Full title “Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume”. Hands up everyone who sniggers every time they hear the name “Ralph”. Come on, you do – admit it! How about giving every day for two years a grade (like Karen in “It’s Not the End of the World”)? OK, that was probably just me. Feeling overwhelming sympathy for Linda, the fat girl who was bullied in “Blubber”, and being intensely irritated by Jill, the peanut-butter-eating protagonist, as well as by Wendy, the main bully? Thinking about Deenie every time Princess Eugenie speaks about scoliosis? And, of course, there’s Margaret. I think Margaret’s got to be the stand-out character of all Judy Blume’s girls.
This book unfortunately wasn’t as interesting as I was hoping, though. It consisted of a series of short essays by umpteen different people, each only referring to one book, mostly saying that they identified with Karen because they also got divorced, or they identified with Margaret because they also had one Jewish parent and one Christian parent, or they identified with Tony because their family also moved to a different area where they found it difficult to fit in … etc etc etc. But it still brought back a lot of memories.
I’m not actually sure that I identified with any of the characters. Maybe it was partly because the books were very much set in New York/New Jersey, and the characters did things like trying out for cheerleading and joining the Y. Cheerleading I got, but there was no Google in the 1980s and I had absolutely no idea what the Y was. I’d have got “YMCA”, because of the Village People, but “Y” threw me completely. But I think it was mainly because they were all so confident (despite the protests that they weren’t) and a bit … er, forward. One of Karen’s friends used to spend her evenings ringing round all the boys in the class to ask what they thought of particular girls, and this was when they were 11!
It surprises me when I think just how young some of the characters were. Sally, Peter and Sheila were only, what, 10? Karen and Margaret were only 11. But then that’s the point. Margaret & co called themselves the Pre Teen Sensations! But, then again, that’s my point about confidence. No way in the world would my friends and I ever have called ourselves the anything “sensations”!
The books did teach us a lot, though. They talked about things that other books didn’t. Especially with Deenie and Margaret and, of course, with Katherine and Michael in “Forever”. Every generation has its “naughty” books which everyone’s read, and “Forever” was definitely one of ours.
And they were very down to earth. In K M Peyton’s “Pennington’s Heir”, Ruth Hollis and Patrick Pennington were forced into a teenage shotgun marriage after Ruth becomes pregnant during their first time. In “Forever”, Katherine and Michael were together for a while, then split up. By the end of the book, Katherine’d already got a new boyfriend lined up. So much for “Forever”. Karen’s parents did not reconcile when her brother Jeff ran away. Wendy did not repent in a dramatic showdown in the head’s study over how horrible she’d been to Linda: she just got fed up of Linda and started picking on Jill instead.
This was the sort of thing that the essays picked up on, and the main point was that every author was able to feel that “It’s not just me”. I’d like to have seen the essays talk a bit more about the books in general, though, rather than just focus on one book and how the author related to that. A couple of them were very good. One was an essay about how children get labelled, notably in “Deenie” where Deenie’s mum keeps telling everyone that Helen’s the brains and Deenie’s the beauty. A lot of children’s authors label their own characters, especially if they’re writing a series, and very few consider how the children felt about being “the clever one” or “the naughty one” or “the pretty one”. The other was about “Starring Sally J Freeman as Herself” where the author talked about being a child and feeling that adults are keeping secrets from you, and puts Sally’s mum’s worries into the context of an immediate post-war/post-Holocaust world. Sally’s book, and “Iggie’s House”, do stand out in that they address social issues as well as issues around friendship, romance, family problems and growing up.
So the book could have been a lot better, but, as I said, it brought back a lot of memories.
Just as an aside, I’ve been watching the new series of “Ackley Bridge”, and, gosh, am I glad that school bullies didn’t have all today’s technology to hand in my day! I’d love to read a Judy Blume book set in today’s world, where some nasty kid can superimpose a picture of another kid’s head on a porn star’s body, press send and, within the seconds, the whole school’s looking at it on Whatsapp. Or send nasty texts 24/7. And we thought we, and Margaret, Karen, Deenie et al, had problems! Or is it easier now, because schools all have “pastoral care” or whatever? Anyway, it’s not an easy age to be at, and Judy Blume books did help us all through it!