Judy Blume … and Our Children’s Freedom to Read
VTR Date: January 15, 1992
Richard Heffner talks with the most frequently censored author in children's literature.
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GUEST: Judy Blume
I’m Richard Heffner, our host on THE OPEN MIND…and much earlier I had been given to understand that 50 million copies of my guest’s books were in print. Yet, it wasn’t until I had read a few that I really knew why…that I understood why youngsters and even oldsters like me find her fiction about the fact of growing up quite so compelling.
But my neighbor and new friend – Judy Blume – is also said to be the most frequently censored author in the history of American children’s literature. On the list of the most frequently challenged books of the past decade you see her books right up there with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and I want to begin by asking Judy Blume why her Forever, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, Deenie and others have gained her so much notoriety, if, indeed, that’s the right word. You think it is, Judy?
Blume: Maybe. I think it’s difficult when you lump all those books together because Forever is for a little bit different age group than Then Again, Maybe I Won’t and Deenie. So, I think that is hard, when a writer writes up and down the scale from picture books to adult novels. To put all those books together on the shelf can cause problems.
Heffner: Well, why do…why do we find parents and school boards and librarians wanting so desperately, at points in time, to take your books away from children’s view?
Blume: But not kids. I love that, that you gave that list, but you didn’t include kids because kids never understand why. Neither do I. I mean, over the years, I’ve been forced to think about it. It has to do with fear…that’s what I think.
Heffner: Fear of what?
Blume: Fear of reality. Fear of puberty. “If my child reads about this, my child is going to do this”…or “this is going to happen to my child”. And, and the fact is, of course, that even if you don’t want your child to hit puberty, your child is going to go through that, so better to be prepared. Better to talk about it. Language makes some parents afraid…anything to do with sexuality. And real life…real feelings…real emotions are, are terrifying for some adults because they just don’t want to deal with those feelings and their children at the same time.
Heffner: But as I’ve read some of your books…recently, I’ve had the sense that the most important characteristic is your deep, profound sympathy for what kids go through. And I wonder whether that sympathy extends itself to what parents go through…to the fears that you characterize as being behind their desire to keep some of the books away from their children.
Blume: …it’s…I mean that’s important to me. It’s the few parents. Recently…I mean let’s talk about the most recent case that I know about. A father of a fourth-grade daughter, who was reading Blubber has asked the school board to ban the book from the schools…it’s in Canton, Ohio. And I wonder because I heard about it from a reporter and then a child, also in the fourth grade, who wrote to me to tell me, and to tell me how sad it was for her because it was an important book for her…she liked it and she didn’t really understand. I wonder if that fourth grade child went to her father because she wanted to talk about it, because it’s a rough book about how kids are sometimes cruel to one another. Maybe she just wanted to say, “Dad, why are kids like this sometimes?”, or “could this ever happen to me?” Maybe she just wanted to talk. But in giving him the book, he thumbed through it and, and became afraid, or terrified really. He felt that any book that dealt with that kind of reality in the classroom should have an ending in which everything is tied up, evil is punished, goodness wins out. But you don’t have to hit kids over the head with messages. It’s better, I think, to present it and let them think about it. Let them talk about it in school, out of school, with their parents…anything that helps parents and kids, or teachers and kids talk. I don’t want to hit them over the head with messages…I’m never going to do that.
Heffner: But that’s your prescription for child-rearing. And I really wanted to…
Blume: This is one part of it.
Heffner: …okay, it’s one part of it.
Heffner: And I want to know how sympathetic you can be, how empathetic you can be for the prescriptions in part that other parents would offer for their own child’s, or children’s, up-bringing?
Blume: I would be sympathetic. I would be reasonable. But I think that parents who want to protect their children from what they see as the real world, protect them from everything…and we, we all want to protect our children. My children are grown up, and I still want to protect them. They, they don’t have the right to say “I don’t want any child to read this book”. Because once, once we give in to one parent who says that, we’re setting up the table to give in to every parent, and then you have every parent saying “Well, I don’t want my child reading this, and I don’t want my child learning about his, and I don’t want mine doing that”, and what are you left with? So it’s a question of options.
Heffner: So you’re saying that you think it’s perfectly appropriate for a parent to feel, to say, to think “not in my backyard”, but not to extend his or her backyard to the public library, the school library, the classroom.
Blume: You know what’ really interesting…is when…if, if you go to a hearing on, on whether or not a book should be allowed in the school…and I don’t mean my books, because I’ve never really been to that kind of hearing. The children will always stand up and say, “But how old do I have to be before I can choose what I want to read?” And I heard a very wise librarian not long ago say, “Well, I think you should be able to read whatever you want to read”.
Heffner: Do you feel that way?
