I read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” when I was around 10, hidden, as usual, in a big upholstered chair in a back corner of the house. In one of my favorite scenes, a sixth grader named Nancy is mad at her friend Gretchen, who has just gotten her period for the first time. Nancy thinks Gretchen is not sharing enough of the details, despite a predetermined pact that whoever got hers first would tell the others “absolutely everything.”
“I’m telling you, aren’t I?” Gretchen asked. “Not enough,” Nancy said. “What’s it feel like?”What’s it feel like? With that question, Judy Blume, the book’s author, was reflecting back her readers’ impatient curiosity about the world ahead, and promising, implicitly, that she, at least, would try to fill them in. When I opened one of Blume’s books — “Blubber,” “Deenie,” “Forever . . . ” — I felt confident that she understood the pact: Blume had gotten there first, and she would tell us absolutely everything. Blume wrote about playground bullying and unnerving body changes and teenage sex and she wrote about parents’ failings. If her characters differed from my friends and me, it was that they could utter out loud their thoughts about subjects that were, to us, indescribably uncomfortable. Her books did not resolve with tidy, happy endings, at least not the kind I had come to expect, so that I read them with the same mixture of overheated expectation and anxiety that I felt about adolescence itself. Occasionally, I was exasperated — could these girls stop obsessing about their “bust” size already? — but often, as I read, I felt a shock of recognition: Wait, she knew that too? “I could never meet Judy Blume,” a 45-year-old friend told me recently. “She would just look at me and know all my secrets.”
For those of us who were teenagers in the early ’80s and in the decade before — “Are You There God?” was published in 1970 — there was no Sassy magazine, there was no Internet; there was just Judy Blume, planting the radical idea, for generations of women, that their bodies would be, should be, a source of pleasure and not of shame. Her credibility was total, a young person’s raw perspective, filtered — subtly — through the common sense of a frank, funny woman.
The connection to that woman felt strangely personal. Although we knew nothing about her beyond her smiling face on the backs of the books, she knew us intimately, certainly better than we knew ourselves. When adult women meet Blume now, they are sometimes giddy; often, they burst into tears, as if reuniting with someone they had not known they missed. Blume, who is 77, has encountered enough overwrought fans that she spent a lot of time trying to figure out what, exactly, they are feeling in those moments. “It’s because of what I represent,” she tells them. “I’m your childhood.”
On a recent evening in Key West, where Judy Blume now lives much of the year, she was enjoying some music at a piano bar at a beachside restaurant near her home. She had joined some friends from a tap-dancing class, all of them there to see the singer at the piano, another friend from the class, who was performing that night and was, at that moment, singing “Mountain Greenery.” “I just think he’s amazing,” she said. Then suddenly, Blume, in sandals and a T-shirt with a faint glittery pattern, was tap-dancing, beaming, loose-limbed and quick: double time step, triple time step, triple time step. Other people seated at the bar stared, maybe because she was Judy Blume, or maybe just because she was dancing.
Key West — uninhibited, lush, with a strong literary history — suits Blume well. A writer friend of Blume’s, the poet John Malcolm Brinnin, once said that living in Key West was like being back in childhood. “You ride your bike,” Blume told me the next morning, recalling his description. “You hang out with your friends. You take a nap.” In Florida, Blume is never far from her own youth: She spent two school years, starting at age 8, living in Miami Beach, the setting for her most autobiographical novel, “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.”
That morning, Blume, in a pink baseball cap and sneakers, was taking her daily two-mile walk on a path that snakes along the beach. At 8 a.m., the sun was already strong, but the more Blume talked, the faster she walked, and everything sped up whenever the conversation turned to her new book, “In the Unlikely Event,” which will be published next month. It is set mainly in 1952, when Blume was 14.
Blume never intended to write a book about the ’50s. She has always mined the details of her youth, but never set her novels during the period when she hit adolescence, because that era bored her. “The ’50s were all about being happy,” she said. “Parents’ expectations were, Don’t rock the boat, and be happy, for God’s sake. There was a lot of pretending going on.” As we walked, the blue ocean on our right gleamed; chickens, the beneficiary of some obscure legal protection in Key West, strutted by, but Blume hardly looked around. She was thinking about her book, or maybe about her childhood, or both.
Blume also never intended to write another adult novel. She published her third, “Summer Sisters,” a 1998 best seller, when she was 60. “After that,” Blume told me, “I said, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ ” She had written some 20 drafts of “Summer Sisters,” and then pushed herself through a multi-city book tour. Blume, who finds flying hard on her sinuses and is phobic about thunder and nervous about germs, wrote a blog while she was promoting the book called, “Judy’s Anxiety Diary.” The prepublication jitters, all those questions about the “themes of your book” — it was not that she did not care, after all these years, but that she cared too much.
