Judy Blume and the History of YAL

I just finished a warm and insightful magazine piece (from The NYT Magazine) on Judy Blume. I’ll be honest up front here and admit that I never read any Judy Blume books as a teen, even though I knew about them, because I thought they were either girl books (in the case of books like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret or Forever…) or for little kids (as in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or Superfudge). In retrospect, I find that kind of funny because I recall knowing that her books were  controversial, and that typically would have encouraged me to take a chance on a book. Not in this case, I guess.

There are some interesting insights in the piece into Blume and her writing and some nice quotes from current YA authors who unanimously credit Blume with being influential in their own writing and/or to the legitimacy of YA literature today. One author, Carolyn Mackler, who I think has some of the most creatively titled books, reflected on Blume’s authentic characters and stories:

She just wrote … organically, in a way that was true to her characters. Her novels made me want to write the most honest teenage characters I can.

I found this idea interesting, given the history of YAL and our sense (as scholars and critics) that when it became more honest in its description of teen life and in its approach to readers (think Hinton’s books and Cormier’s attitude towards teen readers), it became more legitimate (both to readers and to critics). We often talk, in our discussions about the books we read for this class, about how honest the characters are or how believable the books might be–and this often plays a role in our responses to the books. That is no accident, as I think part of what draws us to literature (or art in any form) is the honesty we feel from it.

But I think this idea also matters when it comes to discussions of censorship and the role gatekeepers play in allowing access to books. I look at Ellen Hopkins’ books; when I read one of her novels, I’m made uncomfortable at the glimpses I get into lives and minds that are very different from mine. In the past, I had questioned just how appropriate some of these stories are for a wide range of readers. Then, a couple of years ago I heard Hopkins speak about the countless letters she received from readers who thanked her for telling stories that matched with their experiences and helped them feel less alone. I was so moved by the hope that her books had given these readers that I’ve come to see books like hers in a very different light: they may not be for all readers, but they need to be available to those for whom they may represent a lifeline.

Blume’s books have faced their (more than) fair share of detractors and challengers, but it would be difficult I think to overestimate the significance of her role in bringing YAL out of the doldrums of the early 20th century. And there’s no denying the impact she has had on thousands and thousands of readers, including many who grew up to be authors for today’s teenagers. In speaking honestly and openly to her readers, Blume showed what YAL can be.

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