Judy Blume's banned children's books
Jennie Vang/Daily

If you were to walk into a grade school library, there’s a good chance that you would find a shelf devoted to Judy Blume. Blume, a prolific author best known for her children’s books from the 1970s, is a champion of addressing taboo aspects of adolescence. Books like “Blubber”, “Forever…” and “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” have long opened a door for young readers to learn more about puberty, bullying, sexuality and more.

Although I, like many of her fans, have only read a handful of her books, it did not take much to become a fan. Blume’s bestselling — and arguably most famous — book, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” is the main source of my fondness for her. I first read “Are You There God?…” when I was around Margaret’s age; I found the story of a pre-teen girl who was contemplating many of the same things that I was (friends, bras, periods, religion) extremely comforting. Her style and earnest honesty are so distinctive that I have enjoyed each of her books that I have picked up, regardless of my age.

Blume’s refusal to shy away from taboo topics has made her simultaneously beloved and maligned. Her books have been consistently challenged since the 1980s, when the election of Ronald Reagan spurred a wave of widespread book censorship, one much like the recent wave of bannings this past year. Some consider her books too graphic because of their depictions of sex, menstruation, birth control, masturbation, etc. — so much so that, at times, Blume has had to travel with a bodyguard to her events in response to numerous hate-mail warnings. 

Yet the things that made her so unpopular with conservative parents and lawmakers over the years are what make her so adored by fans: her frank, unflinching discussion of topics that children were concerned about, but that they struggled to get information about on their own.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Jo Angela Oehrli, a learning and children’s literature librarian who manages the Children’s Literature Collection at Hatcher Graduate Library, spoke more about banned children’s books and Blume’s presence on those frequently challenged lists. She talked about the ways that books act as reflections of a child’s experience, referencing an essay by Rudine Sims Bishop that refers to the way that books can be “mirrors” or “windows” — reflections of one’s own experiences that help children put their emotions into words, or views into a person’s perspective that is completely different from their own.

“Somebody’s got to pull the curtain aside for you, and let you in,” Oehrli said. “Books have this ability to make explicit something you might have been feeling or wondering or questioning about, and sort of enlighten you.”

There’s something special about the privacy of a book that is difficult to replicate with other forms of media. Books are personal, both in reading them and writing them; whatever you are reading is just between you and the author, for you to take in and process at your own pace. Authors and readers have a chance to connect, to determine the kinds of things that they find important, to discuss the things that they think need to be discussed. There’s an intimate aspect of reading about people like you, or not like you, and learning more about the kinds of things that people don’t usually say out loud. “It’s like you’re building a relationship with that author, right?” Oehrli said. “And you’re like, ‘Oh, I trust this person because … they’re being honest with me. They’re respecting me. They’re safe meeting me at my level.’”

Because of her frankness and sincerity in her writing, Blume has long been a trusted figure for young readers. Over the years, she’s received numerous letters from readers asking for her advice about everything from bullies to divorce to sexuality. This collection of letters, as well as Blume’s replies to them, was later turned into a book: “Letters to Judy.” To many children, Blume’s books provided them with a confidant, a source of information and advice that they couldn’t get from their own parents.

Oehrli noted that Blume’s books have been particularly reflective and relatable for young girls. When asked why adolescent girls are more likely to read Blume’s books, Oehrli said that if “you want to read about other girls your age, and in an engaging way, in an honest way, then you’re going to be drawn to Judy Blume.” 

Although Blume’s novels still have significance for present-day readers, Oehrli points out that there’s a “nostalgia kind of component” often associated with Blume’s books. Because she has been so influential for a generation of adults, people still look upon her fondly enough that they’re more likely to introduce the books to their own children. This nostalgia has occasionally fueled Blume’s continued presence in libraries and bookshelves, and can distract from the limits of her work. “I’m not saying ignore Judy Blume,” Oehrli said. “But see it in the bigger context.”

The context is that Blume’s books still fit into the mostly homogenous landscape of children’s literature. Her characters are typically white and straight, living with their parents in middle-class East Coast suburbs. Blume’s books, which were primarily written and conceptualized during the 1970s, are typical of that era. They fall into a trap of accepting a white perspective as a primary, mainstream one. This trap continues to pervade children’s books; statistically, most children’s books focus on white characters, with little representation of people of Color.

Oehrli pointed out that “some might say that … (Blume) was a step in a direction where we could get to where we are today.” The books that are being banned today make the list for the same kinds of things that Blume was doing in the ’80s: speaking about important topics that still make some people unnecessarily uncomfortable. Today, the main targets are books about Black and LGBTQ+ experiences, creating a landscape of books that doesn’t leave a lot of room for diversity.

When speaking on the importance of a wide variety of experiences and characters in children’s literature, Oehrli noted that banning books takes away crucial opportunities for growth and knowledge.

“A book, at least in the initial reading of it, is this one back-and-forth,” she said. “And it’s you bringing your lived experience into what you’re seeing on the page, and your interpretation, your comprehension of what is happening. And that opportunity is lost if all you’re reading is just that same picture.”

This past year, book banning has played out as a battle between conservative lawmakers, parents and school administration on one side, with teachers and librarians on the other. Those censoring books target topics that they believe are too “mature” for a certain age group, but Oehrli cautioned against this kind of mentality.

“A librarian, a teacher or whoever, you know, they have a reason for that book being in there,” she said. Books that tackle more difficult topics are important because of the dialogue that they generate.

“Yes, in a perfect world, kids are talking with their parents about these subjects and trusted peers about these subjects,” Oehrli noted. “But … there are other ways to get information that can be like, couldn’t that be a conversation together, to read?”

Despite Blume’s years of being challenged, her books haven’t appeared on as many recent lists of banned books. In a world where limitless information is at our fingertips, and a society where stories are embracing wider perspectives and topics, it’s possible that people are finally over Blume’s style of breaking taboos. But back then, it was the reality of our bodies that was cause to keep a book out of a child’s hand. Now, it’s the reality of identity and history, politicized to the point that to even mention racism or homophobia is considered a threat. If you pretend that talking about racism is “divisive,” you don’t have to deal with it; if you don’t say gay, it doesn’t exist.

It’s crucial that authors don’t back down now, and that they continue to write the truth about their stories in order to inform readers and in order to keep these discussions alive. When books challenge readers’ ideas, especially children, it opens the door to a wider understanding of the world — and we lose that opportunity if those books are taken off the shelf.

Statement Correspondent Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.