Q&A: Judy Blume on Censorship

With classic children's and young adult books such as “Freckle Juice,” “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “Superfudge,” Judy Blume has tapped into the hearts of young readers for decades. The author, now 69, wanted to write books she wished she could have read while growing up, and young readers continue to be attracted to her stories that dwell on the problems of physical image and self-confidence  that teens face. Recently, in acknowledgment of the book's broad appeal, Simon & Schuster published several new editions of Blume's controversial young adult novel "Forever" (Same text but with a new introduction and hard- and softcover versions for teens, another with a different jacket for adults). Not that everyone is a fan. Since 1990, "Forever" has always ranked among the top 10 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books. In an interview with NEWSWEEK’S Heidi Richter, Blume talks about why this book about young lovers continues to be taken out of schools and childrens’ hands since it was first published in 1975:

NEWSWEEK: What led you to write “Forever”?
Judy Blume:
At the time I wrote “Forever,” I had a 14-year-old daughter, and she was reading a lot of books about young love. But in every book, when a girl succumbed to having sex with her boyfriend, she would be punished with an unwanted pregnancy, a grisly abortion sometimes leading to her death, or she would be sent away by her family. The boys in these books had no feelings and took no responsibility. My daughter said to me, "Couldn't there be a book about two nice kids who have sex and no one dies?" I hated the idea of feeding young people the idea that sex is linked to punishment. Sexuality is a healthy, normal, and natural part of life. And in real life, boys can be hurt, too. And so, I decided to write “Forever.”

When I see kids standing next to their mothers at book signings, clutching a copy of “Forever,” I know what's coming. They'll say to me, "How old do I have to be to read this?" hoping I'll give them permission. But I can't do that. I generally ask them to wait until they are at least 12 and hope that they have an adult to talk to about it when they are through. I like the idea of them reading it before they are sexually active, that is, if they can talk about it with an adult they can trust.

Do you think the characters of “Forever” are for every generation of young adults? Is the book still relevant today?
My friend, Leanne Katz, the first executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, used to say "Judy, 'Forever' is a love story—it doesn't matter when it took place or when it was written, it's about first love. Some things never change." I think she's right, because your first love will always be your first love. In the book, Katherine and Michael are in love. They believe it will last forever.

How do the new editions of “Forever” differ from past editions? And what do you hope the book will provide today's readers?
Every time there is a new edition, I update the letter to the reader and try to explain the difference between what sexual responsibility meant in the '70s when I wrote the book, and what it means today. I still want readers to get involved with the characters and care about them. I still hope they'll come away with an understanding of what it means to take responsibility for your own actions.

There is so much sex on TV and on billboards today—seemingly more than when “Forever” first came out—why do you think the book continues to be so controversial?
Because it's a book. Some adults, for whatever reason, have a desperate need to control everything in their children's lives. They can't control what's on television or on a billboard, but many think they can control what their children read. These individuals believe if their kids don't read about it, they won't know about it, and if they don't know about it, they'll never do it. They think they can have a book banned if they don't want their children to read it. They'll go into school waving a book, demanding that it be removed. There are a lot of would-be censors out there. Not only do they want to make the decision for their children but for all children. How much better it would it be if the parents could read the book, too, and then talk about it with their teens.

Why have you chosen to devote so many of your books to the subject of adolescence and coming of age?
I was wildly interested in puberty as a child. Even though I was envied for having a warm and loving father, one who claimed I could talk to him about anything, I never actually asked him the questions I had. I waited for him to tell me. And then I didn't always understand what he was saying. I was so curious about sex. I looked it up in the encyclopedia, but all I found were pages and pages of plants and how they reproduce. I never found characters in children's books that I could identify with. Looking back to the young woman I was in my 20s, I wanted to write the kinds of books I would have liked to have read.

Tell me about your new children's book coming out in August.
It's called “Soupy Saturdays With the Pain and the Great One,” with wonderfully droll illustrations by James Stevenson. It's the first of four chapter books for young readers based on characters I created years ago in a picture book called “The Pain and the Great One.” I've wanted to revisit these characters for years. I'm glad I waited, because it feels as if the time is right. I'm enjoying the writing process, something I don't say lightly.