Judy Blume, on top of the world (and her Key West bookstore)

Apr 21, 2023, 6:28 AM

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — At Books & Books, the nonprofit store Judy Blume and her husband have run for the past seven years, you will find her own work in various sections: from general fiction, among the other “B”-named authors, to a shelf dedicated exclusively to her — a name unto herself.

For more than 50 years, since her breakthrough novel “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret,” Blume has been a proud member of the literary community and a citizen of special status. She is an eager promoter of other people’s works, whether on social media or at her store. She is also a literary celebrity of the rarest kind, who has not only sold millions of books, but moved young readers so profoundly that, as adults, they approach her in tears and thank her.

“I remind them of their childhood,” she likes to say.

Now 85, Blume has never been forgotten, but she is currently enjoying renewed interest. For the first time, one of her books has been adapted into a major Hollywood film: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is written and directed by a new documentary, “Judy Blume Forever,” which includes tributes from Molly Ringwald, Tayari Jones, Jason Reynolds and many others.

“She just really got what it was like to be that age,” Craig says. “And I think at that age it’s meaningful to see yourself reflected back at you.”

Books & Books, located on a corner just a block off the main drag, has become a destination in Key West, like the former home of Ernest Hemingway and the “Little White House” once favored by Harry Truman. Blume says that she and her husband, George Cooper, expected around 80% of their customers to be locals and the remainder tourists.

The opposite has been true, even though Blume doesn’t come in every day. An email recently sent to the store reads: “Hello there, I would love to know if Judy will be at the store between Thursday and Sunday. I would love to meet this brilliant mind from my childhood, and have a book signed by her. Thanks so much.”

Wearing a white buttoned shirt and tan clamdigger pants, Blume spoke in late March from a favorite refuge — the roof of her bookstore’s building, looking out on a muggy, cloudy morning over the island city in which she and Cooper live for most of the year.

“I have no private life anymore,” she laments with a smile, reflecting on press events from Los Angeles to the independent movie theater just down the street. The Tropic Center, co-founded by Cooper, hosted an early screening of Craig’s film during an event where Blume was presented with a key to the city.

In the afterword to one of her most autobiographical novels, “starring sally j. freedman as herself,” Blume remembered being “curious, imaginative, a worrier” when she was a girl, qualities she clearly has retained. She is as likely to ask you about your life as she is to answer questions about her own. She speaks of everyday concerns, among them the sound of thunder.

Blume has not written a full-length book since “In the Unlikely Event,” published in 2015. But she is never far from her 12-year-old self, the self of “Are You There God?” and other books, the age when she was “on the brink,” as she calls it, looking ahead to a life that has been her happiest and most surprising creation.

“When I look into a kid’s eyes, when one of them comes into the bookstore, I can feel a connection,” she says.

Born Judith Sussman to a dentist and housewife and raised in New Jersey, she is a lifelong reader and lifelong storyteller. But she had no Judy Blumes to turn to as a child, no books affirming her deepest thoughts or guiding her through physical and emotional changes. Like countless women of her generation, she was expected to marry and raise a family, and fulfilled those promises early: She married John Blume in 1959, in her early 20s, and had two children within the next five years.

But by the end of the 1960s, the wife and mother was becoming a professional writer. She published the children’s book “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo” in 1969, soon followed by “Iggie’s House” and, based in part on her early adolescence, “Are You There God?”

“I remember things. I have a really good memory. And I wanted to be honest about sixth grade,” she says. “It was a year of obsession with bodily development. I wanted to be normal. I was a late developer, a tiny kid, and I just wanted to be like everybody else.”

She has since written more than a dozen books, sold more than 80 million copies and challenged many taboos: Teenage sex in “Forever,” masturbation in “Deenie,” divorce in “It’s Not the End of the World” (Blume and her first husband divorced in 1975, three years after “It’s Not the End of the World” was published). Her power isn’t only in what she writes, but the voice she writes in — confiding and inquisitive, open and matter-of-fact about the most sensitive topics, as if sharing secrets with friends unseen.

“These are not books to be read aloud in a classroom,” Blume says. “These are books to take into your bed. They are personal and intimate.”

Censors have offered their own kind of tribute to Blume by trying to keep young people from reading her. “Forever,” “Are You There God?” and “Deenie” have been frequently challenged and complained about over the past 30 years, according to the American Library Association. Blume noted that a bill being considered by the Florida House would ban discussion of menstrual cycles in elementary schools, legislation that reminds her of a local principal in New Jersey who objected to “Are You There God?” when it was first published.

“He said, ‘I can’t have girls in our school reading about this.’ And I’m like, ‘Do you know how many girls in the fifth and sixth grade have already had their periods?’” Blume says. “Now, look what’s going on in Florida. You have girls being told not to talk about menstruation. What are you going to do? Of course they’re going to talk about it.”

The adaptation, which also stars Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates, has the explicit material of the original book, and a sentimental feel that only time can add. While writing the book, Blume set her story in what was then the present — the late 1960s to early 1970s. The film takes place in the same era, a choice Blume insisted upon.

“This book cannot be updated because of the electronics. I don’t want them to have phones. I don’t want them to be texting,” she says of the film’s characters. Blume added that she didn’t envision young people as the movie’s primary audience.

“It’s not for the kids, although they can go — they’re welcome to go, I hope they do,” she says. “It’s a nostalgia piece. And it’s really for the people who grew up with it. It’s girls’ night out.”

Blume had long resisted requests to grant the film rights, but changed her mind a few years ago. She had loved “Edge of Seventeen,” a coming-of-age story released in 2016, and was open to meeting with Craig after the filmmaker emailed her. Authors have had a long, troubled history with the filming of their books, but Blume says she could not be happier. She has enthusiastically promoted the project, citing just one objection she raised during the production — an objection that could only come from her.

In one of the book’s most famous passages, Margaret and her friends chant “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” with an accompanying exercise. But Blume noticed something off in how the kids were moving their arms.

“I discovered I had been doing it wrong for 30 years,” Craig says. “All my friends, when we we were little, we’d kind of clap our hands together and push them real hard and flex our muscles. That’s the way it was going in my mind. And Judy says, ‘No, no, no, that’s not how you do it. You clench your hands and pull your arms back.’”

“I was happy she was there that day,” Craig added. “I couldn’t get such an iconic moment wrong. I would have had to go back and film it again.”

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Judy Blume, on top of the world (and her Key West bookstore)