back to school with judy blume: tales of a fourth grade nothing

Dear Judy,

I started talking about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to my girlfriend last night while we were sitting at the dinner table. Dinner was delicious — mashed potatoes topped with chicken breast, broccoli, onions, and parmesan slivers — and I was expressing my displeasure at feeling pretty blocked with what to write about this one. I read it in about an hour and a half on Thursday morning, set it down on the side table next to our couch, and forgot about it immediately.

This isn’t to say it’s forgettable, Judy! Not at all. Quite the contrary, I learned, as my dinnertime conversation devolved into me screaming, “He ate the turtle! He just ate it! He just swallowed his brother’s turtle and no one cared. It was all ‘Poor Fudge!’ and ‘We have to save Fudge!’ and no concern that this sociopathic animal child just ate his brother’s pet!” I could say it’s unlike me to dissolve into outraged screams over fiction, but it’s really, really not.

I recounted Fudge’s many and sundry sins to my girlfriend as we were finishing up our meal and grew more and more outraged by the utterly dreadful parenting going on around these kids. They are so permissive of Fudge’s abominable behavior that it ends with him eating an animal alive! I wish you could hear me screaming through the internet, Judy, because I am that outraged. And then, once the drama of Fudge passing the turtle through his digestive tract has ceased, these atrocious parents buy the kid a puppy and joke that they made sure it would get too big for Fudge to eat.

Judy, can we stop and address the absolute terror you’ve inflicted on the world here? Fudge eats his brother’s pet! A tiny, helpless, living creature with whom his big brother Peter has formed a bond and with whom Fudge has been told time and time again not to touch. I am so traumatized!

I’ve never been a parent and, barring a large seismic shift in the universe, will never be, but even all other behavior aside, I can assure you that if my three-year-old ate someone’s pet, I’d at least be taking him in for psychiatric observation. This is not a cricket or a caterpillar or dirt. This is someone’s beloved companion. This will be the only thing I ever think about ever again in my life.

I am going to be screaming about this turtle being eaten by a three-year-old until I die. My last words are going to be, “He was just a little turtle! How could you?! How could you?!” and then I’ll expire in a great gust of breath and unanswered questions.

Judy, I love you, but gawd save you. Gawd save us all.

– Ash



back to school with judy blume: it’s not the end of the world

Dear Judy,

It’s Not the End of the World was… I’ve been sitting here trying to do a pun thing and I’m finally giving up. It’s Not the End of the World was okay!

It’s not a book I particularly identify with because, by the time divorce was imminent for my parents, I was kind of praying for it. And maybe that’s what struck me the most — that Karen could be living in a pretty toxic environment and not have realized what was coming, not been hoping for it. My parents are together now — the announcement of their forthcoming divorce ended in my mother’s attempted suicide, subsequent therapy, and a year of separation before they decided to reconcile — so clearly Karen and I were in very different boats, but I was her age! And I still knew what was coming. Granted, it was 1996 and divorce rates were almost double what they were when Karen was twelve, so I suppose I’ll account for relativity.

What I think amazed me most about reading this one was that I had a dual-reaction to every one of Karen’s freakouts — at one end, I understood, and was terribly frustrated on her behalf and kind of kept yelling to no one in particular, “She feels like her family is falling apart! Have a little compassion!” and at the other end, I was old and crotchety and telling her to get over it and stop being so dramatic. Divorce is not the end of the world! The title! THE TITLE!

Regardless of her drama, Karen’s got some good advice. While she’s out ice skating with her friends, she has a good laugh because her best friend is terrible at skating even though she’s been taking lessons for years. Karen remarks, “I had forgotten how good it feels to laugh. From now on I’m going to concentrate on laughing at least once a day–even more if I can arrange it.” And, let’s be real, that’s legitimately good advice. And an astute plan of action for a young kid. “Laughter is the best medicine” and all that, right?

