Julie Buntin on the Uncanny Omniscience of Judy Blume
Tracing a Girlhood Through the Books That Predicted It
The cover of Freckle Juice was warped, as if someone—my mother, maybe?—had used it as a coaster. A peeling white ring distorted poor Andrew Marcus’s face, his fake freckles and buck teeth in the center of the bullseye. It drew me to him. I knew what it was like to be all wrong, even then, at what, five or six or so? I had glasses before any of the other kids on my street.
My family was weird—my dad, for example, was not really mine—and my baby sister did things like stick beads up her nose and scream all night long. Freckle Juice just appeared one day, as if summoned. Some of the pages were stuck together, as if the previous reader had done so with a glass of Sharon’s freckle juice in hand. I unstuck them with surgical attention. If I wasn’t careful, I might miss a sentence. It was a chapter book, a revelation—more words than pictures, which meant more places to disappear, more space to find myself.
It had a little illicit charge; I didn’t like adults to see me reading it. I always felt that way reading Judy Blume’s books—it’s one of the reasons I loved them. They knew too much. They were dispatches from my inner world, so attuned to the storms of childhood and adolescence I blushed while reading their pages. Judy Blume’s books didn’t need to be bought, or checked out, or siphoned from the shelves at school. Instead, they seemed to find their way to me whenever I needed them. Impossible, of course, but that’s still what I believe, a kind of magic that trained me from an early age to look, when lost, for footing in books.
We moved a few times when I was in elementary school. There was a divorce, a remarriage, a bunch of stepsiblings, a new baby. I snuck chapters of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in the empty hallway closet, listening to my new stepfather and stepbrothers bicker as they filled the U-Haul with boxes. I didn’t have any friends—we were leaving all that behind—but I did have Peter Hatcher and his annoying little brother Fudge. I deeply related to Peter. We didn’t take my little sister out in public without an actual leash. She required more attention than me by a factor of one thousand. I would not put it past her to swallow a pet turtle.
I raced through the entire Fudge series as we packed up one house and unpacked another. On the playground at my new school, I solemnly informed a bunch of first graders that Santa wasn’t real—those nibbled carrots and half-eaten cookies were left by parents, a fact I’d long suspected, confirmed by Superfudge. When they asked me how I knew, I told them I’d read about it in a book (perhaps the first of many times I’d deploy that insufferable comment). I had a hard time making friends.
As a child and a preteen, I was dealt a standard deck of challenges: a blended family, the aforementioned moves, a whole mess of siblings. Typical stuff. But everyone else seemed so normal. I felt ashamed all the time, out of step. I worried I smelled bad, that everyone hated me; after a sleepover where a bunch of 12-year-old girls debated the merits of pads versus tampons, I became convinced my period hadn’t arrived because I wasn’t actually a girl.
Enter Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the story of a girl with very similar fears, an antidote I could carry with me anywhere, even to normal people’s houses, where I read it in the bathroom. I couldn’t talk to the other kids about what I was feeling, but Margaret knew, and that was enough.
In middle school everyone became obsessed with blow jobs. Two boys claimed, during gym, there was an eighth grader who was a “master,” who would teach you how for five dollars cash. No, blow jobs couldn’t get you pregnant or arrested, we didn’t think. It was very bad to be mentioned in connection with a blow job, but it was social death to not even be considered in the discussion. The best thing was to be in a kind of friendly proximity to the possibility, which I, a band kid with a palate extender, was not.
Around this time, Forever…, the story of a high school senior’s sexual awakening, made the rounds in what passed for my clique. We read, aloud, the passage where Michael teaches Katherine how to rub his penis (named Ralph) the way he likes it, as shocked by the open conversation about sexual desire as we were about the touching itself. A few years later, while weighing whether to “give my virginity” to my older boyfriend, I’d think of Katherine and Michael and feel empowered to ask questions, to decide for myself.Judy Blume’s books are secret messages, meant to be passed along.
It’s uncanny how precisely Judy Blume seemed to anticipate the peaks and valleys of my childhood, its moments of scathing humiliation and effervescent joy. Blubber, the story of Jill, a fifth grader who goes along with a campaign of cruelty against Linda, the heaviest girl in her class, captures better than anything I’ve ever read what it felt like to “talk shit” about someone in the bathroom, the sick relief of being included, the horrible shame of what you had to do—or were willing to do—to stay safe.
I remember, also, the detail of Jill’s mom being a smoker, how even that small thing made me feel seen. My mom smoked until I was 11 or so. One of the first times I had a new friend over, she told me at school she wasn’t allowed back: her mother had smelled smoke in her hair, and my house was now off-limits. In that same book—a major one for me—Jill and her friend Tracy do wild things, like pee on a neighbor’s tree, the kinds of things my friends and I were always daring each other to do, stuff we thought adults couldn’t even imagine.
Tiger Eyes talked frankly about parental loss and violence and panic attacks; Deenie offered a nuanced look at body issues, disability, and the pressure to be a certain kind of girl; It’s Not the End of the World confirmed that divorce can certainly feel that way when you’re in the middle of it. I read them all, shining a flashlight on the pages from the top bunk while my little sister snored in the bed below.
Sometimes I tucked them into my math textbook and read during class. They lived in my backpacks, in the pocket behind the passenger’s seat, piled up on the shelf because they were removed too many times to have a permanent home. They smelled like sour milk and smarties; I wrote messages to my friends in the margins, or notes to myself, little pen-drawn hearts not unlike Andrew Marcus’s markered freckles.
Summer Sisters showed up when I was 15 or so. I wasn’t the first to read it at the beach—my copy already had sand in the binding. Maybe it was a loaner from my best friend, sprawled out on the towel beside me. The novel, one of Blume’s handful for adults, traces the passionate friendship between Caitlin and Vix, two girls who collide in middle school and spend every summer together. They grow up and apart but their bond remains powerful, a force uniting them across time.
Reading it as a teenager, the summer scenes shimmered, so absorbing and truthful I don’t think I even noticed the frame, the adult storyline complicating every beat. It wasn’t until I revisited the book as an adult, years after publishing my own novel about a formative teenage friendship, years after my own summer sister died, that I realized Summer Sisters is also a story about loss, about the painful mysteries at the core of all great love. Somehow, Judy Blume had seen every side.
A handful of books from my childhood survived the journey to adulthood and live now on the shelves in my house. A hardcover edition of Little Women, received for some birthday and never actually read (I preferred the chewed-edge paperback with its serious, painterly cover); a few of the Stephen King novels that scared me most—The Stand and Pet Cemetary and It; and, oddly, a copy of Angela’s Ashes, which my mother, at the time of its publication, forbade me to read. Nothing by Judy Blume, not even Summer Sisters. Where did they go? Traded on the playground, left on a friend’s nightstand, stolen by my little sister.
When the weather turned, we often had a yard sale. Some of them probably left me that way. I’d spread the books out on a blanket, face up, and sit beside them, rereading. The pain and excitement I felt when one I loved was chosen! Judy Blume’s books are secret messages, meant to be passed along. I hope their next readers heard what I did: It’s okay. You belong here, too.