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The author who revolutionized young-adult lit sits down with lifelong fan Marsha Lederman to talk about her new documentary, the film adaptation of her beloved book, and why she’s finished writing — but not retiring: ‘I’m not done using my creative energy’

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Left: movie poster for the movie Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Right: Photo illustration of the book cover with writer Marsha LedermanHandout, Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

The drive along the coastal highway to Key West, Fla., has become a literary pilgrimage of sorts. Many before me have made the trek to the southernmost spot in the continental U.S. – to a city closer to Cuba than Miami – to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway, who lived here in the 1930s.

I came here for someone else. For the writer who taught me about menstruation and other essential facts of life that other grown-ups shied away from addressing. For Judy Blume, the author who made me feel seen. Who made me want to read, read, read. And write.

Film review: Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret is true to the book’s heart, but also its own (mostly) wonderful thing

Blume, originally from Elizabeth, N.J., has lived in Key West for years, and in 2016 co-founded a non-profit bookstore here with her husband, George Cooper.

Now 85, she’s having a moment: The feature-film adaptation of her seminal and most famous book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, will be in theatres on April 28, more than 50 years after the novel was published. Also this month, a documentary about Blume and her influence, Judy Blume Forever, begins streaming on Prime Video, with fan-girl testimonials from the likes of Lena Dunham, Samantha Bee and Molly Ringwald. Being in the spotlight can have its downsides; Blume has also recently found herself in a Twitter dust-up over trans rights.

With so much Blume-ing (sorry) this spring, I had proposed an interview in Florida; I was already planning an Orlando vacation. It looked promising at one point: I booked a hotel and rental car. As I was about to head there, I heard from Blume’s people; it wasn’t going to work out. I went anyway.

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Author Judy Blume points to a poster for the film adaptation of her groundbreaking young adult book.ROB O'NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Books & Books, occupying a quiet corner in Key West’s historic district, is exactly what you think a bookstore owned by Judy Blume would be: amazing.

There are busy shelves and curated corners. A St. Patrick’s Day display offered James Joyce, Emma Donoghue and others. A film tie-in edition of Margaret sat on the “now a major motion picture” shelf, in between A Man Called Ove and The Greatest Beer Run Ever. And in the middle-grade area, a dedicated Judy Blume shelf was packed with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, Superfudge, Blubber, Deenie, Tiger Eyes, Forever … and of course, Margaret.

When I arrived, breathless, late on a Sunday after that long scenic drive, I learned the dreadful news: Blume regularly works at the bookstore on Sundays and yes, she had been in that day. I had missed her. I would never have ambushed her for an interview, but it would have been great to just say hello. When I finally got to interview her – a month later, over Zoom – and told her a (very condensed) version of this story – she seemed genuinely dismayed. “Oh I’m so sorry!” she said. “Did I know you were coming?”

She had not known.

“Did you like the bookstore?” she wanted to know. “I love the bookstore,” she told me.

Books & Books is not a vanity project. Blume throws her all into it: ordering, curating, tidying. “You know, I have a job to do there; I really work there. I don’t just stand there waiting for people to say Oh, hello.”

Still, the bookstore feels like a physical extension of the years-long correspondence Blume kept up with countless fans who wrote to her about everything from plot development to grave personal issues. People come to express their gratitude in person. And if they’re lucky, to say Oh, hello. Sometimes, they cry.

Lorna Hollifield, visiting from South Carolina, came to the store pushing a stroller, hoping for a glimpse of Blume. “She’s an icon. I mean, she kind of is female adolescence.” Hollifield purchased an autographed copy of Margaret for her two-year-old. “I thought it would be cool to save the book for her and just have something signed by Judy Blume,” said Hollifield, a novelist and magazine editor. “Women like Judy Blume have paved the way for women like me.”

