Local children invited to the secret world of Judy Blume

Well-loved children's author visits Park School students

October 29, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

She was relieved, now that it was over, to have made good on a promise to a persistent 9-year-old relative to speak at his school in Baltimore. It went so well, that as she left the Park School yesterday, path-breaking children's author Judy Blume wished aloud that she could speak to kids at a public school, too. In fact she wished she could talk to kids more often. On the other hand, it's a mystery to her why anybody thinks that writers who hide themselves away to get their ideas on paper could possibly feel comfortable standing before hundreds of kids.

Luckily, Judy Blume is a ham, a frustrated actress, and her performance yesterday was much like what happens in her books: She offers humor, empathy, solace, maybe even enlightenment, whether it's related to fear of putting your face underwater - as in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great - or adolescent struggles with puberty and religion, as in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

This day, though, her advice is about writing because that's what an auditorium of kids asks her to describe. No one would ever do it if they didn't absolutely have to, she first tells them. "The only joy in writing is having written."

Her latest book, Double Fudge, now in paperback, was published last fall on the 30th anniversary of her first book about Farley "Fudge" Hatcher and his family. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was based on her son, Larry, and a newspaper article she read about a boy swallowing a turtle. Each of her subsequent Fudge books was to be the last, and some are separated by as much as a decade - Sheila the Great, Superfudge, and Fudge-a-Mania.

Where did she get ideas for them?

At first, ideas for books tumbled out. Later, they came while she was covered in soap and shampoo in the shower or while she was at a restaurant eating pancakes. "So," she tells her audience, "take a lot of baths and eat pancakes."

How many times does it take to write a story? Blume has a messy mind, she says, and her first draft is like a puzzle. In a second draft, she fits together the pieces and in the third, she paints the characters. Her friend, Norma, sits down every day and writes 10 pages until her book is done. "It's different for everybody," Blume says. "I need to go though draft after draft."

Was anybody in her family a writer? No, but her mother's letters to Blume in summer camp were funny and interesting and nothing like she was in person. "She could never talk to me in person. It was another life."

Blume, too, has an inner life; it was where she went for hours at a time when she bounced a ball against the brick wall of her house. She never used the stories in her imaginary life, and at the time, she never told anybody about them because she thought she was weird. Growing up, she thought people who wrote books were all dead.

The situation her characters find themselves in come from real life: Her son swallowed a fly and liked to eat supper under the table, her daughter's class was full of bullies, and there was a real fight in a restaurant which she took down, word by word, on a paper tablecloth. And yes, Blume later tells a fifth-grade class reading her work, some of the details come from her own life.

She was a "very good little girl," who was not very brave and who never lied, and she still can't believe that she made up book reports in sixth grade. She made up the title, the author, the theme, the characters and what it was about, and whenever she did this, she says, she got an A. If she reported on a real book, she never got an A. "What lesson did I learn? Use your imagination, Judy!"

"It won't work now," she added, "because teachers are smarter."

What did Blume read as a child? All of Nancy Drew, the Oz books and Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series. She didn't re-read books the way kids do today, she says. "I didn't find that reality in books. I wanted to find real kids so I knew I was OK, I wanted to find somebody like myself, people who weren't perfect. Those books were not there for me."

Back then, the only option was to move on to adult books, which Blume did even though she didn't understand them.

If she had to choose between writing another children's book or an adult book, which would it be?

A child's book, she says, because she identifies so much with kids. "I'm still like 11 or 12 inside," she says.

She is Margaret, absolutely, she says in response to a question asked when talking to a group of sixth graders. "I had her body type - slow to develop - I was anxious to be normal, and I had a special relationship with God, my confidant." Her parents, unlike Margaret's, were of the same religion, although she knew people in mixed-faith marriages, but the friendships and boy questions were very much hers. The PTK club (preteen kittens) was real, too.

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