Judy, this might be shocking to you, since you’re new around here, but I struggle, often, with managing my emotions. I just remarked on Twitter the other day that as we get older, we’re supposed to get better at it, but that it seemed like I’d never gotten there. I still sometimes react as strongly to hurtful or stressful things as I did when I was a tween. Granted, I was a very well-bahaved kid, that obnoxious one that never gets in trouble and teachers love and adults always say to their parents, “Oh, she’s so mature. Twelve going on thirty” etc etc. (I know it’s an obnoxious personality type! I own it! I owned it then! It’s who I am.) Regardless, I don’t always modulate my emotions well, is what I’m saying, and I’ve been in, to put it politely, a funk and I needed that reminder. Karen’s too right. I feel better when I laugh. I think we all do and we’d be well served to remember it.

I was going to end there, on Karen’s mighty wisdom, but even though that’s a great line and a wonderful reminder, it’s not my favorite passage in the book. No, no, not when Karen makes this sparkling observation early on: “If I had to describe myself I would say Karen Newman is ordinary looking. I plan to do something about that in a few years. I might wear purple eyeshadow.”

Now, Judy, I know pointing this out initially might sound mocking, but I swear I don’t mean it that way. I just love it. I love it. Because it’s not just about Karen being plain looking; it’s about her being the middle child, the forgotten one, no one’s favorite and how she can feel, even that early on, that she’s doomed to fade into background noise. But she won’t let that happen! She’s going to fix it and make herself noticeable. I love that. It’s such a youthful thought and such a hopeful one. I love you, Karen. Never change.

That goes for you too, Judy. Never change.

– Ash


back to school with judy blume: then again, maybe i won't

Dear Judy Blume,

First, let me say that I’m sorry to hear about your recent bout with breast cancer and that I’m terribly glad that you were on the mend so quickly! And also thank you for writing about it with your usual honesty and good humor. You are as wonderful as ever.

Second, I read Then Again, Maybe I Won’t this week and it was nearly as enjoyable as Margaret. Granted, it is Margaret except with Tony’s boners, and wet dreams for Margaret’s periods and bras. And the central struggle with religion replaced with sudden wealth. Tony even moves to an unfamiliar suburb! Though for entirely different reasons than the Simons do.

Had I read this when I read Margaret, I would’ve been obsessed with boners and peeping on the neighbor girl and wet dreams because I was obsessed with boy things as a tween and teen. I know what periods and bras are like! I’ve been wearing a bra since I was, like, ten. But I’ve never had a boner! (I do remember the first boner I saw. I was in sixth grade. In high school I heard that he had three testicles. Three!)

As an adult though, I really loved the stuff about Joel constantly shoplifting and how much it upset Tony. When I was twelve or thirteen, one of my best friends shoplifted a bracelet from the dollar store at the mall and when she showed it to me I made her take it back! Because I too was completely outraged. She took it back and unlike Tony, it didn’t occur to me that I might look uncool or that she might be mad at me. I was just so shocked she’d take something! I was totally not cool. And I’m okay with that, I think.

I was also particularly interested in/upset about Joel’s mother changing their maid’s name because she couldn’t pronounce it. I was actually aghast and gasped out loud. And then when she did it to Tony’s mother! I would’ve been even more outraged than Tony was if someone had done that to my mother and especially to have her accept it so readily in the name of fitting in. I know that lots of versions of this have happened and likely continue to happen. I know that changing a servant’s name is an act of subjugating and othering them, alienating them from their identity and self. I know all of this historically and logically, but damn does fiction bring stuff home. Thanks, Judy. Bless.

The Kirkus review on the back of the book talks about Tony’s problems not being “magically resolved” but I was sort of aching for that by the end. Tony goes to therapy! And starts to learn to deal with his anxiety and stress, which was great and also kind of refreshing! Joel gets busted for stealing, which is also great. But the one problem I wanted to see a happy ending to was Tony’s grandmother. I was so angry at Mrs. Miglione for not standing up to Maxine and getting her mother back in the kitchen where she was happy. Infuriating to my bones! But Kirkus isn’t wrong, it’s not a bad thing that some of Tony’s issues go unresolved. That’s what life is like, right? Even when it’s frustrating as hell.

