Judy Blume, forever

Judy Blume

"I'm like my mother," she continued. "My mother told me once that she had her talk with God whenever she started a new sweater: 'Please don't take me in the middle of the sweater.' And as soon as she finished knitting a sweater and it was blocked and put together, she already had the wool to start the next sweater so that nothing bad would happen.

"And when I started to write, I was in that same kind of hurry that mother had with her sweaters. I felt that the second I sent off a manuscript — this was even before anything was accepted for publication — I was on to the next one. And on to the next one. And on to the next one. Because I always felt that I, too, would die young."

Since 1969, Blume has published 29 books, garnering dozens of awards. Her son calls her highly disciplined. And if you read her website, you sense a fastidiousness as well: "I haven't eaten meat in more than 30 years," she writes. "I've never smoked, I exercise every day, forget alcohol — it's bad for my reflux — I've been the same weight my whole adult life."

Last summer Blume announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which she later wrote about on her blog in a post titled "!@#$% Happens." She had a mastectomy and reconstruction, but did not require chemotherapy or radiation. She said she is in good health today and she doesn't want anyone to make a fuss. "Really, I was very lucky," she said later by email.

Blume wrote about the experience with her signature straight-forwardness and humor, recounting an early meeting with her doctor: "'A-cups?' the breast surgeon asked at our first meeting. She nailed it. I told her the exercises didn't work for me. Not sure she got my attempt at a joke. Like Margaret, I used to think bigger was better."

Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I hate to remind you God...I mean, I know you're busy. But it's already December and I'm not growing.

Looking back on my own childhood, Blume's books served as decrypters. Like so many of her readers, I sought out her books when I was a few years younger than the protagonists because I wanted — needed — to know what came next. Her books unlocked the secrets of adolescence and sexuality. And in some quarters this made them controversial, reaching a fever pitch in the '80s. Five of her books were on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of the '90s and she was among the most challenged authors in 2005, along with Toni Morrison and J. D. Salinger. But there was pushback even earlier.

"I think Randy was in third grade when 'Margaret' was published (in 1970)," she said. It was Blume's third book and the one that put her on the map. "We had a big thing with the school principal who didn't want it in his library. I gave three copies to the school, and he wouldn't take them. That was the first time it ever occurred to me that menstruation could be seen as a taboo subject. And it was like, 'Whoa, this guy is nuts.'"

But of course her books are about so much more. Sibling rivalry. Grief. Deeply flawed parents. Religious confusion. We tend to think of her as the Professor of Puberty, but she's written for every age, from picture books for young readers to complex novels for adults.

"She's able to integrate so many serious things without you even noticing," said Lizzie Skurnick, who has written for the teen book series "Sweet Valley High," among others. "She's talking about things that are ordinary but that can actually be the most difficult, painful things in someone's life. What is it like when your parents get divorced? Or what is it like when you're the prettiest girl and then all of a sudden you have something that makes you feel gross?"

Blume's hold on readers — particularly, but not exclusively, women in their 30s, 40s and early 50s — is intense and ubiquitous. I'm not sure any of us could have imagined Blume was haunted by death when she wrote these books. "It was a great motivator," Blume said. "And then what happened was, I met George and I got happy. And I always say you need a lot of angst to write books. And I got happy. And that's 33 years of being happy. I haven't felt the same pressure."

Are you still there God? See how nice my bra looks now! That's all I needed — just a little help. I'll really be good around the house God. I'll clear the table every night for a month at least. Please God....

Fifteen years ago, Chicago improviser Susan Messing and the late Mary Scruggs (who headed up The Second City's training center) adapted the Judy Blume Holy Trinity — "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," "Deenie" and "Forever..." — for a show at the Annoyance Theater called "What Every Girl Should Know ... An Ode to Judy Blume."

The show was a hit and it ran for about a year, according to Messing: "People were lining up around the block as if it were a rock concert." Blume heard about the show after a review ran in the Tribune and sent a cease-and-desist letter. Messing convinced her to come see it in person. "We weren't doing a boinky, wacky parody of her stuff," said Messing. "We played it straight."

"Oh, the Annoyance Theater!" Blume later emailed. "I did come to see the show and I loved it! Great cast, very funny, all good. They did contribute a part of the box office to the National Coalition Against Censorship because I freaked out when I read the script as it was word-for-word taken from my books. But after I saw the show, I melted. The audience, who had grown up with my books, loved it."

"Every year, in her name, I still donate to the National Coalition Against Censorship," Messing said. "It's always in Judy's name." The biggest mystery of all is why the show hasn't been revived since, or staged in New York.

One can only imagine the kind of reception it would get, because Blume's influence is everywhere. I notice it especially on TV shows created by women who clearly read her books. The season finale of "The Mindy Project" last month featured Mindy Kaling's character with her own "Are you there God?" moment. This isn't surprising. Kaling and Blume have chatted via Twitter more than once.

"I think Margaret talking to God is iconic," Kaling said by email. "I definitely think there is a theatricality to it that I love, and the Mindy character treating God as a best friend and therapist is inspired from that book."

Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I did an awful thing today. Just awful! I'm definitely the most horrible person who ever lived and I really don't deserve anything good to happen to me.

I asked Blume's son, who goes by Larry, what it's like when people find out his mother is Judy Blume. "I suppose maybe I could have used it in high school to get dates," he said, laughing. "I think by the time I got to college and certainly as I got older I would hear, 'Oh, your mother raised me!' or 'I learned everything about sex from your mother's books,' or 'She must have been the greatest mom ever because she was so open.' It's incredible that she has these multiple generations of fans."