Last night I drove with my wife and another university librarian (our education librarian, who oversees our children and young-adult literature collection on campus) to Madison to attend a lecture by Judy Blume. Blume’s speech was part of the larger Wisconsin Literary Festival underway this week, but her specific appearance was at the invitation of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a youth-lit organization my wife belongs to; Blume was giving the 11th Annual Charlotte Zolotow Lecture, named for a children’s-lit editor and author and anti-censorship activist who attended UW-Madison in the 1930s.
Like most kids in this country, I read Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when I was myself in fourth grade. And, like most kids in this country, I thought that book was about me. Blume has an almost eerie ability to tap the minds of young people and write about our universal confusions, questions, explorations, and discoveries as we grow up. Because of her ability to access our universal experiences, her books have long felt timeless: I was surprised to learn, as an adult, that Tales had been published a full four years before I was even born; she so convincingly related to my own experiences I was long convinced the book was contemporary, that Tales could only have appeared the year I read it, when I was in fourth grade. More amazing still is the revelation that the book’s sequel, Superfudge, didn’t appear until 1980, eight years after its predecessor, yet none of the characters had aged more than a few years and the sequel felt just as contemporary as the first, as though they had appeared back-to-back (which, incidentally, is how I read them). Most of her character-series (the Sally Freedman books, the chronicles of Fudge and his family, the saga of the Great One and the Pain) follow that pattern, some letting whole decades lapse between books. Yet every one of them feels new, familiar, contemporary, and, because of this, timeless.
Blume‘s fiction shares another magic, related to or perhaps even the cause of her timelessness–she writes with superb realism. We connect with her books because they are about us, our lives, the real world in which we live and fear and love. And it is this second quality that sometimes–thankfully–gets her into trouble. Some people feel Blume’s fiction is too real, that it exposes children and teenagers to subjects they should not be exposed to (underwear, death, sex, religious doubt, etc.). The truth is, Blume is simply describing the reality in which children and teenagers already live; she is voicing the questions and doubts and fears and curiosities that children and teenagers are already longing to express, and in acting as a voice for them, Blume is helping them make sense of their world. “How can children possibly understand when no one tells them what’s going on?” Blume asked toward the end of her speech. “They live in fear and confusion, and have to invent their own truths.”
Blume’s speech last night dealt with issues of censorship and intellectual freedom, but she spent most of her time focused on her own career as a writer. Brilliantly, she organized the speech into three “chapters,” which followed her brief introduction explaining how she’d been invited and how nervous she was to be following previous Zolotow Lecturers Lois Lowry and Patricia MacLachlan (whom Blume called “Patty”). She also asked a question, which she waited till later to answer: are storytellers born or made? (She was careful to clarify, though, that in her view “storytelling and writing are not the same thing.”)
The “chapters” of her speech-proper were all centered on fear, beginning with her own childhood fear of sharing her made-up stories. The closest she came to sharing her own fiction, she said, was a period in the fifth grade when she would have to give book reports in school. As a child, she had almost unlimited access to books–her parents never wanted to censor what she read or protect her from books other people felt she wasn’t ready for, though her aunt did instill an almost religious reverence for the printed word, making Blume wash her tiny hands and display them for inspection, palms and backs and fingernails, before allowing the young girl to even touch a book. Her parents also frequently took her to the public library and let her spend hours reading from the shelves, anything she could reach and pull down to the floor where she sat. Consequently, she quickly read through everything available at her age level and began very early to read books well beyond her “appropriate” reading group. She described reading books like Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead at a very early age; even if she didn’t fully understand what she was reading, she felt compelled to always have a book in hand, and even as she grew older would continue to read anything she could pull off the shelf. (Later, she related how so many of her family members, including her uncles, had died while she was growing up–“I spent my childhood in shiva,” she said–and her mother had developed the habit of constantly knitting sweaters because, as Blume explained, “God wouldn’t take her in the middle of a sleeve.” Blume, who was attached to her father and worried about his safety, decided to read books in order to save his life; she became convinced that if she always was in the middle of a book, God wouldn’t dare take her father–as though Blume’s salvation could be passed along to her father. It was a touching moment.)
As a result, when Blume was in fifth grade, she knew she couldn’t give a book report in class on anything she was currently reading because no one would understand the material she was reading–or, worse, everyone would think she was “weird.” Instead, when book report days arrived, she would stand in front of the class and invent a book–title, author, and all–and spend her entire presentation expounding on the characters and themes of this imaginary creation. They were usually about horses, she said, because she had some idea that girls in her age group all liked horses (or were supposed to like horses), even though Blume herself was indifferent to horses.
