THE OPEN MIND
GUEST: Judy Blume
TITLE: Judy Blume
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And nearly a decade ago, when today’s guest first joined me here, I had been told that 50 million copies of her books were already in print. And that was then. Think about now. But it wasn’t until I had actually read a few Jury Blume books that I knew just why that I really understood why youngsters and even oldsters like me find her fiction about the fact of growing up
quit so compelling. Yet my guest has also said to be the most frequently censored author in the history of the American children’s literature. With hers on the lists of the most frequently challenged books, right up there with J D Sallinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”, Mark Twain’s “Adventure of Huckleberry Finn” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” . So then I want to begin today by asking Judy Blume is she isn’t just somewhat tired of being the poster girl for Civil Libertarians continuing battle against the book burners.
BLUME: And the answer is “Yes” I am. On the other hand I feel that I have said everything that I have to say. But I know how important it to say it over and over. for all of us to help those who aren’t aware to become more aware of what goes on and what you can do about it. I mean there is good news, I think the good news is how many kids are coming to my web site and saying “I’m doing a report on censorship, can you help me or can you send to the right place to get more information”. This is from, probably from older elementary school kids, right through graduate students. And I mean years ago, nobody was doing reports on censorship. I don’t think anybody even knew about it.
HEFFNER: Does that mean you think that there’s more censorship today?
BLUME: I think there’s more awareness today. And that is very good. Is there more censorship today? There’s a lot of censorship today. Or there are a lot of people who would censor if, if they could.
HEFFNER: Why do they want to censor Judy Blume’s books?
BLUME: Oh. Well, you know, I mean … I always joke and say it’s the three “S’s”, and I don’t write about the three “S’s”, but it’s anything to do with sexuality. It has to do with language, so it’s sexuality, swear words, and then there’s a whole group who find Satan lurking everywhere.
HEFFNER: The devil in Judy Blume?
BLUME: No, not so much in Judy Blume as in Harry Potter.
HEFFNER: MmmHmmm. Do you find yourself now being compared in terms of how dangerous you are for children with Harry Potter?
BLUME: No, it’s, I think again those who would choose to remove Harry Potter from schools, libraries and children’s lives. It’s a religious issue with them. It’s, it’s … you know they truly believe in witches, witchcraft, the devil. With me it’s more … evil can be found lurking everywhere, including the classroom, or the child’s bedroom.
HEFFNER: What do you mean evil?
BLUME: Those who believe that there is evil in …
HEFFNER: In sexuality and swear words.
BLUME: Evil in sexuality … yes, yes. I find myself defining other people’s books much more today than my own. And that’s a position I enjoy being in. It’s much easier to defend the books of someone else. And I certainly have taken a stand for Harry Potter, because I have a grandson.
HEFFNER: Tell me why you make that connection. Because you want your grandson to be able to read Harry Potter.
BLUME: Because my grandson loves Harry Potter. And even if I didn’t have a grandson who loved Harry Potter, I would still be out there saying, “this is a book that has brought joy and reading to so many children”. I mean this is a huge book, and children are gobbling it up. I’m not here to promote Harry Potter, but I think anything that gets kids interested and excited about reading is positive. We want that.
HEFFNER: Now, you know, the American Library Association has certainly been your strong friend and you have been for them and their relationship to the question of censorship a very important person. When you were here, almost a decade ago, I couldn’t tease out of you …
HEFFNER: … and I went back and read the transcript again the other night, I couldn’t tease out of you an answer to my continuing question as to whether you had any empathy at all for the people, for the parents who get quite so exercised about the Judy Blume books.
BLUME: You couldn’t tease that out of me, Hmmmmm?
BLUME: Well, this is how I feel … when I get a thoughtful letter from a parent who’s concerned about his or her child reading one of my books, I respond in a thoughtful way. When I get a parent who’s just riding some kind of horse that tells me I’m going to burn in hell, I don’t respond. I think so many parents are afraid. This whole censorship business grows out of fear. Right. They’re so afraid, “if my child reads this, my child’s going to have questions, or my child is going to do this. I don’t want my child to know about this yet. Therefore I don’t want my child to read your book. Or I don’t want my child to think about this”. You know they equate reading with doing. Where, in fact, reading about something is a wonderful way to satisfy one’s curiosity. I know I was a very curious child. And I wanted to read about everything so that I could know, but especially about the secrets of the adult world.