Blume: Absolutely. Absolutely. And let me tell you I cringed when my daughter was 12 and she took Portnoy’s Complaint off the shelf. I thought, “oh, no”, and I said to her, “Randi, I think you would get more out of this book if you would wait a few years”. But she was determined, and I said, “Okay”. I said, “But if you have question, I hope you’ll come to me”, and I gulped and she went away and ten minutes later she put the book back on the shelf and she said, “This book is boring”. But what she was really saying was “I’m not interested in this yet. I don’t want to read this, or I’m uncomfortable, or I’m bored by it. It’s not for me”.
Heffner: But if she hadn’t put it back on the shelf and you were to think about many other parents whose children had taken the book off the shelf and hadn’t put it back, you wouldn’t be sympathetic with the notion that “Gee, I want that book not to be available to youngsters”.
Blume: It’s hard for me to be sympathetic with that. However, I do think that parents have certain rights and any parent can say to a child, “I don’t want you to see that movie. Id don’t want you to see that television show, I don’t want you to read that book. Not in my house. Not with me. I’m not going to give you permission”. You can say that. I don’t know that that will stop your child. I know a mother who told me that she cut out several pages of Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, when it was given to her son for his birthday when he was 13 years old. She told me. She said, “I cut out the pages”, and I said, “Why?” and she said “Because I didn’t feel he was old enough to read about wet dreams. That’s not really normal”. And I met her son when he was grown up and I said, “Do you remember that?” And he said, “Yeah, I remember”. And I said, “Well, what did you do?” He said “I went to the public library and I took out the book…”
Blume: …and I read the pages.
Heffner: Of course, the real problem is not when a parent cuts out the pages, but when the public library cuts out the book. And you know, I, I…Judy I must say that I was particularly interested in the summaries of the attacks on the freedom to learn, that the People for the American Way put out. I was fascinated by the many instances in which there was a protest…I’m talking about you books…
Heffner: …about a protest about your book which was rejected in turn by the Special Committee set up by the School Board, or by the library or whatever it was. So though there are complaints, it seems to me that in most part sanity and wisdom have prevailed.
Blume: Well, this doesn’t happen, for the most part, in public libraries. It happens in schools…
Blume: …and school libraries and yes, that’s true for the cases that we know about. But what’s scary, is that we don’t have any idea how many school principals trying to avoid any kind of confrontation simply order a teacher or librarian to get rid of that book or get rid of any books that might be considered controversial. That happens regularly. We just don’t know about it.
Heffner: Well, you know the, the charge has been made that in our times we have robbed our children of childhood. We have robbed our children of the ability to experience growing up and that we believe that distinguishing between adults and children is discriminating and discrimination against…How do you respond to that?
Blume: I don‘t buy that at all. I mean I remember my childhood very clearly. And I know that when I was nine years old and ten years old in the late 40s…
Heffner: That’s what we’re talking about…today.
Heffner: …I’m serious…you’re…
Blume: …you mean we’re talking about…
Heffner: …you’re talking about recent times.
Blulme: …we’re talking about robbing…having our childhoods robbed from us?
Blume: Oh, no. No. I was a kid…I was a kid who had lots of time to enjoy my fantasies…I would throw a ball against the side of a house for hours and make up stories inside my head. Ride a bike and pretend that it was a horse or a car. Be a detective. I, I don’t think so. I think today some kids don’t have that time. I think time is really important. Kids need free time. But because parents work and they have to provide a safe place for their children, it is often…the child gets “over-activitied”. If there’s any kind of robbing of childhood that may be it, that the child no longer has the freedom to dream and fantasize and think.
Heffner: But the charge that is most frequently made is that our children are robbed of their childhood because we no longer really discriminate appropriately between what is made available to them and what is made available to their, to their parents…the adult population as that in fact what we do is homogenize everything and kids watch what adults watch, and there is no, no sense of leaving them out of the worst of our lives…
Blume: Well, it’s certainly true…
Heffner: …as they were left out.
Blume: Well, it’s certainly true about television. It’s, I think, far less true about books. Are you going to ask me what to do about it? Don’t’ ask me what to do about it…
Heffner: No, I’ll, I’ll wait for a moment…
Blume: I don’t know.
Heffner: …because you say “you’re not going to ask me what…”…
Heffner: …but, but why do you say “less in books”, because you’re the one who’s responsible for these millions and millions and millions of copies of books…
Blume: Yes, but these are books about…
Heffner: …and you are the one who’s up there in the, in the demands that are being made to take this book off the shelf.
Blume: Not so much when they were published, remember. That’s…I mean that’s an interesting part of this…
Blume: …these books were published in the early 70s at a…I was very lucky because I felt as a writer, free to write from the gut, from deep inside. I know, I remembered what is was like to be a child and I wanted to write that kind of reality…about real feelings and real families. I forget what we were saying…what were we saying? (Laughter)
Heffner: You, you were suggesting just now that…
Blume: Oh, things have changed.
