Like most girls who grew up in the seventies and eighties, I fell hard for Judy Blume. Her books gave me clarity about myself and my life in a way my parents couldn’t, for no matter how wonderful my parents were, they were old (over thirty!), and they loved me blindly. How could I trust anything they said? But Margaret, Jill, Deenie, Karen, Sally, Sheila, Katherine, even Tony . . . these characters let me know it was okay to talk to God, to wish for breasts, to test out being mean, to worry about divorce and friendships and money and love and death. In short, they let me know it was okay to be me.
I recognized pieces of myself in Judy’s books, and I lived vicariously through the characters’ stories. Yes, these books are realistic fiction, but things like running away to stop your parents from getting divorced, drinking to the point of puking in the driveway, asking a gym teacher about masturbation, talking about—let alone touching—Ralph, were as far from my real life as going to school at Hogwarts is for kids today. Books are magic, no matter what category they fall into, and Judy Blume, with her insight into my heart and soul, was magical to me.
As an adult, married and with three young children, I found myself back in the children’s room of the public library, and there, while my kids perused the picture books, I snuck over to the novels and took home my old favorites. Re-reading Judy’s books made me laugh and cry and remember an old dream I hadn’t dared to pursue. I had always wanted to be a children’s book author. So why not try? I was already making no money as a stay-at-home mom. I could certainly make no money as an author, too.
Two years and dozens of rejections later, as I battled discouragement, my husband, Alan, came up with a plan. Unbeknownst to me, he wrote a letter to Judy Blume telling her about me and proposing that for my birthday he would fly me anywhere anytime for a meal with her. He thought a conversation with Judy would be exactly what I’d need to keep pursuing this crazy dream. Although Judy declined, she sent along an encouraging letter, which Alan presented to me on my birthday.
My heart nearly burst with joy. Never before had a failed birthday surprise gotten such a resoundingly positive response. I had a husband who loved and believed in me so much that he tracked down Judy Blume before the internet made such a thing easy. And Judy had written me a personal letter! I doubled my efforts to write something publishable. Meanwhile, Alan joked that he would happily fail at surprising me with diamonds for my next birthday.
Eventually, I sold my first book, Julia’s Kitchen, to Farrar Straus & Giroux. I wrote to Judy to share this exciting news, and to my delight, she wrote back. Judy Blume and I were practically pen-pals! The next year, the ALA’s conference was in Chicago, and a librarian friend of mine was invited to a party where Judy would be speaking. She knew how I felt about the queen of YA lit, so she invited me to come along. I was thrilled. And terrified. What would I actually say to Judy now that I had a chance to meet her face-to-face?
It turned out I had nothing to fear. Judy was as warm and down-to-earth as you could possibly imagine. She hugged me hello, introduced me to her friends and industry insiders, and even mentioned me in her speech.
Judy and I continued to occasionally write each other over the years, and one day I got an email from her telling me she would be in Chicago for a Banned Book Readout. She said she didn’t have her schedule yet, but maybe we could meet for a meal and catch up.
Meet for a meal and catch up? Like old girlfriends? Judy Blume and me?
I didn’t think the meal would actually happen. Her schedule wouldn’t permit it. Or there would be an earthquake. Or a tsunami. Or something. But as her Chicago trip got closer, we firmed up our plans, and lo and behold, almost a decade after my husband had first written that letter proposing the idea, I found myself driving into the city to have lunch with Judy Blume.
I could tell you what she ordered. I could tell you what we talked about. I could even tell you what she wore and what color polish was on her nails. But that would be weird. And having lunch with Judy Blume, the author I first fell in love with, was anything but weird. It really was like getting together with an old girlfriend. The connection we had through her books was real. The author-reader bond is a powerful one, full of magic and love. People ask me why I write for kids. And that’s it in a nutshell. I hope to do for someone else what Judy did for me.
Even though I won’t give you any gossipy details about our lunch, here’s what Judy wrote in my battered copy of Forever:
Brenda A. Ferber’s most recent book is The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever (Dial, 2012), which Kirkus calls “A laugh-out-loud, fast-paced adventure.” She is also the author of two novels, Julia’s Kitchen and Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire. Brenda lives with her family in Deerfield, IL. For more information, visit her website: http://www.brendaferber.com/.