HEFFNER: Well, you know it’s interesting, you say you were a very curious child, and I wondered, since I began to read July Blume, I’ve wondered what was the origin, what has been the origin and you’re saying it was all the questions you had, all the interest you had as a kid?
BLUME: What is the origin of why I write …
HEFFNER: What you’re writing.
BLUME: …what I write?
HEFFNER: What you’re writing, yeah.
BLUME: I don’t know. I was a kid who grew up with stories always inside my head. Never shared them, never wrote them down. But I would play for hours on my own bouncing a ball against the brick wall of my house in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and while I was bouncing the ball I was inventing the characters and stories … very different stories from what I now write. But there was something so satisfying about it. I played with my paper dolls in an, I suppose, maybe an unusual way. I gave pretend piano lessons, that’s how I practiced the piano. And I think the creative child who grows up and still needs that outlet … you know, I mean some kids when I tell them these stories, they say “you were weird”. And I say, “Well, maybe. But this is how I was”. And there’s always a couple of kids in the group who say, “I’m just like that”. Or they’ll read, you know, my most autobiographical books, which is “Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself”, really the kind of child I was, making up these stories all the time. I’ll get letters from kids who say, “I’m just like Sally”. So I know there are others out there.
HEFFNER: Look, let’s go back for a minute to this question that I know must, if not bore you silly by now, it certainly … your practiced hand about talking about censorship. In the decade since we sat at this table last, what’s happened? Has it gotten easier, has it gotten harder? Have the forces that would protect their children, in their estimation, in ways that they believe will protect them. Have them become stronger? More widespread? If the man from mars, or, forgive me, the woman from mars were to come and look and survey the lot of censoring children’s books today, as opposed to a decade ago, what would they find?
BLUME: I don’t think that they would find that it’s any better. If you go back to 1980 when it really all started …
HEFFNER: What do you mean “started”?
BLUME: Well, the Seventies was a very … what do I mean is that when the censors crawled out of the woodwork overnight, following the political election … the Presidential election of 1980. I mean that’s when the extreme fanatical Right said, “it’s our turn, we’re going to dictate what children can read and what they can’t read”. That’s when it all began. But it’s much more … I don’t know if it’s … maybe this isn’t true … I was going to say that it’s, it’s a … they are a much stronger group now. But that’s not true, because we still see, I think the … what we see more often than not, is that single parent rushing into school. And saying, “I want this book removed”. The case of Carolivia Herron and her book “Nappy Hair” that happened in Brooklyn a year or two ago. That was one parent who riled up all the other parents. It’s very easy for one parent to frighten a group of parents into thinking that something dangerous is happening to their child in the classroom. And in this case it was a charming book …
HEFFNER: And it wasn’t sex. And it wasn’t …
HEFFNER: … words …
HEFFNER: … and it wasn’t Harry Potter.
BLUME: No, it wasn’t and it was a book written by an African American about an African American child with wonderfully nappy hair. But something about that word “nappy” sat wrong with an African American mother who enlisted other parents in that child’s classroom and it was, it was really a mob coming after a teacher who thought that she was doing the right thing by sharing this book with the children in her class. It ended very badly. I mean that teacher left. The principal didn’t stand up for the right of the teachers. There’s a lot that goes on in these cases that we hear about, but of course there are many more instances that we never hear about, where books are silently removed from classrooms.
HEFFNER: Silently removed.
BLUME: Absolutely. Where principals say to their teachers, “we don’t want any controversy here. Please don’t use any controversial materials.” But, but what is learning, if not talking, discussion about subjects that to some are controversial? I mean that’s exciting, that’s thinking.
HEFFNER: Thinking. It got Socrates in trouble. Thinking …
HEFFNER: … leads to asking questions.
HEFFNER: And the hemlock is right around the corner. You’re talking about school libraries, aren’t you? You’re not talking about public libraries.
BLUME: Not public libraries. I’m talking about school libraries, classroom libraries, choices made by teachers. What materials, what books would they share with their class. What books will they be talking about? That’s the teacher’s choice.
HEFFNER: So much emphasis is place upon … these days … upon parental responsibility. The people who make apologies. Not apologies, excuses for materials that are pushed upon our children in the mass media, and the electronic media, in film, etc. speak about parental responsibility. Now the parent who enters the school library in a huff, who holds the book in one hand and her or his anger in the other. Isn’t that an exercise of parental responsibility? And I’m really not trying to bait you. I don’t know how to deal with this question.
