Tales from a since-third-grade fangirl: Judy Blume in conversation with Tom Ashbrook

Last night, a bookstore dear to my heart hosted an author dear to my heart. And my heart was glad.

Photo by Shoshana Flax Photo by Shoshana Flax

blume_in the unlikely eventTo put it another way, Brookline Booksmith hosted Judy Blume in conversation with Tom Ashbrook at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The event was in honor of her new adult novel, In the Unlikely Event, but as Ashbrook listed some of her other work and various pockets of the audience clapped and cheered, it became obvious that virtually everyone in the room felt a connection with at least one of her previous books. (Or, um, all of them.)

In the historical novel, Blume circles back to events from her youth in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where three planes crashed in the space of two months in the winter of 1951–52. She and Ashbrook discussed the catharsis of writing about this chapter of her formative years. “Since I wrote this book, I can sleep on a plane,” she said.

But the conversation gave at least as much weight to her writing for younger audiences, and her respect for readers of all ages was clear. She said that although she’s often cited as a pioneer of young adult literature, she doesn’t see most of her work as YA, except for Forever and maybe Tiger Eyes. Most of her books, she said, are more for “kids on the brink,” who are still approaching the teen years. There were, of course, questions about the sometimes sensitive topics she’s exposed for young readers, but she said that she doesn’t think about topics as much as stories and characters when she sets out to write a book. She “got no grief” from publishers in the 1970s, but said her books were challenged in the more conservative 1980s. “Censors don’t care about books kids don’t love,” she said, citing — and praising — Sherman Alexie’s oft-challenged The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One audience member, who’d been reading the Fudge books aloud to her daughters, asked if it was okay to “censor” a passage in which the mother is away and the father leaves dishes in the sink for her return. Blume responded that she’d rather the questioner read the passage with her daughters and laugh about the dad’s avoidance of housework.

The question that got the strongest reaction came from one of the very few under-eighteen audience members (and features a Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing spoiler): “Why does the turtle die?” Blume replied that she’s only begun to hear that question recently, decades after the book’s publication. She gave a simple explanation of how the turtle was removed after being swallowed by a rambunctious child and that a tummy "just wasn't a very good place for Dribble." “Did that make you feel bad?” she asked. The young girl nodded and replied that Dribble’s death had made her sad, to lots of awwww-ing from the audience.

The mass of Fudge fans, Margaret fans, Summer Sisters fans, and the rest adjourned to the signing line at the bookstore. When my turn came to gush in person, intrepid events director Tom Wickersham introduced me as a former Booksmithie now working for The Horn Book. “I used to be terrified of The Horn Book,” Blume confessed as she signed my Unlikely Event.

Well, Judy, you’ve got at least one big fan here. (More, I imagine.) And a reread of at least one of your books in the near future is a very likely event.

Videos and more photos of the evening are available here.

Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, associate editor of The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. She has served on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and Sydney Taylor Book Award committees.

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