Judy Blume

On this date in 1938, author Judith Blume (née Sussman) was born in Elizabeth, N.J., the daughter of homemaker Esther (Rosenfeld) and dentist Rudolph Sussman. Blume has described her home as culturally Jewish rather than religious. Her father had six brothers and sisters, almost all of whom died while she was young, so “a lot of my philosophy came from growing up in a family that was always sitting Shiva.” (Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women) 

When she was in third grade, she moved with her mother and her older brother David to Miami Beach in hopes the climate would help David recuperate from a kidney infection. Her father stayed in New Jersey. It was then Blume’s “personal relationship” with God started because she thought it was up to her to protect her father. 

“I had to keep him safe. I had to keep him well — a terrible burden, you know, for a 9-year-old kid — or 8, really, when I left. And so I would make all kinds of bargains with God. And I had little prayers that I repeated a certain number of times a day. And I hung on to it for a while.” (NPR “Fresh Air,” April 24, 2023)

She was an introspective girl who loved to read. Asked as an adult which of her books was most autobiographical, she said it was Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself (1977). “Sally is the kind of girl I was at ten. Curious and imaginative, but also a worrier.” (judyblume.com)

After graduating from an all-girls high school, she earned a B.A. in education from New York University in 1960. In 1959 her father had died and she married John Blume, an attorney. Their daughter Randy was born in 1961 and son Lawrence in 1963. After their divorce in 1975, she married Thomas Kitchens, a physicist. They moved to New Mexico for his work and divorced in 1978. In 1987 she married George Cooper, an attorney and nonfiction writer, and as of this writing in 2023 they live in Key West, Fla., and operate a bookstore. Both survived cancer. It’s tough to beat pancreatic cancer but he did, and Blume had a mastectomy in 2012 due to breast cancer.

Blume had started writing after her children were in nursery school but collected a lot of rejection slips until 1969 when her picture book The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo was published. It was the start of something big. As of 2023, her 29 books, all but four for children and teens, have sold more than 90 million copies in 39 languages.

The best-seller success of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) was a turning point for Blume. “She acknowledges that it was the first book she gave herself permission to write from her own experience, and it was then that she began to grow ‘as a writer and as a woman.’ ” (Ibid., Shalvi/Hyman) Margaret has a Christian mother and a Jewish father, asks God to help her choose a religion and prays at age 11 to experience puberty. The story closes with her stuffing her bra with cotton balls. Abby Ryder Fortson played the title character in the 2023 film adaptation directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.

Blume said she “was kind of angry at organized religion there for a while, and I wanted it to be different. … [W]e tried joining a synagogue and sending the kids to Sunday school. It didn’t work for me. I just felt they were learning things that I didn’t like, and they were not bat and bar mitzvahed. (Ibid., “Fresh Air”) 

Some of her books for young adults were controversial because of the topics she tackled such as family conflict, gender, sexuality, bullying, body image and normal bodily functions. The novel Forever (1975) was frequently banned for its portrayal of teen sex. Are You There God? and others have also been removed from library shelves after religious conservatives complained.

Her work regularly appears on lists of “most frequently challenged authors.” She has served as a spokesperson for the National Coalition against Censorship. The documentary “Judy Blume Forever” directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and was released on Prime Video in April 2023.

She was the subject of the Proust Questionnaire in the May 2023 Vanity Fair. Asked how she would like to die, Blume said: “Okay, if I have enough time I might go to Switzerland and drink the drink. I believe in euthanasia. What we do for our beloved pets, we should be able to do for our beloved humans or ourselves.”

Her heroes? “The surgeon, oncologists, and nurses who were there for George and saved his life.” 

PHOTO:  Blume in 2009; Carl Lender photo under CC 2.0.

Freedom From Religion Foundation