When I read the news this week that Judy Blume has breast cancer, I reacted as if she were a favorite aunt.
Oh no—not Judy!
After all, Aunty Jude stood by me (and countless other women in my generation) throughout my awkward and angsty adolescence. She answered embarrassing questions and assured me that the things I was feeling were normal.
No, her books are not literary masterpieces.
The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo is no To Kill a Mockingbird. No one should dare compare the prose of Forever with that of A Separate Peace. And Deenie isn’t even in the same league as Little Women.
But whereas I devoured all six of those novels around the same time—and count the three critical darlings among my all-time favorites—let’s just say I had to look up the name of one of the authors to remind myself (coughcoughJohnKnowlescoughcough).
Judy Blume, on the other hand, was one of us—she became a character unto herself. She may have been older, but she got us. She didn’t talk down to us and she didn’t sugarcoat our often-excruciating coming-of-age experiences.
She was my go-to source on everything from bras to bullying.
As Emma Stone’s character in the movie “Easy A” said: “I always thought that pretending to lose my virginity would be a little more special. Judy Blume should’ve prepared me for that.”
She taught me that all girls worry their breasts will never grow (“We must, we must, we must increase our busts”), and not to fear menstruation. (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret)
She assured me that sibling rivalry is normal, but that when it matters, it won’t matter. (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge)
She urged me to take risks. (Tiger Eyes and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great)
She convinced me that I should be well prepared when deciding to have sex—mentally, emotionally and contraceptively. And that I should never, ever name my child Ralph. (Forever)
She warned me to watch out for parents who might try to "pigeonhole" me into certain labels, characteristics or professions. (Deenie)
She made me think it might be fun to be a writer—especially if I could produce a publication (“Newsdate with Sheila the Great”) whose title rhymes. (Otherwise known as Sheila the Great.)
She encouraged me to stand up to bullies—and that I never want to be someone who forces a peer to strip in a school bathroom or makes her say, "I am Blubber, the Smelly Whale of Class 206" or feeds her chocolate-covered ants. (Blubber)
She informed me that boys go through puberty, too—and that I should always close my curtains when I’m changing. (Then Again, Maybe I Won't)
She reminded me that good friends are hard to come by—and that there is something special about the ones who have known you for most of your life. (Summer Sisters)
She confirmed that it’s okay to think about, talk about (and even practice) masturbation. (Deenie)
She made me enraged about racial bigotry—and prodded me to voice my opinions even if they differ from those of family and friends. (Iggie’s House)
She told me that girls can be cruel—and that if ever confronted with “slam books,” I should run the other way. (Otherwise known as Sheila the Great.)
The prolific Judy Blume gained legions of young fans by writing so candidly about these subjects, but she paid a price. Her books were (and in some cases still are) among the most banned in libraries.
Nonetheless, more than two decades later, I’m realizing she also taught me something about parenting.
In an interview, she once said, “Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear.”
Today, that concept is perhaps the most important tenant of my parenting philosophy, extending far beyond the censorship of books. I tell my boys that no topic is off the table, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
And if my children grow up to tackle difficult subjects head-on, without fear and moral outrage, I know Judy Blume will be partly to thank.