Heffner: Things have changed. You mean they’ve gotten tighter…they’ve gotten…
Blume: Well, politically…
Heffner: …tighter for book writers.
Blume: No, they’ve gotten…maybe…but, but what’s happened of course, is that we didn’t have the kind of organized groups who are set on banning books in the 70s. Maybe there were one or two isolated complaints. There wasn’t any joint effort the way there is today to remove books from schools and libraries. And, and that’s even changed. When that first started really in a big way after the 1980 presidential election and the censors came out of the woodwork overnight. I think if you talk to the ALA “Freedom to Read” Committee, they’ll tell you challenges to books quadrupled in a week following the election.
Heffner: Effectively, Judy? I mean, would you say…
Blume: Well, I think it scared a lot of people. I think because schools didn’t have policies in place to deal with this, I think it frightened a lot of administrators. I used to correspond with a teacher, a young man who used my books in his classroom every year…he read them aloud. The kids talked about them. And then one year the Principal said to him, “No more Judy Blume books”.
Blume: Because…because “we don’t want trouble”…because “we don’t want controversy or confrontation here”. And that young man no longer teaches. He just felt that he didn’t want to teach in that kind of climate. The good news is…
Heffner: You know…
Blume: …there is good news…
Heffner: …you made me promise when I asked you to appear on the program, that it not be all the bad news…what is the good news?
Blume: Well, I mean the good news is…is that…is that schools…there’s a lot of good news, but that schools are now much more prepared so that if a parent comes in demanding removal of a book, and usually the parent hasn’t read the whole book…there is…there’s a regular policy, there’s a procedure that has to be followed. Children are becoming active in, in cases where books are challenged and they are going before school boards…with teachers, with parents who are helping them. But there are at least three or four that I know about where the kids have gone before the school board and because kids can make their point really do much better, I think, then I could if I had to defend my own books which I never want to do…it’s up to the readers to defend the books. The kids somehow make these adults understand that he books aren’t dangerous, that they aren’t harmful, that to them they aren’t controversial. They’re about feelings, and they can explain why they’re important.
Heffner: You mean feelings are not dangerous? Come on, now.
Blume: Well, I don’t think feelings are dangerous.
Blume: What would we do without feelings?
Heffner: I’m not suggesting, and I don’t think anyone ever would suggest that we be without feelings. But, again, I go back to my first question…as to the level or degree of your empathy, which is so great, for the feelings of the children, of the kids.
Blume: But I’m a parent, too. So I know the other side of the coin.
Heffner: You know it, but how empathetic are you to the strivings, to the, to the concerns…my gosh parents must today…different from the 1940s, Lord knows different from the 1920’s, the period of my youth.
Blume: But I would…what I would want to say to them…I would want to say, “Please don’t worry. Don’t worry about your child reading a book because you can read the same book and then you can talk about it”.
Heffner: But isn’t, isn’t that the point…and you, you emphasized it before…in terms of time, the older notion of share it with your child…yes, just as you said so touchingly “Let your child read the book…read it with her or read it with him and then discuss and understand…your values then will be communicated”. But we live in a world in which time is not even of the essence. It isn’t there.
Blume: Well, I get, you know, thousands of letters from kids every year and, and what they write about more than anything else, what they wish for is that their parents had more time for them. So, maybe that’s what we have to talk about. You know, I, I can’t sit down with the religious fanatics who want to ban books, or the extreme Right groups, other than religious. I once tried to debate them on a television show, and I realized that that’s not the way for me to go, because you can’t, because they believe what they believe. And so the only thing you can say is that, again, if you don’t want your child to read a book, okay that’s between you and your child, but you cannot dictate to everyone else what their children can read. I wouldn’t be able to put my arms around them and say, “Please don’t worry. It’s going to be okay”, because we’re on different planets.
Heffner: Judy, let me…let me extend the question. Given what you say about time and your recognition of what it means to children to share things with their parents, and the importance for parents to do so…what does this lead you to feel, as an individual about our whole movement of the past half-century, of taking mothers out of the home, and fathers, too, because we’re no longer back to shorter time in the office…we’re back into many more hours, more and more hours away from home. What’s your sense about our society, our culture…what do you want to see happen?
Blume: I wish I had an answer for you, as a woman who came of age at a time when I wasn’t taught that I had many options or opportunities, when I was brought up to feel that I would marry and stay home and raise children. It would be very hard for me to say to women out there, “Don’t work”, because I don’t know what would have happened in my own life if I hadn’t found work, and very soon after I had babies. On the other hand, I was really lucky because I found work that I could do at home. My daughter just had a baby as you know…we young grandparents here…
Heffner: Ho, ho, ho…speak for yourself.