Her second chapter dealt primarily with her discovery of fearlessness and her growth as a professional writer. And it was in this section that she revealed that, for her, storytellers are indeed born–that a true storyteller must have some innate ability and desperate need to tell stories. It’s not a view I completely buy into, but it’s not one I can much argue with, either, because I have certainly read people and met people I remain in awe of, people of whom, despite all my education and years analyzing the craft of writing, I continue to ask, “How did they do that?” I think this is perhaps why Blume made her early distinction between storytellers and writers, the implication being not only that writers can be made and that storytellers must be born, but also that some writers can study forever and never be storytellers and, conversely, that some storytellers can write forever and never be writers. This, I suppose, I might more readily agree with. Whatever the case, Blume clearly feels she is a storyteller, though she doesn’t attach any pride to this label or suggest she is in any way an accomplished writer. She seems to claim her status as storyteller mostly by merit of her continual surprise at her own work–even she doesn’t fully understand how she does what she does. “I’m not aware of where things come from,” she says, referring not only to her story ideas but also the craft of her books, though this latter she is inclined to credit to her early editor and mentor, Dick Jackson. She described one of her early meetings, to discuss her book Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, and despite her “professional” demeanor (she laughed that she had worn a yellow turtleneck with a plaid kilted skirt and go-go boots, because it made her feel “professional”), she claimed she was nervous through the whole meeting. Jackson kept asking her what her book was about, and she stammered through a very short list: “I don’t know. It’s about Tony, it’s about his family….” For Blume, everything revolves around character and dialogue; she struggles with plot and loathes descriptive writing (a view I’ve written on recently). But Jackson wasn’t after any of that. He didn’t want to know whom the story was about, but what is was about. “A book has to be about something!” he told Blume. Finally, they began working on a list of things the book could be about–not themes, precisely (“I hate themes!” Blume said while slapping the podium), but ideas, issues, even physical objects that became central to the narrative. This, she claims, is how she learned to focus her writing.
Still, she seems suspicious of craft and relishes the “freedom” of pursuing ideas outside analysis and criticism, the ease and joy of writing that can occur when we don’t have our educated self-editor on our shoulders. “It’s great not knowing anything when you’re starting out,” she says. “I envy people that now.” I can see her point, though I’ve recently been arguing against just this perspective with a friend of mine. I think the issue isn’t one of education ruining a writer, but of how we engage that education and what we do with it. I agree that some people pursue an education in writing–or some people teach writing–only to the point of introducing us to our shoulder imps with their forked tongues and their little red pens. We get to the point in our writing where everything we do is wrong, or at least everything we do could be better, and for some reason–we get fed up and leave too early, or our teachers through laziness or ignorance choose to take us only so far–we never get past the critic, we never learn how to set aside the education and rediscover the joy. I maintain that studying craft is important–perhaps vital–for a working writer, but I also remain a fan of the axiom that we must learn the rules in order to know how best to break them. There must be a way to re-access the joy in writing without abandoning the craft. My friend is in the process of struggling with that now–I hope successfully, and her recent blog posts sound promising. Blume claims to have found her method in setting aside the writing entirely until a story builds up in her and she can’t wait any longer to burst into her little writing room and sit down for her two hours a day. This, of course, is a luxury only an established writer can afford, but the result is the same–she finds a way to set aside whatever “rules” she’s learned in her long career and re-access the pleasure and necessity of writing.
Her final “chapter” moved from her own fearlessness in writing to combating the fear-mongering of censorship (Blume herself has been labeled “the most banned author in America” on a number of occasions), and intellectual freedom has become one of Blume’s most-championed causes, for which she has frequently been recognized. (She recently edited a collection of stories related to censorship, all written by banned authors; the collection is called Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers.) This is where I began this entry, and it’s where she would want me to leave it, so I’ll end by pointing out only two things: 1) Without ever revealing her candidate of choice (though it wouldn’t be hard to guess), Blume made several references to the debate we were all missing last night (and which she encouraged us to watch online later) and to what she perceived as the importance of this year’s election–“the most important election in my lifetime,” she said–and she urged us to act with our votes to preserve intellectual freedom and encourage an attitude of hope for our nation and our nation’s children. 2) She insisted, repeatedly and heatedly, that banning books creates ignorance and supporting intellectual freedom is a necessary component of any free society; we must, she said, work to preserve the First Amendment rights of our children as well as ourselves. Throughout this blog entry, I’ve placed links to various sites about intellectual freedom and Blume’s own efforts to protect books and the children who want to read them; please click on those links and take up Blume’s call to action.