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Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon and Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.Dana Hawley/Lionsgate

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret was written in a flurry – a first draft in about six weeks – by a very unhappy woman. Blume, who was then in her early 30s with two young children living in suburban New Jersey, had used the advance from her first two books (her first advance was US$350, she recalls) to create a writing set-up in the den where the family gathered to watch TV. She had a spot in a wall unit, and an electric typewriter.

“And it came pouring out. I mean there was just no struggle because I was just letting it all out,” she says. “I can put myself in that room just like that.” She pauses, makes an emotional little “ha” sound, and waves her hands. “It was such a thrill. It was so wonderful to get up in the morning and know that I had this thing that I really, really wanted to do.”

There was more to it than that.

“I was desperate, I needed a creative outlet. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t,” she says. After publishing two books, she thought, “Okay, hmmm, now I know how to do this thing. Or I think I know how to do it. Now I’m just going to let it rip.”

In the novel, Margaret Simon, child of an interfaith but non-practising couple – Jewish father, Christian mother – develops a relationship with God. “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret,” the book begins. “We’re moving today. I’m so scared God.”

Margaret, 11 going on 12, moves to New Jersey from Manhattan and falls in with a group of girls. They call themselves the PTS’s – for Pre-Teen Sensations – and do rigorous exercises they think will help them grow breasts. (When Blume was on the film set – she is a producer – she corrected the way the actors were doing the “We must – We must – We must increase our bust!” exercise, according to The Atlantic. They were doing it praying style, palms together; it’s in fact an elbows-to-the-side pumping motion.)

As she wrote the book, adolescence felt as if “it was right there, just below the surface,” Blume says. “It was a time of life of great excitement and great changes and everything was possible still … when you’re 12,” she says. “And I really thought it wasn’t possible for me any more. I had made decisions that made it impossible for me to choose a different path. And how lucky, how lucky for me that I did this.”

Blume left that unhappy marriage, married again, divorced again, and finally met and married Cooper.

Margaret – for which Blume received a $1,000 advance – was published in 1970 and eventually became a phenomenon. It also became a frequent censorship target. Even the principal at Blume’s children’s school didn’t want it in the library.

Seven years after its publication, The Globe and Mail reported on a survey that asked Toronto students, Grades 7 to 13, to name their favourite authors. Blume was the top pick in Toronto’s east and west. In the city centre, she was bested by Agatha Christie; in north Toronto, by Farley Mowat.

In 1980, The Globe reported that Holland Landing Public School in York Region was banning the book. Some of the sentences could create problems in the schoolyard, the principal said. Judy Sarick, the now-late owner of the Children’s Book Store in Toronto, commented that she was “horrified” by the ban. “There is no other book that deals with the issue of girls becoming pubescent with such sympathy and wit in a manner they can so readily relate to.”

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Books written by Judy Blume, at her bookstore in Key West, Fla., Jan. 20, 2023.SAUL MARTINEZ/The New York Times News Service

I heard the book before I read it. At sleepover camp, our counsellors took turns reading us a chapter every night. I was 8-going-on-9 that summer and had never heard of menstruation. I remember being shocked about its existence and, a few chapters later, dismayed to learn that getting your period didn’t just happen once (yes, I was that naive).

The book has since been updated in one respect; originally, the period equipment was much more complicated, with belts and hooks. Now, the book describes adhesive pads, like the ones girls of my generation were handed by our moms or big sisters, on that very big day.

Much of my memory of childhood is fuzzy, but I remember exactly where Margaret lived in my elementary school library: the shelf it was on and the spot on the carpet where I spent oodles of time, cross-legged, reading it. I’m not sure I have ever wanted to own a book so badly. I had very few books at home, mostly inherited from my big sisters. And the purse-strings were tight in my family. So I didn’t ask. Maybe I knew my parents would balk at buying a novel they thought I would just grow out of. Maybe I was afraid to ask them for this particular book.

At some point, I did acquire a copy of Deenie. In that novel, Blume wrote about Deenie touching her special place. Where was this place, I wondered. On her leg? Her shoulder?