Blume: And she was a commercial airline pilot, and she doesn’t want to fly anymore and leave the baby. She wants to be at home, but she wants to work.
Heffner: But you know, I’m not going to let you simply say, “I really don’t know what I think about this”, or “I really don’t know what I’m going to advise”. You’re too important. You’re too integral a part of the making of public opinion. You’ve got to take a stand. You’ve got to say somewhere along the line “Look, this is what I’ve seen. This is what I’ve liked and this is what I’ve deplored, and therefore I think we ought to do so and so as public policy”.
Blume: Oh, really. You’re…you think you can make me do that? No, you can’t make me do that.
Heffner: Don’t you want to, really?
Heffner: Don’t you feel the obligation?
Blume: No…I feel I don’t have the answers…that’s what I feel. I don’t know yet. I think each family has to look at how the children are getting along and growing and make decisions for themselves. But if you don’t, if the children aren’t a number one consideration, then we’re in real trouble. I think you know…our friend Nora Ephron…I just read in the paper the other day said, “What’s wonderful for Mommy’s career, is usually terrible for the children”.
Heffner: Okay. Okay. What do we do then?
Blume: What do we do? I…truly…I don’t know what we do. I think this has to evolve. I don’t know, we’re not at that point yet. We, we haven’t seen enough yet. What do you think we’re going to do?
Heffner: You know, you know what I felt like doing now…
Blume: I can’t answer…
Heffner: I was thinking to myself…”Now I’m just going to sit here. I’m going to close my mouth…”
Blume: Right, and she’s going to put her foot in her mouth…
Heffner: And Judy’s going to…no, no, no…Judy’s going to have to, she can’t put a period at the end of that sentence…
Blume: How can I know? How can I know?
Heffner: You make your bets, you make your choices, you, you, you…having lived through your life experience…
Blume: My bet…my bet is that, is that people are, are going to tire of the frantic lives that many of us lead. And they are going to want something else, but I don’t think it’s going to be Mom-at-home-all-the-time. I think it’s going to be something in between.
Heffner: Business, or course, has to make that possible. The professions have to make that possible.
Blume: Well, yes. It would be very nice if you could go to business and your children…I visited…I visited a small company in California, a very small company that had a wonderful area where parents brought the children and the children were there and then went and had lunch with the children, and they went and played with the children on their breaks.
Blume: Something’s going to have to happen, but I don’t know what it is.
Heffner: Now do you, do you deal with this question in your books? And I haven’t read enough of them to know.
Blume: I haven’t really dealt with it yet. I’m writing a book right now about a family that has one disruptive child…a family with three children, and what one disruptive child does to a family of high-achievers in the work place. Mom is becoming a judge during the course of this book, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. She’s not going to give up her work.
Heffner: Why do you say it like that?
Blume: Because I know her.
Heffner: You say, “She’s not going to give up her work!”
Blume: Well, because I know this woman, I’m writing a book about her. And anyway that is not going to answer the problems that this family is having. These children are all teenagers.
Heffner: But if Mom had given up her work before they became teenagers you’re suggesting…
Blume: Would it be different?
Heffner: I’m asking.
Blume: I’m not…not at all certain that it would be different. My mother was home full-time. My brother and I are very different. And we had problems because all kids have problems growing up. That’s too simplistic an answer. You’re not going to get me to say that. Having a parent at home all the time is a simplistic answer. We want an answer, but that’s not it.
Heffner: How different do you think we’re going to be then…as a people…if we don’t go in that direction and my bet, as I think yours is, is that we won’t. Do you think that we are now planning for the kind of society, for the kind of people we will be, where the kinds of questions we begin to discuss…what our children shall read, what we should do about what they read, etc.?
Blume: Well, I think that they’re…with the present government, children are nothing. And I think until the whole country, including the government, says “Children are important and we had better start thinking about them in terms of importance, more important than anything else, really”, we’re not going to get anywhere because I think we need all kinds of new educational policies. I don’t feel qualified to talk about this. This is…these are my own personal feelings about how our kids are educated.
Heffner: Oh, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard…you’re talking about feelings.
Blume: Those are my feelings.
Heffner: What’s the matter with talking about your feelings?
Blume: What I see is that not enough attention is paid to children, either by the government or in very many cases by the, even by schools, even by the teachers. They’re not cherished, they’re not, they’re not number one…ever. They’re usually at the bottom of the barrel.
Heffner: It’s strange that we as a people have so long thought about ourselves that we are so child-centered…
Heffner: …we do everything in terms of our children.
Blume: Never. That’s, that is a myth…
Heffner: And that’s a myth I think that we’ll discuss at another point. Judy, our time is up, but I wanted to thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
Blume: Thank you for having me.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.