When the book was behind her, Blume decided that rather than go through all that again, she would enjoy her life in Key West — her funny, calm husband, George Cooper; her crossword puzzles by the pool in their backyard; her work on the board of the Key West Literary Seminar. From her relaxed vantage point on a tropical island, Blume also continued to exert a rather strong will, working actively to support the National Coalition Against Censorship; her books, especially “Deenie,” “Blubber” and “Forever . . . ,” are among those most frequently banned from school libraries.
CreditElinor Carucci for The New York Times
Blume clearly had plenty to keep her busy, and she decided she had written plenty of books. “Are You There God?” still sold around 100,000 copies a year, and some of her books for younger readers — “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Double Fudge” — sell at least as well.
But then one day in 2009, Blume was attending a literary event in Key West, listening to Rachel Kushner onstage talking about her own book, “Telex from Cuba.” Kushner mentioned that the novel had been inspired by her mother’s stories from the ’50s. And suddenly, Blume says, a story swooped down on her.
Over the course of two terrible months, three planes crashed in Blume’s hometown, Elizabeth, N.J. The first, in December 1951, plummeted into a river, on a Sunday, less than two blocks from the junior high school that Blume was attending at the time, its parts landing on a tree-lined suburban street nearby. The second plowed into a building just feet from the all-girls public high school Blume would later attend. A third nearly missed an orphanage on its way to smashing into a playing field. All told, 116 people died. Blume had built a career on the basis of her pristine recollections of childhood emotions, yet she had almost no memory of how she felt about a national news story that happened practically in her own backyard. “Was I scared?” Blume said. “I could not remember. It must have been buried.”
Blume started writing in what she calls her “security notebook,” which she uses to jot down impressionistic thoughts before facing a blank computer screen. At first, she imagined the story primarily through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl, Miri, a character who, unlike Blume’s childhood self, knew many people directly affected by the crashes. But she also wanted to give fully developed voices to other characters: a beloved dentist like her father; an older couple, who fall in love; a young woman, a dancer, who died in one of the planes. For the first time, she approached a book by heavily researching sources other than her own psyche: She spent hours at the Key West library, going through Microfilm in a room so dusty she wore a surgical mask, until her husband bought her a Microfilm machine on eBay to use at home. As she started writing, she lavishly layered in the historical details that define the small, specific universe of the book: the names of the department stores in Elizabeth where each person would have shopped, the songs and jingles that ran through their minds, the way young women stored their angora sweaters in the freezer to keep them from shedding. Her characters’ lives, and how the crashes changed them, started to take shape in her mind.
“I’m a storyteller — you know what I mean — an inventor of people,” Blume said. “And their relationships. It’s not that I love the words — that’s not the kind of writer I am. So I’m not” — she made a furious scribbling motion with her right hand — “I’m not a great writer. But maybe I’m a really good storyteller.”
As a girl, Blume had terrible eczema, and as a young mother in the ’60s, then living in Scotch Plains, N.J., she was bedridden with a mysterious illness that left her feverish and splotchy for many months, weak for almost a year. When that marriage ended after 16 years, she quickly threw herself into another one, coming down with a wedding-day allergy attack so severe her eyes were swollen shut. “I knew it was a mistake,” she said. That marriage lasted four years.
In so many of Blume’s books, her main characters’ bodies insist on their inherent, primal messiness; they crave, they ooze, break out in rashes as strange and humiliating as desire itself. The body is reckless, but telling. In “Wifey,” her first adult novel, published in 1978, Sandy, a miserably stifled housewife in search of sexual adventure, comes down with hives and fever. On the first page of “Are You There God?” the young narrator says that she knew what the weather was like from the second she woke up, “because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms.” Growing up in Elizabeth in the 1950s, Blume was that kind of girl: observant, curious, forever noting the mysterious ways of adults. She fantasized about being a detective with a gun, a cowgirl on a horse, a famous movie star with a Latin lover. She spent hours throwing a ball against the wall and concocting private melodramas. “I loved keeping my stories secret,” Blume said. “Because everybody was keeping so many secrets from me. You just knew. Adults. You would walk into a room and they would just stop. And it was like: “What? What? What?”We were sitting in her home a few blocks from the beach: a graciously proportioned ’50s-era house renovated so that it was all sliding glass doors and sunlight, with potted orchids, rather than clutter, on every surface. When she gave me a tour, she pointed out the art, which was made by local artists she admired, and then led me to a bathroom. There, inside, was her greatest luxury: an electronic bidet toilet seat. “When I was 15, I never would have gotten off that toilet,” she said, as we left the room. In “Deenie,” Blume raises the subject — gently — of adolescent masturbation, without guilt or embarrassment, which is how Blume, for the most part, recalls feeling about it. “I remember getting ready to go to summer camp, and thinking, God, what am I going todo?” she said.