Blume would teach me a lot over the years, but her books weren’t merely instructive. They took middle-grade lit – and with Forever young-adult lit to a new level.

Tanya Lloyd Kyi, an author who teaches writing for children and young adults at the University of British Columbia’s School of Creative Writing, calls Blume a pioneer. “Books at the time when Judy Blume started publishing were much more overtly educational. And children’s literature from her point on began to address issues from a child’s point-of-view or from a teen’s point-of-view.”

The books have stood the test of time. Before our conversation, Kyi checked the Vancouver Public Library’s website. There were holds on every single one of Blume’s books.

A friend of mine went to the library in a different city a couple of years ago, when her daughter was getting to that stage, and asked: Who’s the new Judy Blume? Not missing a beat, the librarian told her: It’s still Judy Blume.

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A scene from Judy Blume Forever, streaming on Amazon Prime.Courtesy of Prime Video/Amazon Prime

If you had 15 minutes with Judy Blume, what would you ask her? If those 15 minutes were cut to 10 minutes the morning of your Zoom interview, what would you cut from that list? I fantasized about asking: Is there any chance of you writing a novel from the perspective of a 50-something-year-old woman about midlife – menopause, divorce, grief, aging in general? Or if you got a letter from such a (hypothetical) person, what inspirational words might you share?

But, of course, Judy Blume would have seen right through that. Maybe she would have turned our conversation into some sort of counselling session. Ten minutes of comfort, but what good would that have been for this story?

Anyway, Blume will not be writing another book – about menopause or anything else.

“I believe that I’m done writing books,” she told me.

In 2015, Blume published what appears may be her final book. In the Unlikely Event, a novel for adults, is based on real events – three plane crashes in less than two months, very close to where Blume – then young Judy Sussman – lived. Because she remembered so little about these tragedies, it turned into a massive research project.

“This was the story I was meant to tell. And this is it; I’m done now,” Blume says. “I don’t want to do this any more, I don’t want to be locked up any more. Because in a way, that’s how you feel when you’re writing. I used to love that feeling when I was writing Margaret, locked up and telling stories; what could be better? But then after 50 years, it was locked up and get me out of here.”

That doesn’t mean she’s retiring. “I’m not done using my creative energy,” she says.

In addition to the bookstore and film promotion, Blume has urgent advocacy work to do, addressing the draconian anti-intellectual, book-banning climate of the day. There’s even a proposed bill in Florida that would ban discussion of menstruation until Grade 6.

“This is the craziest, scariest time. It makes the eighties look like nothing compared to what’s going on now, because it’s coming from the government, it’s coming from legislators,” Blume says. “We live in a state with a governor who is just making everything really dreadful,” she says, when asked what she might say to the people in power. “I have a lot to say about this governor. I don’t know that saying it to him would make any difference at all.” She adds that it’s not just Ron DeSantis, but a wider U.S. problem. “Elected officials who are drunk with power and using their power in an evil way.”

Blume, who speaks her mind, was criticized recently after a U.K. newspaper published an interview with her with the headline: “I’m behind JK Rowling 100 per cent.” Blume clarified with a tweet that her words were taken out of context; her point was that she can empathize with a person who has been harassed online. “I stand with the trans community and vehemently disagree with anyone who does not fully support equality and acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people.”

There is something about being in the presence of Judy Blume. When she published her novel, Summer Sisters, in 1998, her book tour took her to Toronto, and the radio show I then co-hosted. I brought my old, battered copy of Deenie into the studio for her to sign. “Thanks for the good talk!” she wrote. I can die now, I thought. Last week, I brought that now even more beat-up paperback with me to the hotel room where I would be doing our interview, and held it up to show her. She expressed delight.

I’ve got another Blume book now. In Key West, I bought a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. I finally own it. It’s bright pink. And inside, on the title page, it’s autographed. “Love, Judy Blume.”

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Marsha Lederman’s old copy of Blume’s Deenie and new print of Margaret are both signed by the author.Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

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