BLUME: Um …
HEFFNER: A parent is saying, “I don’t want this …”
BLUME: MmmHmm. I am responsible for my child and I don’t want this. Well, it is an interesting question. And I suppose that one would hope that a teacher or a librarian or principal could sit down quietly with that parent and talk about exactly what it is about this book that’s upsetting to them, and perhaps ease that parent’s fears. In some cases where a parent is adamant, “I do not want my child exposed to this book”, then that child is usually offered another book. But you can’t … you know you can’t let a parent or even a group of parents decide what’s right for all the other children in that classroom.
HEFFNER: I understand what you’re saying.
BLUME: I know that you do. And I’m not sure that I’m explaining it …
HEFFNER: No, you’re explaining it …
BLUME: … well enough.
HEFFNER: …you’re explaining it perfectly well. But it is such an overriding problem that’s only going to get greater, as many …
BLUME: Yes, but you know you can’t control your child’s mind. You can’t control what your child is going to see and hear out there. There’s just no way to do it. And it, again, it all grows out of fear. If, if we could help parents to be less afraid, I think there would be much less censorship. What, what is it that you’re really afraid of?
HEFFNER: And what you’re saying is that it is the colloquy, it is the exchange, perhaps on the part of the principal dealing with the parents, or the teacher dealing with the parents, the sitting down and talking about. I’m so interested in you’re saying that when you do get letters that indicate a concerned parent, rather than a rabidly concerned parent …
BLUME: A thoughtful …
HEFFNER: Well …
BLUME: … someone who is writing specifically about a book in a thoughtful way.
HEFFNER: I’m so interested that you said, you date this concern, you date it back really to Ronald Reagan’s election. If I understand correctly.
BLUME: Well, yeah, it’s not just me, who’s dating it. I mean if you call the American Library Association, they’ll tell you that their complaint calls quadrupled over night. I mean it’s, it’s … it was a group effort, I think, starting in the early Eighties. The Seventies was a wonderful time for writers of children’s books. So many of us came of age then. Editors, publishers were willing to take a chance on us, nurture our careers. I was a very young writer starting out in the Seventies. “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret” was published after all in 1970, I think.
HEFFNER: How many children would you estimate …
HEFFNER: … read that book?
BLUME: Oh, I have no idea. Millions and millions all over the world. The wonderful thing is that if you read the web mail on my website, you’ll read about the same books from the point of today’s nine year old as today’s 35 year old, who … you know one is coming to reminisce and one thinks that the book was written yesterday just for her.
HEFFNER: Now. Question. Are the nine year olds different today from when you first started to write?
BLUME: What’s different, I think is … I mean the simple answer is “No, I don’t think so”.
HEFFNER: But you do think so.
BLUME: No, I don’t think so.
HEFFNER: No? Really?
BLUME: I think that life has changed.
BLUME: Life has changed and what’s different is that when I wrote my early, my earliest books, I had in mind someone 11 or 12 reading “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret”. I mean it takes, I’m just using that as an example. It’s takes place in sixth grade. So I assumed that it would be read by sixth graders. But when I think back to myself at nine, oh, I would have liked that book at nine. Because it’s the very, the topic that I was most interested in. I was just learning about these secret changes that happened to girls and boys and things that my parents just whispered about. So I would have been very interested in it. And today, Margaret is read by still 11 years olds, but also much younger kids. I will meet kids seven or eight at book signings, who’ve read all my books. And I say, “Oh, I hope you’ll go back and look again when you’re 10 or 11”.
HEFFNER: Do you think this touches at all upon the question of whether we aren’t in our age robbing our children of their childhood. A charge that is so frequently made. When you say the kids who are younger now are reading the books that were read by the nine year olds before.
BLUME: Yes, but I was a nine year old in 194 …
HEFFNER: Watch it …
BLUME: seven or eight …
HEFFNER: … watch it.
BLUME: And I remember very clearly what was on my mind, so I am saying that I don’t think that what’s inside a nine year old has changed. The feelings, the concerns, the interests. And had the book been available to me, I would have read it happily. Robbing children of their childhoods … I don’t know what that means. I really don’t. Are we giving them … I would imagine that that would mean, “are we giving children more adult responsibilities at earlier ages. And I don’t really think so.
