The first time I read Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" was on an eight-hour road trip over the winter holidays. I was 7. We were on our way to visit cousins and I was squeezed in the backseat with my two older brothers, sandwiched between a collection of teenage arms and legs. The weather was dicey that day, the roads slick. My brothers were asleep, and I was off in another world. New Jersey, to be precise, where sixth-grader Margaret Simon was encountering the first, exciting, uncertain moments of puberty and performing exercises accompanied by the hopeful chant: "I must — I must — I must increase my bust!"
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We didn't make it to my cousins' house that day. There was a terrifying accident: We spun out and crashed into something. Somehow we were all OK. The car, though, was undriveable and towed to a garage. We spent the night in a roadside motel. I remember watching a broadcast of the Beatles in "Help!" on TV and thinking the title seemed fitting. But really, we had little with which to amuse ourselves as our exhausted parents made plans to rent a car the next day. My oldest brother was a freshman in college at the time, and despite the age difference between us, always talked to me like an adult. I really, really loved that. That night, his curiosity piqued, off he went with my copy of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
The next day in the car, I found myself in an ad hoc book club with my 19-year-old brother. "Do you understand the things she's talking about in the book?" he asked.
Did I know about periods? Did I know about bras? Did I know about boys? I remember feeling embarrassed at the question. Of course I knew! I mean, not first-hand. No. But I knew about these things. At least I thought I did. Or that's what I told him.
"My guess is, at 7, you didn't know all that stuff before reading the book," Blume said last month from her home in Key West, Fla., where I reached her by phone. "You wouldn't admit to your teenage brother that you didn't know what you were reading! You would never have admitted that. It's like, 'Yes, I know what that is. Yes!'"
Blume — winner of the 2013 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize — and I have never met. We had never talked prior to this moment. But of course she would see so clearly what my memory had obscured: Almost certainly, I didn't know squat at the time.
But I most assuredly knew about these things after reading the book.
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else.
A confession: The thought of interviewing Judy Blume made me want to cry. I can't explain where this feeling came from, but it has something to do with how intimately intertwined her books were with my preteen years. Judy Blume knew the score. Judy Blume was my ally. Judy Blume was talking to me.
Relationships with authors are always so one-sided. They write; we obsess. But this tightness in my throat? This was embarrassing. Would a conversation with Blume open up a well of who knows what from my pre-pubescence?
As it happens, Blume, who will appear Sunday at Printers Row Lit Fest, was the one to tear up when we spoke.
Born in 1938 and raised in Elizabeth, N.J., she and third husband George, a retired law professor, keep an apartment in New York City but spend most of their time in Key West, where he runs an art house cinema and she continues to write. These last few years she's been focused on a movie adaptation of her 1981 novel "Tiger Eyes" — amazingly, it is the first film slated for theatrical release to be made from one of her books — directed by her son, Lawrence. (She also has a daughter, Randy, both from her first marriage.)
The movie opens in theaters next weekend and it has been an all-consuming project for Blume.
"I'm writing a novel right now," Blume said. "That's a joke because I've had to put it away these few months until the movie promotion is over and then I'll take it out again this summer. And anyway, I had to stop writing it for two years because we were involved with writing and making the movie. But it's OK. It's all right."
She paused. "I just have to live long enough to finish it."
Blume chooses her words carefully, stopping every so often to gather her thoughts. She is a cheerful conversationalist, and yet the monologue that followed was ruminative and self-reflective:
"But you know what? I've always felt that way. I grew up sitting shiva, do you know what that is? My father was the youngest of seven siblings. Nobody lived to be 60. My father died at 54. So I grew up sitting shiva and not just for those aunts and uncles. When I was 21, my father died that summer a few weeks before my wedding. And my 25-year-old cousin died earlier that spring, leaving a 2-year-old baby.
"So, I always felt surrounded by death."
Her voice cracked. There was a small, almost imperceptible sob. But just as quickly the moment was gone.