I might not have had this one as a kid, but thanks for it anyway, Judy.

– Ash


back to school with judy blume: are you there, god? it’s me, margaret.

It’s not my original, but it’s the exact edition. It even feels the same. Gawd bless the internet. Gawd bless compulsive vintage buyers. Gawd bless Etsy.

Dear Judy Blume,

I don’t remember a time before Margaret. This isn’t saying much, really, since I can’t really remember much of anything from any period of my life, regardless of age or importance. I remember getting high for the first time and the first boner I ever saw, though, so I guess there are some things that last. Regardless, I don’t remember a time before Margaret and even if it isn’t saying much, it’s saying something.

I must’ve read it for the first time around eight or nine, maybe even younger, and I have the vague feeling that my paternal grandmother gave me that mythical first copy that I was so intent on owning again. I have the vaguest memories — as ethereal as smoke or steam, impossible to grasp — of reading about Margaret on the patio of my grandparents’ vacation home in San Diego. They’re insubstantial memories, but what little I can grasp makes me very warm and very glad.

Part of that quest to own this very particular copy was because I knew they’d changed the book from belted pads to the adhesive strips of the modern era and though the change was made and approved by you, the thought of rereading it with the wrong kind of period supplies unsettled and alarmed me. I grew up on adhesive pads. I’ve heard stories from my very enthusiastic and delighted mother that as a little kid, desperate to emulate my much older sister, I used to put those adhesive pads on upside down. I still use adhesive pads! They’re terrible! But still better than the hooked belt that I desperately feared before my own period finally came. I needed to reread those belted Teenage Softies. I needed to cringe and remember.

And, lord, Ms. Blume, did I remember. What I remembered about Margaret was plentiful: the Teenage Softies and the Learning About Your Body movie that was really an ad for sanitary supplies (the Private Lady of Margaret’s New Jersey was the Always of my Los Angeles suburb), the party at Norman Fishbein’s and loafers with no socks, the weird anticipatory terror of waiting for your first period and how badly you wanted it to happen already.

I got my first period in sixth grade on March 12, 1997. I was at school and had just been abandoned by my friends during lunch recess because they were being dicks for whatever reason that twelve year old girls are often dicks. I walked into our classroom where they were sitting, threw my jacket down, and huffed out of the room. Gawd bless me for this adolescent drama because one of my friends followed me into the bathroom to see if I was okay. I had just sat down to discover bloody underwear. I had just turned twelve. And, thankfully, that friend was able to save me because my wonderful sixth grade teacher (Mrs. Hoeger! One of my biggest life heroes.) had stashed a box of pads in our Earthquake Preparedness Trash Barrel. She covertly stashed it in her jean shorts and returned with four other girls who were so excited. I learned I was one of the last. This still gives me weird flashbacks of adolescent anxiety. Ms. Blume, you really, really nailed that one.

I remembered, vividly, “I must, I must, I must increase my bust.” I remembered it from my childhood reading of Margaret and I remembered it from my week of hazing/induction to the Alcyonians, the girls service club at my high school. I remembered, acutely, standing on the stage outside of my gym adjacent to the quad, a sign around my neck declaring my name and things I liked alongside a glittery butterfly and screaming at the top of my lungs with a dozen or so other girls, “I MUST, I MUST, I MUST INCREASE MY BUST. THE BIGGER THE BETTER, THE TIGHTER THE SWEATER, THE MORE THE BOYS WILL LIKE ME.” Some things are enduring. The horror of adolescence is one of them. Margaret is proof of that, I think.

The things I didn’t remember before rereading are the things that I now realize were probably the most important to me — simmering low, just under the surface, and shaping me while I was identifying with Margaret’s waiting-for-her-period woes: the religion stuff.

I honestly actively remembered nothing about the premise of the book. I’d long ago forgotten that Margaret’s story begins with her exile from New York City and into suburban New Jersey and with that, I’d also forgotten about her family’s lack of religion and her distress over whether she’d join the Y or the Jewish Community Center.