She and her friends talked about that “good feeling,” but “of course I never would have said anything to my mother,” she said. Her mother, a quiet, anxious woman, wanted her to be perfect, and so she wanted to be perfect, to marry, as one did, at 21, to a man with a future. But she also adored her gregarious father, who was fascinated by the Jewish gangsters he knew, and who dreamed of moving the family out West. “Every new experience is an adventure,” the father in “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself” tells his young daughter. “Life’s full of them. Do you think you can remember that?”
Blume has three children — her daughter, Randy Blume, 54, who is a therapist in Boston; her son, Lawrence Blume, 51, who is a filmmaker and an entrepreneur in New York; and her stepdaughter, Amanda Cooper, 47, who is a political consultant in New Mexico. When Randy and Lawrence were toddlers, Blume tried to follow her mother’s model of selfless parenting. “She told me to polish the children’s shoes and wash their laces every day while they’re napping,” she said. “And guess what? I did, until I started to question it.” In frustration, she threw things — her hairbrush, a phone she had pulled out of the wall — against the living-room walls of her home, which became pockmarked with dents. She was unhappy in her marriage, bored by the requisite golf games that she was expected to find challenging and, above all, restless; she wanted to do more than play the role of the wife.
When she eventually published “Wifey,” which had some autobiographical details about that phase of her life, the book was immediately controversial. A beloved children’s book author had dared to write about a young mother’s explicit — “gooey,” one reviewer said — sexual fantasies and adventures. “Some people thought ‘Wifey’ would end my career,” Blume wrote in a recent foreword to the book.
Sandy, the heroine of “Wifey,” tried to escape her circumstances through fantasy. Blume worked her way out of her marriage by asserting herself through writing. She took a class in how to write for children, which led to her first novel: “Iggie’s House,” about a young white girl befriending black children who had recently moved to her nearly all-white neighborhood. Before that book was published in 1970, she had already started on what would turn out to be “Are You There God?”Blume is verbal and warm and open, but she says that her son has called her “the least analytical person he has ever met.” She has no theories, for example, to explain why she, of all people, felt unburdened by the unspoken rules marking certain subjects off limits for children, or why, for that matter, she has that particular gift, that ability to recall the emotional experiences of adolescence, the confusion, the longing, the rivalries — the memories, in other words, that most of us try to bury as quickly and deeply as we can.
Blume does think that she turned toward children’s fiction because she was still living a relatively sheltered life. “I didn’t have any adult experience when I started to write,” she said. “So I identified more with kids.” Her own fate felt sealed, airless. “I felt, I made this decision. This is it. It’s not all open for me anymore.” To her, it was only natural that she look backward, to the age when she felt most powerful and adulthood still promised the adventures her father wanted for her. She had been a fierce and creative child; on the page, at least, she still was. Blume likes the idea that everybody has an age that defines them for life. For her, she said, that age is 12.
In Key West, Blume is friendly with Meg Cabot, the young-adult author best known for the “Princess Diaries” series and a writer who grew up reading Blume’s work. Their friendship has moved beyond a mentor-student role, mostly because Blume prefers it that way. ”I’ll be like, Judy, however did you write that masterpiece, ‘Blubber’?” Cabot said. “And she’ll be like, ‘Who do you get to trim your palm fronds, because mine are driving me crazy.’ With us, it’s all island gossip and landscaping.”
Cabot was one of 24 women who contributed to a 2007 anthology of tributes to Blume’s work called, “Everything I Need to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume.” Young-adult novelists, in particular, celebrate Blume on their vast social-media platforms. In 2007, on one of his video blogs, John Green, author of the best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars,” said he had a massive crush on Blume. When I emailed him to ask about Blume, he called me less than a minute after I hit “send.” Green describes “Forever . . . ” — about a loving, sexual relationship between two 17-year-olds — “as a hugely important book in the history of literature for teenagers.” It was not just that she actually wrote about sex, which was groundbreaking, but that she tried to reframe a cultural conception of it. “I have a radically feminist mother, and so I was always taught that sexuality was, you know, good,” Green said. “But there’s so many messages out there that sex is something that men do to women. It’s so hard not to internalize that. ‘Forever . . . ’ was a very different way of thinking about sex.”
In “Forever . . . ,” the two lovers are not caught or humiliated. The girl, Katherine, does not become pregnant, nor is she slut-shamed by her peers. Nothing happens, really, except that she and her boyfriend, Michael, eventually break up, with some rancor, none of it fatal, after Katherine meets someone else who seems very nice. “A contemporary book like that for young adults may well exist,” said Lizzie Skurnick, who wrote “Shelf Discovery,” a 2009 book of essays about young-adult literature. “But I haven’t seen it.” Carolyn Mackler, author of the young-adult novel “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things,” said she thought about “Forever . . . ” as she sat down to write a scene for a new book in which a young man has sex for the first time. “She just wrote it organically, in a way that was true to her characters,” Mackler said. “Her novels made me want to write the most honest teenage characters I can.”
