judy Blume at ALA Annual in Chicago.
Photo courtesy Pat Scales

“Pat Scales has been doing programs to bring parents and kids and literature together—that's how I met her way, way back, I don't even know how many years ago but long ago,” said Blume. “She was doing a program where she brought parents into her classroom after hours. They read the books that the kids were going to be reading and got them familiar with the books. Pat helped them not be afraid of these books. What a service. Pat, we need you in every school and every library. We want to clone Pat Scales.”

The conversation turned to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., one of the most frequently challenged books of the last 50 years and recently adapted into a film. Blume wrote the book in 1970 and recalled excitedly giving signed copies to her children’s elementary school library.

“The male principal took them off the shelf. I think he gave them back,” she said.

He told Blume, “We can’t have these books here.” Blume couldn’t even finish telling the story about her book that talked about menstruation being kept from students in 1970 before transitioning to a current situation in Florida.

“Now we're gonna have a law where girls aren't allowed to talk about menstruation among themselves,” she said. “Good luck there.”

The principal’s action in 1970 was the first time Blume encountered censorship.

“Little did I know what was coming in the 80s,” she said of a time when Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority group tried to lead a national book banning effort. Many of Blume’s titles were caught in the crossfire.

But for years, she assumed those banning efforts of the 1980s were beaten back for good.

“We thought, ‘That's it. We're done with this. This is never gonna happen again,’” she said. “And here we are. On steroids.”

It is now a political effort, with library policies being ignored as legislation is passed and deep-pocketed funding backs the coordinated attacks on intellectual freedom and the right to read. But Blume does see a positive difference between the book banning attempts of the 1980s and those today.

“People are much more aware today [about] what's going on,” she said of the record-setting number of attempts to remove and restrict books at schools and public libraries across the country. “I want them to act on that. In the 80s maybe they weren't aware, and they weren't acting on it. But now there's this great awareness and there's a lot of press and publicity about it. So we all have to do something.”

While Blume hasn’t released a book since 2017 and has no plans to write another, she remains involved in the day-to-day of the publishing world. She and her husband own a nonprofit bookstore in Key West, FL, where they live.

“Not a week goes by that I don't have people in the store who are teachers, who are librarians, and who were being hit with this,” she said. “One woman said to me, ‘It's my pension. I have worked all these years for this pension. I could lose it.’ And what do we say? What can we say to make her OK with defending books? We have to let her know that we're all there, and we are not going to let this happen. We're gonna fight, fight, fight, fight.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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