I was pretty confused religiously as a kid. Well, less confused and more apathetic. I was raised areligiously. I hung out at the Methodist church with my best friend and watched her get baptized and took communion once — it was pita bread dipped in grapeseed oil and that shit was delicious — and was mostly there for the teen group activities — broom ball! watching the grunion run! madcap scavenger hunts through two counties! — but I never had that Moment, the one that Margaret was looking for, the one that I think a lot of people go to church in search of. Margaret’s relationship with God is one that I empathized with as a kid and I respect as an adult, even though I was never able to form something similar. I became an atheist at 13, but Margaret’s relationship with God is one I’d wish on anyone. It’s so healthy. And I remember, now, her religious identity being very comforting to me as a youth — I wasn’t anything either! And neither was my family. And the Simons helped to let me know that nothing was a perfectly okay thing to be, no matter the pressures exerted on you for it.

Lest you think this letter is all about me, Ms. Blume, I want to tell you that I felt as much pleasure reading this book as an adult as I did as a kid. It was warm and it was refreshing and it was honest. It brought back so many familiar heartaches — the first time you realize a friend has lied to you! the first time you do something terrible and realize it immediately! the desperate desire to not seem weird! — and it reminded me of how much being a voracious reader in my youth made me want to write. A reminder I really and truly needed.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart for this one, Ms. Blume — Judy! We must be friends by this point, yes? You know all about my period! — because it helped me so much back then and it’s made me feel so much again now. Young girls and young women are reading this book still and finding a truth they desperately need: you are not alone.

– Ash


back to school with judy blume: an intro

Along with my continued recapping of Face Off (though, LORD, what wretched work are they) I decided to assign myself another project for September.

In early August, I sleepily rolled over to Crystal and said, “I need you to find me two really specific copies of books, okay?” and she said, “… O… kay?” and I proceeded to describe, in detail, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Deenie but in their late 70s printings. “It’s purple with like, a very blonde windswept girl on the cover… and the other one… She’s standing in front of an oval mirror and there’s like… some dark yellow.” I was sleepy, but the descriptions were accurate and within two days they were winging their way through the mail to us from Oopsee Daisies on Etsy. Along with a bunch of other vintage kid lit because neither Crystal nor I can control ourselves when it comes to books.

We ended up with a nice lot of eight Judy Blume books — four for younger readers and four for the young adult crowd — and since I’d only read two of them growing up (my reading tastes were all over the place as a kid but I was VERY anti-girl and thus missed out on a lot of good and important things — internalized misogyny! WHAT A BITCH) I thought I’d spend my September with Ms. Blume.

back to school with judy blume

Back to School with Judy Blume is supposed to be about my ~emotional education~ I think. Or, at the very least, reliving two books that were really important to me in my formative years. I can’t even imagine the number of times I’ve read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. or recount how important a gift Deenie was to me when a friend gave it to me in sixth grade. She had scoliosis! Like Deenie! And I think her mom probably Yahoo-searched books about scoliosis and gave it to her! But her sharing it with me was like an olive branch of friendship I never expected. Now she’s married and has a beautiful little girl! Getting old is really weird! I don’t recommend it!

I’m reading them in chronological order of their publication which worked out pretty well because I get a kid lit and a YA each week. This seems promising?

Eight books in four weeks is not a particular challenge for someone who is unemployed and a relatively fast reader, but the writing about them will be my challenge. REMEMBER HOW BEHIND I GOT WITH FESTIVE-ASS FLICKS LAST YEAR?! I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THAT AGAIN.

I’m going to write about each book, but what I’m REALLY hoping for is some glorious angels-descending-from-heaven glowing ball of light idea that ties them all together and give me something really interesting to talk about at the end. Something about the how much we grow and how much we stay the same? Or about the power of childhood memory? Or how adulthood is stupid? Here’s hoping!

Read along at home, if you got ’em!

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t
It’s Not The End of the World
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great
Tiger Eyes