Blume still gets 1,000 letters and emails a month, mostly from children and teenagers who read her work, and she responds with personal notes when she can. Since 2009, she has been a chatty, accessible presence on Twitter, where she shares her thoughts on “Mad Men,” books she’s enjoying and how her sinuses are holding up. In 2012, when she found out she had breast cancer (for which she was successfully treated), she tweeted about it. She uses the medium to flirt with comedians like Patton Oswalt (“Tell me it’s Forever”) and to commiserate with fellow authors (“I think it’s prepub anxiety,” she wrote to Jami Attenberg, who was complaining of insomnia in the weeks leading up to the publication of her new novel, “St. Mazie”). When Chelsea Handler, the comedian, titled her book, “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” a reader asked Blume, on Twitter, how she felt about that. Blume tweeted back, “After initial WTF, turned into big CH fan!”
In May, Blume and Cooper, who have lived together since their second date 35 years ago, flew to New York, where they spend several months each year, and then, the next day, drove out to Elizabeth, N.J. Cooper, a former Columbia law professor who helped Blume research the new book, had called ahead to the public library to say they would be coming; Blume wanted to make a donation because the institution had been so helpful during her research and also because she spent many happy hours there as a child. One librarian, who was expecting them, had pulled out a high-school yearbook that Blume quickly recognized. Smiling, she flipped through it. “Doodles!” Blume said, pointing at a black-and-white photo of a young woman who was identified as Marilyn. “Her name was Doodles!” Next to Blume’s photo was a quotation she had chosen from a book of quotes: “Keep a place in your heart for little dreams to go.”
After they left the library, they toured Elizabeth, passing a street named for the rabbi who was a patient of her father’s; Blume named her first doll after his pretty daughter, Hadassah. They drove through Blume’s old neighborhood, an unremarkable New Jersey suburb with red-brick houses, in various sizes, and well-kept lawns. She pointed out the house where someone named Donny lived, and the one where Ronne lived, and another that was Rozzie’s. On the corner was a house where her friend was not allowed to go on Halloween “because the father answered the door in silk pajamas,” she said. There, on Shelley Avenue, was her own childhood house, a modest brick home, with a new, flashy entryway, a kind of portico that she surveyed, somewhat critically, from across the street. A sun porch jutting off the side of the house looked unchanged to Blume. “The last time it was on the market, I wanted to buy it,” she said. “We even looked into it. I don’t know what I was going to do with it. I just wanted my house.”
In “Forever . . . ,” Katherine takes Michael back to her home so they can fool around in a secluded den off the living room. Blume had told me that she used to bring her boyfriends home to make out; her parents preferred that she do that, rather than kiss boys in their cars. Whatever her parents’ imperfections, they raised a daughter who felt safe exploring those first sexual feelings in the safety of the sturdy home I was staring at now, a girl who went on to try to create that sense of comfort in her young readers.
A few doors down, she pointed out the home where a Greek friend had lived. In “An Unlikely Event,” a young Greek woman is in love with a young Irish man whom her mother would never accept. The scene in which they sleep together for the first time is one of the book’s best, a steamy stream-of-consciousness narration that gets at the surreal dreaminess of sex, the way the imagination either ignores or makes use of whatever else is happening in the room to heighten the experience.
In Key West, Blume mentioned that she had written another charged section about an affair between two characters who were middle-aged. In the end, she cut it, because the female character, she decided, would not have made that choice. It seemed like a lost opportunity; having read Blume’s novels about teenage sexuality when I was an adolescent, I now wanted to read her writing about the sex lives of people who are no longer young. “What you need to do, Judy, is write about people having sex in their 70s,” Cooper said. Blume smiled at him fondly.
Blume wanted to stop by the places where the planes crashed all those years ago: a field, a river, an ice cream shop that replaced the building that was there before the second accident. Each spot was silent, revealing nothing about what happened there. Blume thought that in researching the book, some memories of the events would come back to her, but that didn’t happen. She still does not know, for example, why at the time she never made a point of looking at the wreckage. “I know I never went down to see the site,” she said, standing in the shade near the Elizabeth River, where the first plane fell from the sky. “Even though my school was less than two blocks away. I find that very strange.”
She had, however, uncovered what she insisted would be her last adult novel. And she had discovered something else: The ’50s were not that boring; there were currents running through the time that intrigued her after all. “All of these things that were going on underneath that the children didn’t know, now, as an adult, I can know,” she said, and smiled with the power of it. “Or I can make it up.”