Judy Blume, edited by Jennifer O’Connell


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!



International Women’s Day – 10 influential female authors


Seeing as it’s International Women’s Day, and seeing as we’re getting a film version of “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret” and a TV series of the “Malory Towers” books (please, please don’t let them mess them up!), let’s have a list of ten female authors whose books have played a big part in my (admittedly not very exciting) life  These aren’t necessarily my favourite authors, or the authors of my favourite books, but they’ve all been significant.  Starting with Enid Blyton, because most things start with Enid Blyton.  And ending with Helen Fielding, because Bridget Jones shows us that, even once you accept that you’re never going to be Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara or Emma Harte, all women are still heroines in their own way.

  1. Enid Blyton – I did read Chicken Licken and Huckle the Cat and various other things, when I was about 3, but then I got into the Noddy books and the Amelia Jane books, and, for the next few years, it was all about Enid Blyton.  The adventure stories, the mystery stories, and, of course, the school stories.  People can say what they like about Enid Blyton, but she has a unique place in our culture, and (for what it’s worth!) in my life.  She gets kids into reading.  That’s important

2.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer – starting with Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School, when I was 8.   The Chalet School books are the greatest school stories ever.  My first holiday without my mum and dad (unless you count a school trip to Paris) was to Austria.  And, from October 2004 – OMG, that’s over 15 years ago! – onwards, I’ve been privileged to be part of a wonderful online community which I just can’t imagine life without, and that all started with the Chalet School books.  I don’t know where I’d be otherwise, I really don’t!

3.  Judy Blume – as well as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, my particular favourites are It’s Not the End of the World and Deenie, but, between the ages of about 10 and 13, I read most of her books (the ones which were around then).  And, yes, I read Forever.  Everyone read Forever!  I will never be able to meet anyone called Ralph without sniggering.  But Margaret’s the standout heroine … although I did spend several years giving every day a grade, like Karen did!  Judy Blume wrote (and still writes) about all the things which Girls’ Own authors didn’t, but never in a prurient or sensationalist way.  I forget who, but one author said that Judy Blume taught her all she needed to know about being a girl.  I wouldn’t go that far, but her books are definitely important.  Also, Forever was our “naughty book”.  All groups of tweenagers/teenagers should have a “naughty book” – it’s a rite of passage!

4.  Barbara Taylor Bradford.  The transition phase!  Moving on from what are now called “young adult” books to Proper Grown Up ’80s blockbusters.  OK, OK, A Woman of Substance was actually published in the late ’70s, but I didn’t read it until the mid-’80s.  For a lot of people in my class, the infamous Virginia Andrews books were the transition books, but for me it was all about Emma Harte, the ultimate ’80s rags-to-riches heroine, the Northern working-class woman who made it in a man’s world.  None of BTB’s other books are anything like as good, but that one was the first Big Grown Up Book I read, and it was a really good one.

5. Jane Austen – whose books I keep coming back to, over and over again.  They’re over 200 years old and they still say so much.  Helen Fielding could borrow heavily from them in the 1990s and still be completely relevant.

6. Colleen McCullough – I don’t think any other book I’ve ever read, not even the greatest novel of all time (coming up next!) has the sort of emotional and descriptive passages that The Thorn Birds does.  It is incredible.  I’m always quoting bits of it, usually to myself, when I’m being melodramatic … which is quite often.  Oh, to be able to write like that!  I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they’re just not a patch on it, but that one book … what an achievement.  It says so much about how people think and feel, and just how people work.  Meggie’s the heroine, and Justine’s the one who gets to live happily ever after, but the most interesting character is Fee (Fiona).  I often think about things that Fee said.

7.  Margaret Mitchell – because Gone With The Wind is the greatest novel ever written.  No, it wouldn’t be written today, but it wasn’t written today.  The characters, the emotion, the way it draws you in, the strength of the book and the strength of Scarlett O’Hara. And Scarlett and Ashley – the sadness of loving someone with whom you can’t connect.  I once decided to re-read the whole book in a day, and I was in bits afterwards, even though it wasn’t the first time I’d read it, because how do you deal with coming down from that?  And, ultimately, it’s about female survival. Yes, Rhett’s the one who helps Scarlett out in times of crisis – and, weirdly, I quote Rhett even more than I quote Scarlett – but it’s Melanie who’s really got her back, and it’s about Scarlett and Melanie both surviving, in their different ways, when their world collapses.  No Gotterdammerung for either of them.

8. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Her Morland books and her recent War At Home books are good, but her Kirov Trilogy‘s her crowning achievement, for me, and they’re the best Russian historical fiction books I’ve ever read.  They really took me much deeper into Russia, into Russian history and culture, than I’d been before … and I’ve never really come out!  I think Annette Motley’s Men on White Horses was the first adult Russian historical fiction book I read, and even that was a couple of years after I’d really got into Russian history, but the Kirov books are special.

9.  Jean Plaidy  – not because her books are all-time classics, but because, even after getting a degree in “medieval and modern history”, I still didn’t quite get medieval history until Jean Plaidy’s books showed me how fascinating it could be.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Anne O’Brien and Sharon Penman actually write better medieval historical fiction than Jean Plaidy did, but hers were the ones I came too first.  At school, we had one year of medieval history, which was largely about motte and bailey castles and the lives of monks.  Why would anyone think that 11-year-old girls wanted to know about the lives of monks?!  At university, it was German emperors and Anglo-Saxon peasants.  Hardly anyone signed up for the optional medieval history modules, after that: everyone flocked to the modern history ones.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for showing me what all those teachers, doctors and professors failed to!!

and finally … 10. Helen Fielding.  You think that you’re going to be part of the in-crowd at school, and have lots of adventures.  Failing that, you at least think people are going to play fair by you, if you try to be nice to them.  Judy Blume does, to be fair, help you to accept that sometimes they’re not – Blubber is great for that.  Then you hope that’s life’s going to be full of romance, like it is in Jane Austen books, and success, like it is in Barbara Taylor Bradford books.  Or that, even if you’re not destined to be the person who gets it all, at least it’ll be full of drama and emotion, like it is for Jean Plaidy’s royal heroines, for Meggie, for Anna (in the Kirov books) and, most of all, for Scarlett.  And then you realise that you’re getting upset because you’ve put on 2lbs even though all you’ve been doing is lying in bed overnight, and that you’re running late for work again, not that you actually want to go to work, and that everyone else seems to have everything way more sorted than you.  It’s not good.  That is not how heroines’ lives turn out.  But, hooray, there is Bridget Jones, the heroine whose life hasn’t turned out like heroines’ lives are supposed to do either!  So, yep, Bridget shows us that we’re actually all heroines.

And there are always books … to take you wherever and whenever you want to go to.

So hooray for Bridget, hooray for books, and hooray for wonderful female authors.

“Honourable mentions” for Laura Ingalls Wilder, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, Sue Townsend, Charlotte Bronte, Maisie Mosco, Helen Forrester, Maeve Binchy (because everyone in my class at school was obsessed with one of her books, in 1988), Pamela Belle and Reay Tannahill.   But that would have been another 10, and then I’d have thought of another 10 …