Last Monday night I attended a benefit -- A Night of Comedy with Judy Blume & Friends to celebrate Free Speech and Benefit the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). Judy's children's books are often censored and I am told her books rank #2 on the American Library Association's list of authors who are the most challenged. It was a great evening, a Comic Salute to benefit the NCAC whose good works and efforts, among other things, help keep books on the shelves where people can find them, and read them, despite attempts to tell us what we can read. .
For those of you who may have missed the Judy Blume generations, she writes from the point of view of young people, growing up, asking questions about themselves, their feelings, their bodies. Are You There God? This is Margaret , Forever, Deenie and her other books have made millions of little girls feel less alone as they experience so many conflicting and new feelings about the world around them. I first met Judy when I published her first adult book in paperback Wifey, and then a few years later I oversaw her paperbacks at Dell in their Laurel and Laurel Leaf editions. I was then lucky enough to work with her on Summer Sisters, her third adult novel. All this by way of full disclosure. But the best part is that I consider her a friend, and I was so excited to see her honored.
The benefit was held at the gorgeous City Winery in New York City on the corner of Van Dam and Varick. Comics, Actors, Writers read from Judy's books; from letters Judy has gotten praising her and damning her; and also told stories about how Judy and her books helped them grow up. Judy Gold was the hilarious MC. Junot Diaz, Rachel Datch, Elna Baker, Paul Moony, Amy Sohn, and Martha Plimpton were all on hand to help honor Judy. Even Marty Garbus, the extraordinary anti-censorship, civil rights lawyer, and his daughter Liz, got into the act. But perhaps one of the highlights of the evening was Dan Glickman, Chair and CEO of Motion Picture Association of America, who read from Judy's book and led the audience in the chant, "We must, We must, we must increase our bust" with all the right movements. I have nothing to say about Richard Beltzer's confusing reading. But Whoopie Goldberg in a taped video message thanking Judy for her books made up for it ...
There was no Judy Blume while I was growing up. I had to get my information about periods, bras, and special feelings, from my very very unreliable friends . I didn't feel comfortable raising questions like that with my mother. And , despite her love for me, she didn't want to raise the subjects "until it was necessary" whenever that would be, and eventually far too late to help me feel "normal" (as one of Judy's fans wrote in a letter to her).
So who did I have to help me navigate growing up? That adventurous sleuth with the blue roadster: Nancy Drew. And I recently learned I have that in common with Supreme Court Justices Sandra J O'Connor and Sonia Sotomayer, and a whole list of other bold names. Today, there are conventions honoring Nancy Drew, essays describing her character and dissertations written on how she influenced generations.
But get this. When I was reading the Nancy Drew books, you couldn't get them in the libraries at all. Not in Detroit, Michigan. My beloved Nancy Drew books were given to me by my parents, my relatives, my parents' friends. Reading in the dark nights under the covers with a flashlight, I devoured these "unsuitable" books, having given up on reading books for my recommended level as too boring. I remember being fascinated by Nancy and her independent ways; her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson; her father, Carson Drew, a criminal lawyer, just like my father and that made this perfect for me. I didn't know anyone like Nancy Drew but I wanted to be Nancy Drew. . Other heroines I was supposed to read about were sweet and adorable, and liked to cook and help their mother, had dreams of faraway places. Nancy was always in the middle of the action and always got her way. She was curious, smart, feisty and independent, but always a good girl . She was all girl who lived in a Boy's World. And she solved crimes (and could fix her own car).
Leaving the NCAC event and getting into a taxi to come home it dawned on me: some schools and libraries have trouble keeping up with the times. When I was growing up in the forties, Nancy Drew wasn't considered a good role model for young girls; the books were considered trash no better than the dime novel or true romance magazines. And now, all these years later, Margaret and Deenie are being challenged.as unsuitable.
Why is it the books that makes girls feel less alone, that have role models who think and ask questions, are the very books the censors turn to first? Have things really changed that much in the last fifty years?
By the taxi got me to my door, I couln't help think: What would my life have been without knowing Nancy Drew? Perhaps I would never left home after college, and come to New York, and had a whole new life, and work in publishing, and never met and married my funny, infuriating, wise and adorable, impulsive and brilliant publisher husband.
Did you have a Nancy Drew or a Margaret in your life?