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.
"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."
I asked Blume if she ever thinks about who her characters might have become as adults.
"No, never!" she said. "And that's why, when people say, 'Oh, you've got to write a book about Margaret and menopause,' I say, 'Are you kidding me? Never!' Margaret is never going to be in menopause because she's always going to be 12. Leave her alone! No! Somebody else maybe would be in menopause, but not Margaret."
Throughout her career, Blume avoided signing book contracts in advance. "I just don't like anybody saying, 'How's it going? When is it going to be done?' I'm very good at setting goals and deadlines for myself, so I don't really need that from outside." She didn't even get around to securing an agent until after 'Margaret' was published.
"The big question," she said, "is what initially drew me to writing in the first place." Was she spurred on by the era itself, empowered by "The Feminine Mystique" and women's lib?
"Yes, I got caught up in that. But no, that's not when I started to write. Or why I started to write. No. My writing was my own need inside me. I had to do something. I was sick all the time. I was unhappy. I loved — I still do love — taking care of babies and little kids. But something was missing. I needed something else."
There were many misfires at first. "She had an ambition to be a writer," said Larry. "I remember that. And then I remember her working really hard at it. And I remember when she got rejections and she cried a lot. And I remember when she got her first acceptance.
"I was downstairs playing, I must have been really young, and she grabbed me and threw me up in the air and spun me around. 'I'm getting published! I'm getting published!'"
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I know you're there God. I know you wouldn't have missed this for anything! Thank you God. Thanks an awful lot...
I didn't cry that day on the phone with Blume. If I had, I'm not sure I could have stopped.
Judy Blume will appear at Lit Fest at 2 p.m., Sunday, June 9. Nina Metz covers film, TV and theater for the Tribune. See her story in A&E about the movie version of "Tiger Eyes."