Young adult fiction has a rich and evolving history. But few writers have ever had the enduring success and cultural influence of Judy Blume. Having sold more than 80 million copies, many of her books remain in print (and widely read) 40 years or more after they were first published. Her influence on several generations of tween and teen girls is undeniable; as Jezebel founder Anna Holmes wrote last month in the New Yorker, "Blume's books were dog-eared talismans that, for a significant segment of the American female population, marked the passage from childhood to adolescence."
But it wasn't just young women reading her books. For many boys in the pre-Internet era, Judy Blume novels provided incomparable insight into the private lives of those ever-so-mysterious and endlessly fascinating creatures: girls. Borrowed (or stolen) from sisters, our copies of Deenie or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret? were just as dog-eared. We just hid them under the bed, embarrassed by our curiosity, unable or unwilling to talk as freely as our female classmates about what we were reading. But read many of us did. And we didn't just read; we learned.
On the very first night of my freshman year at Berkeley, my roommate and I went to chat up the cute young women who'd just moved in next door. One of the girls was still unpacking her books, and as she put a stack of paperbacks on the shelf, we saw she had at least half a dozen Judy Blume novels. "Oh my gosh, I love Judy Blume," her own new roommate exclaimed, "I'm so glad I'm not the only one who still reads her!" Chris, my roommate, blurted out, "Me too." I turned to him in skeptical astonishment, half-assuming that he was joking. "I'm serious," Chris protested. "I read all those too, in junior high."
I hit Chris on the arm; we'd gone to high school together, but I'd had no idea. "Man, you too? I thought I was the only one!" It was revelatory. Nerds that we were, Chris and I had openly shared our passion for Douglas Adams, Ken Kesey, and (weirdly) Yukio Mishima. But until that moment in the dorm, neither of us had dared mention that we'd secretly pored over Blume's books, hungry for knowledge. One of the girls laughingly suggested that we only read Blume for the "dirty parts." Only partly true, both Chris and I protested – we surely liked those bits, but read for the rest as well.
Judy Blume wrote for many different age groups. Books like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Blubber were aimed at elementary school kids; Wifey and Smart Women for adults. Perhaps her most influential and enduring writing, however, was for junior high and high school audiences. Deenie (1973) dealt with a teen girl struggling with scoliosis; Forever (1975) was the story of a passionate adolescent romance. Deenie masturbates herself to sleep at night; the sex scenes in Forever were groundbreaking by the standards of young adult fiction.
Though I would eventually read the entire Blume canon, the remarkably explicit Forever was my first. When I was ten, my cousin Dean Butler was chosen to star opposite Stephanie Zimbalist in the CBS television adaptation of what would become Blume's most-frequently banned book. Before the movie aired in January 1978, my mother dutifully bought a copy of the novel in support of her nephew – and I finished it in one feverish night, encountering the excitement of literary sex scenes for the first time. It was revelatory.
Until that dorm room conversation with Chris, I'd assumed I was the only guy who read Blume (or, at least, the only one who read anything other than her books for little kids.) After reading Anna Holmes' piece last month, I put out a call on social media, looking for men who'd grown up reading those trailblazing young adult classics. I heard from some 31 men, ranging in age from 29-51. A few, like Darren (44), mentioned that they used books like Forever simply as masturbation material: "I had Playboy and Penthouse, but there was something about the sex scenes in that book that just seemed more authentic, more exciting, than the available porn."
Most of the guys, however, said the same thing Chris and I had said: they read for information as much as for arousal. "Even though I grew up with sisters," said Colin (35), "I always had this sense that there were these things that girls just wouldn't talk about. Reading Blume's books was the closest thing I can remember to getting a peak behind the female curtain, as it were." Though a few men mentioned Then Again, Maybe I Won't (1971), Blume's one famous YA book featuring a male protagonist, it was the books with female heroines that they remembered best.
Judy Blume's books shattered the old prejudice that teenage girls had no interest in sex. Emailing back and forth with these 31 men, I realized that her writing helped break down another myth as well. Though like Chris and me, these guys underlined the "dirty parts" when they were in junior high, Blume's works were so much more than stroke material. The real thrill of these books lay in the insight they offered into a world we desperately wanted to understand. The image of adolescent boys as perpetually horny is grounded in considerable truth – but contrary to stereotype, raging teenage libidos don't necessarily cancel out compassionate curiosity.
Reading Judy Blume didn't just show me how strong, how hungry, and how ambitious young women could be. My own reaction to her novels, and to the complex female characters within them, taught me that arousal and empathy could coexist within me. Just like girls, I could lust and care – at the same time. As many other men told me this week, I wasn't the only one to learn this lesson from these enduringly powerful books. Blume satisfied our curiosity and showed us our own compassion. "I can't imagine my adolescence without her books," emailed Brendan (41); I wrote back that I couldn't more fervently agree.
Image via Stuart Ramson/Associated Press.