The book that did me in was Just as Long as We’re Together, by Judy Blume. Yes, I’m a Blume-r. I started a deep love of reading before I really could read—somewhere there is a VHS of me reciting the picture book Who’s a Pest? from memory when I was four years old, before I knew more than how to spell my name. I raced through book after book after book, reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. Fiction, nonfiction, mystery, fantasy, it all had me enthralled. I gobbled up classics like The Secret Garden and Little Women and The Hobbit.
And then, when I was eleven years old, a friend made me read Just as Long as We’re Together. I’d read Judy Blume before, though I didn’t realize that what I was holding now was the same author as the Fudge books—which I loved for a totally different reason—but when I read Just as Long as We’re Together, I knew I’d found the thing I really and truly loved. Teen fiction. Young Adult fiction.
I was too young to even be considered a Young Adult, but Blume’s stories struck such a deep chord with me—maybe because I was on shaky footing with the friends I thought would last forever, maybe because I was an “early bloomer” puberty-wise and Blume dealt with those sensitive subjects so deftly. I couldn’t get attached to the Babysitters’ Club or Sweet Valley High books that friends were reading and loving so much. They seemed so paltry—Blume’s characters seemed real. Three-dimensional people with souls and pasts and lives of their own.
And I wanted to be able to create that. I wanted to write books that people could walk away from feeling like they had new friends, new loves, new people dear to their hearts. Stephanie Hirsh and Rachel Robinson (with her own book as a sequel) are still a part of me today. Insecure teenagers fighting to define themselves and their beliefs and motivations—that feeling, that fight, is what made me want to be a writer. What made me want to examine the struggles of the heart and the complications of loving people but needing to be true to yourself, no matter what.
I drank those books down, every Blume I could get. Deenie. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Then Again Maybe I Won’t. It’s Not the End of the World. And then I haunted the YA shelves in my local bookstores—you know, back when it really was just a couple of shelves, usually hidden in the kids’ section?—looking every single time for something more. I was starving for young adult books. And there were a few out there… but mostly I was running across things like Lurlene McDaniels‘ books—where somebody always dies and everybody else is left tortured and ruined for it—and that kind of melodrama was not what I was looking for.
I just wanted good characters. Great characters. Characters that I wanted to stay up late at night on the phone with. That’s what I found in Blume’s books, and it took me a long time to find characters as great in YA again—though it’s certainly not hard now. And maybe it’s not because there were other kids out there like me… who heard that voice in the vast wilderness of literature and finally recognized something that was their own.
My writing has taken a different turn than the contemporary Young Adult that I started making stories up for when I was ten or twelve, but the heart behind the writing has been the same—has strengthened, really. I’m trying my best to capture the kind of power that goes behind emotions when you’re a teenager, and I love the way that fantasy highlights that, and I enjoy putting (hopefully) believable people into impossible situations and see how they deal with them. What’s most important to me is the honesty of the emotion.
So here’s to you, Judy Blume. Thanks for giving me my spark. I’m sure I’m not the only one.