Monday 13 July 2015

In the Unlikely Event - Judy Blume at London's Kings Place.

When I worked in libraries during the 1980's and 1990's, Judy Blume was the author of books for young adults, especially girls. A trail blazer, her books covered just about every subject a teenager might feel anxious about - love, sex, divorced parents, racism, loneliness, bullying and what was referred to in my day as "maturing". Judy's were the books young people read when they couldn't ask their parents or teacher about something and were too embarrassed to ask their friends. And not only were these books that could help, they were damn good stories too. She was also the inspiration for a whole generation of writers who now deal with these and other issues that are part of growing up.

I have clear memories of taking some of her books into local secondary schools as part of book week promotions and also as part of the long since (and foolishly) abandoned "wider reading" element of English GCSE that was so exciting in the 1980's. The wider reading scheme took themes of interest to and impact on young people such as bullying, friendships, family, etc. The students were encouraged to read books by different writers on these themes and several of Judy's books were used in this programme.

Last night, I had the unexpected pleasure of hearing Judy Blume speak about her new novel, In The Unlikely Event - her fourth books for adults, although as she pointed out, there is no reason why a teenager couldn't read this book too. Impossibly elegant and amazingly now aged 77 (which she doesn't look and which she told us, she doesn't feel), Judy entertained a large and enthusiastic audience at Kings Place, courtesy of Jewish Book Week which takes place each February but also arranges events throughout the year. Without giving away too much of the plot, she explained that the new book was inspired by real life events that took place in Elizabeth, New Jersey during the 1930's, where in the course of a year, three commercial planes crashed within the city's boundaries. She cleverly uses contemporary press coverage of the crashes and other non-related events to illustrate the story which revolves around the impact of the crashes on three different Elizabeth families.

She told us that the story only came back to her very recently when hearing about the 1950's more generally - a decade she had previously thought boring and now finds fascinating. Such great material for a writer and in her own home town. She admitted that her daughter asked her why she hadn't written about this sooner. Strangely, Philip Roth was from the same town and has also never written about these events, although she explained that he would have been away at college at the time. As with many of her books, In The Unlikely Event pays attention to the position of women which was very different in 1950's America with clear roles - we might even say rules - for the behaviour and expectations of men and women.

There were many questions from the audience. Inevitably there were questions about Forever, her most controversial book for young adults, first published in 1975 and which addressed the issue of teenage sex in a more direct way than had previously been seen. Teenagers, especially girls, borrowed this book from public libraries in their millions and at least in the local authority I worked for, we were only able to give it to young people aged over 13, although we knew that many younger girls borrowed it on an older sibling's library card! When asked what had driven her to write this book, she explained that previously any book that included under-age sex or sex outside of marriage ended with a terrible punishment for the girl - death in childbirth, driven out by her family, forced to have the baby adopted or in at least one case being forced into a disastrous marriage. Her daughter, a very committed reader asked her to write a book that included love and sex but where no-one dies! Forever was the result.

Other questions included, the almost inevitable request to write a book about the lead character of Are You There God? Its Me, Margaret showing the teenage girl at 50 and dealing with menopause! She told us this will never happen as she has frozen Margaret at that age and that after each book she moves on, having completed the story and looks for new subjects and characters. One of the younger audience members asked her a very mature question - how does she make sure that when writing for young people, she doesn't patronise them. A tough question but with a great answer. She avoids patronising her readers by living the part of the character, being them, talking about them to her family at dinner and being the character rather than the writer. 

The session lasted for ninety minutes and about half of that was taken up with questions. She was extremely comfortable with her audience as were they with her and she happily shared several personal stories with us. I liked her relaxed style as she took a range of questions, all of which she treated seriously and to which she gave considered answers. It was easy to feel that you knew here and also to understand the impact she has had on the lives of million s of young people. Returning to work today and telling colleagues about the event, several of them recalled having read her books as teenagers - and not just Forever - Blubber, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Fudge also got mentioned. And that's another thing - she always has great titles for her books.

What a treat of an evening, and now for another treat as I settle down with the new book. Thanks Judy Blume!

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