HEFFNER: Why do you just put it upon responsibilities?
BLUME: Well, what does it mean “robbing children of their childhoods”.
HEFFNER: It seems to mean on the part of many people who use that phrase, that we are introducing them to ideas, and you love to deal with ideas, to ideas that are perhaps dealt with more responsibly, to use that word, when they’re somewhat older, when they have matured more. They’re not … I mean we’ve long since abandoned the idea that the youngsters are adults in short pants.
BLUME: Yeah, but you know what? Introducing ideas that they’re not ready for …
HEFFNER: Doesn’t work?
BLUME: It doesn’t. It just goes right out. I mean, it’s just the way children read. People who are so afraid of children reading something before they’re ready for it. If they don’t get it, if they don’t have a question about it, they just read right over it. They really, really do. I find it again and again.
HEFFNER: Judy I think maybe the question is that in a … you hinted at this because of the nature of our society they are ready earlier and earlier. Does that have any consequences?
BLUME: I don’t think I hinted at that.
HEFFNER: You don’t … no?
BLUME: That they are ready earlier and earlier?
BLUME: No. I’m going back to the child I was …
BLUME: … and I’m just saying that, I’m acknowledging that their interests and their ability to understand, that that was not acknowledged when I was nine years old. And maybe in some cases we acknowledge it today. I think for the most part we don’t acknowledge that today. But I don’t think nine year olds have changed. I think their ability to understand is probably very much the same as it was.
HEFFNER: And the seven year old?
BLUME: Two generations ago.
HEFFNER: And the seven year olds who were old hands at reading Judy Blume, do they understand Judy Blume?
BLUME: They understand whatever it is that they understand as they’re reading a book. They understand … you know you, you can read a book in one way. I read, I have to go back to my own childhood. I read Ayan Rand’s “The Fountainhead” …
HEFFNER: My God …
BLUME: … when I was 12 because my parents had a wonderful library and by the time I was 12 I was browsing in this library. And nobody ever told me not to read something. But what my friends and I found in Ayan Rand is certainly not what my father found in Ayan Rand. We found little tid-bits that made us giggle. Nevertheless, something happened that made me want to go back as an older teenager and read whatever I could find by Ayan Rand.
HEFFNER: Okay. We have just a couple of minutes left. I’ve just gotten that signal …
BLUME: Already, oh no.
HEFFNER: Judy, I’ve got … I’ve got to ask you the question that I wanted to ask you last time … what are you going to do when you grow up?
BLUME: [Laughter] I’m never growing up.
HEFFNER: You still going to write the same kinds of books, books essentially for children. I mean, I know you’ve diverged from that a bit. But what are your plans?
BLUME: My … when I finished “Summer Sisters” my last published book I said, “I’m never doing this again. It’s too hard and I’ve done it 22 times and I don’t want to do it any more”. And my husband said to me, “that’s fine. You do whatever you want to do” and for …
HEFFNER: Child psychology.
BLUME: Well, I guess so. And my agent would call and say, “how’s the new book coming”, and I would say “what new book”. And it wasn’t until several day ago that I felt the need to lock myself up in that little room and begin to tell another story. But, it’s hard and I don’t want to be there. And yet there’s some, it’s my own need to … to tell stories, I guess that hasn’t gone away.
HEFFNER: You say it’s hard.
BLUME: It’s terribly hard for me. It’s much harder, I think than it was when I was starting out. Because when I was starting out there was so much inside to pour out. It is not as easy to be spontaneous, fresh, to tell a different story after 22 books. And I think that’s just something that I have to accept. And if it isn’t there and it doesn’t want to come naturally, then great. You know, there are a lot of ways to be creative, I don’t have to write. But I’m not saying that I’m finished yet. I don’t want to leave you saying that I’m finished because I don’t feel that I want to stop now.
HEFFNER: Even if you had said it, I wouldn’t have believed.
BLUME: Well, you can believe it.
HEFFNER: Did you, did you feel that way … 30 seconds … did you … have you felt that way before?
BLUME: My husband says I say it after ever single book.
HEFFNER: I knew that was going to be the answer.
HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today, Judy Blume. I appreciate it very much.
BLUME: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Come back in another decade.
BLUME: Oh, I hope we’re both here in another decade to do it again.
HEFFNER: Okay. And thanks, too, to you in the audience, I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Mean while, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.