Author Judy Blume coming to Chicago
Has advice on kids books, ideas about possible film
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.
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.