Au­thor Judy Blume com­ing to Chicago

Has ad­vice on kids books, ideas about pos­si­ble film

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - LIFE+STYLE - By Heidi Stevens hstevens@chicagotri­bune.com | Twit­ter @hei­dis­tevens13

If — if — “Are You There God? It’s Me, Mar­garet” makes it to the big screen, it should be set, Judy Blume has de­clared, in its orig­i­nal 1970.

“It wouldn’t work in any other time pe­riod,” Blume told me by phone. “Al­most ev­ery­one I’ve talked to agrees.”

Blume, the widely beloved au­thor/na­tional trea­sure whose 29 ti­tles have sold more than 85 mil­lion copies in 32 lan­guages, is com­ing to Chicago in Oc­to­ber to ac­cept the 2018 Carl Sand­burg Lit­er­ary Award from the Chicago Pub­lic Li­brary and the Chicago Pub­lic Li­brary Foun­da­tion. (Astro­physi­cist Neil deGrasse Tyson will ac­cept the award along­side her.)

I was of­fered a chance to in­ter­view her in ad­vance of her visit, and nat­u­rally, I hounded her (in the nicest pos­si­ble way) for de­tails about her re­cent hint that one of her lit­er­ary gems may be get­ting the Hol­ly­wood treat­ment.

In Au­gust, Blume tweeted to her 552,000 fol­low­ers: “So which of my books, kids and/or adult would you want to see adapted for se­ries or movie? I ask be­cause I’m in LA meet­ing with many tal­ented peo­ple. I think the time has come.”

Many, many (many) fol­low­ers voted for “Are You There God? It’s Me, Mar­garet,” Blume’s 1970 story about a sixth-grade girl who strug­gles to fit in her new town with­out friends or a religion — ev­ery­one hangs out at ei­ther the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter or the YMCA, and her Catholic-raised mom and Jewish-raised dad swore off or­ga­nized religion years ago. Mar­garet prays for breasts, nav­i­gates mid­dle school drama, and learns the ups and downs of life with your pe­riod.

The word “icon” gets thrown around a lit­tle too hap­haz­ardly. Mar­garet is an ac­tual icon.

Any­way, back to whether she’ll come to life in a movie.

“I wish I could tell you some­thing,” Blume told me. “I re­ally do. The truth is I just don’t know very much at this point. The con­ver­sa­tions con­tinue, and some­times they’re very ex­cit­ing.” Be­cause they’re about Mar­garet? “For years, I never wanted to see Mar­garet adapted,” Blume said. “Even when I went out to LA, I thought, ‘No­body can do Mar­garet.’ And by the end of week, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I would love to see Mar­garet done well.’ Why not? What am I wait­ing for? I’m 80 years old. If I want to see it, I bet­ter hurry up.”

A risk of adapt­ing any of her books, Blume said, is that read­ers feel in­cred­i­bly loyal — pro­tec­tive even — of the sto­ries ex­actly the way they ap­pear on the page.

“But you have to give the cre­ative team some free­dom,” she said. “It doesn’t work if it’s word-for-word. All I think one can hope for in an adap­ta­tion is to get the tone right and the hu­mor right.”

And, for Mar­garet, the era.

Part of Blume’s ge­nius is her abil­ity to weave to­gether sto­ries and characters that are as re­lat­able today as they were when she wrote them sev­eral decades ago. My son, born in 2009, loves the Fudge books as much as I re­mem­ber lov­ing them in third or fourth grade, even though our child­hoods bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to one an­other’s.

“The inside stuff hasn’t changed,” Blume said. “How you feel about your­self as a child, how you see the world, that’s all the same.”

Take “Blub­ber,” Blume said — her 1974 novel about a girl who’s bul­lied about her weight.

“Linda goes through hell,” she said, about the char­ac­ter who is mis­treated. “That’s with no com­put­ers. There’s no tex­ting. She goes through hell be­cause there’s a girl who uses her power in an evil way. And that kind of stuff? That’s still around.”

So is the hunger for characters who are con­sumed by the big and small top­ics kids and young adults are con­sumed by — top­ics that grown-ups, of­ten, are loath to broach.

In “Dee­nie” (1973) and “For­ever” (1975), Blume’s characters dis­cuss mas­tur­ba­tion, teenage sex­u­al­ity and birth con­trol. Both ti­tles spent years on banned-books lists in var­i­ous school li­braries.

But Blume sees books as a con­duit, a third party of sorts, to bridge that di­vide be­tween what kids want to hear and what par­ents want to say.

“From way back, I be­lieved, and I still do, that books can bring par­ents and kids to­gether,” she said. “My mother, who never talked to me about any­thing, ba­si­cally, was a reader. She was so un­com­fort­able. Shy. Quiet. Not able to talk. But many times, she would hand me a book and say, ‘I think you might like this book.’ And that was her way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing.”

Blume’s child­hood home was filled with book­shelves, she said, and she was free to read any book that sat upon them. It never oc­curred to her to shy away from — or hide her al­le­giance to — books with more ma­ture themes.

In 2016, Blume co-founded an in­de­pen­dent, non­profit book­store in Key West, Fla., where she re­sides. She works there three to four days a week, ring­ing up cus­tomers, of­fer­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, stock­ing shelves.

“My first real job!” she said. “After 50plus years of sit­ting in a lit­tle room by my­self, I re­ally love the col­lab­o­ra­tive feel­ing and work­ing with a team.”

And it al­lows her to serve as a read­ing am­bas­sador, tout­ing the beauty and power of books. She of­ten steers her cus­tomers out of their com­fort zones.

“Par­ents and grand­par­ents want to choose books that are far too young for their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You can get a lot of points by choos­ing books on the up­per edge of what you think your 8- or 9- or 10-year-old might like.’

“Show that child,” she said, “you have so much re­spect for him or her that you think he or she is ready, emo­tion­ally ready, for this older book.”

It’s hard to imag­ine more wor­thy guid­ance from a truer North Star.

Judy Blume and Neil deGrasse Tyson will re­ceive the 2018 Carl Sand­burg Lit­er­ary Award at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at the UIC Dorin Fo­rum, 725 W. Roo­sevelt Road. More in­for­ma­tion at cplfoun­da­tion.org.

JOHNNY LOUIS/SIPA

Judy Blume asked her Twit­ter fol­low­ers which of her books should be made into a se­ries or movie, and “Are You There God? It’s Me, Mar­garet” was a fan fa­vorite.

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