Judy Blume’s Updates

While on the subway yesterday, I was listening to “Wait, Wait! Don’t Tell Me” on my iPod. (This is a peek into the life of the Urban Nerd.) Anyway, Judy Blume was a guest and she mentioned that she had “updated” some of her more popular novels for young people. For example, the mimeograph machines in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing have been replaced with Xerox machines. Another change is that the archaic feminine hygiene products in Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret have been made up to date. I am not sure how I feel about this.
When I read Are You There God.. in the fifth grade, the feminine hygiene products were obsolete even then. I had no idea what a belt had to do with getting your period, but it didn’t interrupt my enjoyment of the story. I was surprised when I heard the author say that this detail was causing new readers not to be able to “relate”.
I worry about this assumption that readers have to be able to “relate” to a story to understand or enjoy it. (I even hate that word, “relate”.) I think this is just a way that people can read without having to grow. The mimeograph machines in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing are an authentic detail of the 1970s, when the story is set.
Ms. Blume said that she didn’t want kids to have to ask their parents about the details in the books. She wants them to think that she wrote the books “just for them”.
This struck me because I never felt like Judy Blume had written her books “just for” me. As a little black girl, I loved loved loved Judy Blume, but I knew that I wasn’t the audience for them. Quite frequently, I didn’t quite “get” the issues in the stories. The names of the characters were unfamiliar to me and I sometimes didn’t know how to pronounce them. (One that sticks with me is Joel. I couldn’t decide is it rhymed with Noel or not.) The religious conflict in Are You There God baffled me. Margaret had to decide whether to join the YWCA or the Jewish Community Center? I had never even heard of the JCC! And who knew The Y was religious? In my community, it was just the place where you took ballet lessons. There was so ideological or spiritual dimension at all! Did this pull me out of the book? Did it make me less of a fan? No, indeed. I thought it was just fascinating. Furthermore I felt like I was Margaret– flat chested, nonreligious, and hoping to make friends– even though I knew I wasn’t. That’s what art does.
So question is whether this modernizing is dumbing down Judy Blume and if it sets a dangerous precedent.
Thoughts?
Ana Clark weighs in.

About TayariJones

Author of SILVER SPARROW, LEAVING ATLANTA, and THE UNTELLING.
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4 Responses to Judy Blume’s Updates

  1. Teej says:

    Oh, how sad that they’re changing them! I agree with you about most of the conflicts and issues in Judy Blume’s books being already obsolete by the time I read them, but that certainly didn’t make them inaccessible!
    I’m not sure I would consider it “dumbing down” the books, but I do think that it makes them less authentic. I mean, it’s not like someone’s going to go through the “Little House on the Prairie” books and update them! Part of reading is being exposed to times and places and ideas that are different from what you experience day-to-day. It’s just as valid to keep Judy Blume’s books in their original time setting – and expect young readers to learn a little about what life was like when they were first written – than it is to keep the “Little House” books in their original setting.
    I’m a little more concerned, in all honesty, about her feeling that young readers shouldn’t have to ask their parents about things in the books they read. I think that’s tragic, really. Books can be a really powerful and memorable introduction to ideas and issues, but as a young reader sometimes you really need to discuss those ideas and issues with an adult so that you can really understand them. More than wanting to make sure today’s young readers can relate, it’s this seemingly purposeful disconnection from conversing about books with their parents that I think is dangerous.

  2. Jackie says:

    This post brought back memories. When I was reading Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books, I understood that these weren’t my peers. It’s not like I was going to have any blond friends in 1960s Florida….but I did enjoy the stories. After reading some of those books I decided to ask my parents if I could go to boarding school. Yes, I did ask. And for those readers who might think this was dreaming, there really were some boarding schools for blacks in the 60s. Once my parents realized I was getting my ideas from those books I was reading, well, they stopped taking me seriously on some of my wants.
    I haven’t read Judy Blume. I think I like the idea that a child can have their own stories without sharing them with their parents (since they have so little privacy), but updating them so kids can relate leaves me with mixed feelings. I can understand why she did it, but something must get lost in the process. I mean should Jane Eyre be updated so kids can relate?
    I recently saw the movie Rebecca, based on the book by Daphne DuMarier, one of my all time favorites. I would hate it if someone wanted to update that book/movie or anything in it.

  3. kgs says:

    On the other hand, if the details weren’t distracting to begin with, then changing them shouldn’t be such a big deal.
    I listened to the same show, and it’s clear Judy Blume wrote these as “problem” books (which is how I recall reading them, once upon a time). Some of the details in the books weren’t about my experience, but I grew up with those complicated belts used with menstrual pads, and since the book is about getting comfortable with menstruation, it is a small but crucial detail that could easily be changed to keep in step with what a girl might actually experience — and a detail that also doesn’t fundamentally change the story.
    Then again, I also think “Clueless” is by far the best adaptation of an Austen novel to date. (Wikipedia has a very amusing chart comparing characters from “Clueless” and “Emma.”)

  4. ExMathMajor says:

    Are You There God?…made getting my period a cause for celebration instead of an occasion for fear. For that alone I am deeply grateful to Judy Blume. I was a voracious reader even then (at a few days short of 11) and I didn’t need Margaret to be exactly like me in order to understand what she was going through. But then again, not only was I using menstrual belts, I also lived a few blocks from a JCC and (needless to say) was going to school with Jewish girls. It was 1976 and we were all still in the throes of integration/Kumbaya fever.
    Re her “modernizing” her books: I guess if the ultimate purpose of the books was to help kids over the puberty hump, then perhaps it might make a little sense to make them “relatable”…in this world where dumbing-down is in full effect. Personally, if I hear one more person say “I wasn’t born when ____ happened / were around so I don’t know” I’m going to scream. Since when does something have to happen in your timeframe in order for you to be able to relate to it? Give me a f***ing break. I say leave the books alone and make the kids ask questions. Hell…they might (gasp) LEARN something…
    @Jackie: Rebecca was what I was reading during my second-ever menstrual cycle. I loved that book so much I still have my original copy all these years later, underlined words and all (!), in a baggie on my bookshelf.