Thursday, October 22, 2009

Do anachronisms matter? The question led me straight to Judy Blume

Although my daughter is 7 and a strong reader, she still loves the nightly ritual of settling down together to hear me read chapter books to her. Recently, she brought home two Judy Blume classics: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great.

“I read these when I was your age!” I exclaimed. The books had new covers with hipper-looking drawings, I noticed, but I was looking forward to re-familiarizing myself with characters of my era, grade-schoolers from the 1970s, just like me.

Therefore, I was puzzled when we reached a scene in which Sheila’s sister plays a CD. I was sure CD players came out when I was in college in the mid-1980s. Later in the same book, a boy at camp uses a video camera. Who messed with my 1970s Judy Blume? I wondered.

And it came up again later, as we moved from Sheila onto Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and the subsequent books in that series. Making up a Christmas list, Peter Hatcher notes that he wants an MP3 player. Another time in the book, he text-messages a friend.

I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when I was in fourth grade, which would have been about 1975. There’s no question that Judy Blume is considered a visionary when it comes to children’s literature, and rightfully so; her uber-realistic novels have enticed millions of children into the practice of reading, and her frank descriptions of family life and rituals related to growing up have provided reassurance about “normalcy” for just as many. But was she actually a technology visionary as well, anticipating MP3 players thirty years before the debut of the iPod?

I asked a couple of children’s librarians if they knew how these changes had come to be, but they weren’t aware of the situation. So I pulled up Judy Blume’s website and wrote to the e-mail address there, hoping that eventually I might receive something along the lines of a stock response from a publicist’s assistant.

To my surprise, and to Judy Blume’s credit, it was the author herself who wrote back to me, with eloquence and detail. Because I don’t have her permission to quote here from our correspondence, I will try to paraphrase it accurately.

As I understood it, her books (with two notable exceptions, neither of which Holly and I have read) are not meant to be read as historical chronicles, like the Little House books; they are supposed to feel contemporary whenever you read them. Therefore, when they go into re-printing, which books as spectacularly popular as hers do frequently, it only makes sense to make updates when appropriate. Moreover, she pointed out that although the first in the “Fudge” series, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, was published in 1972, the subsequent three books in the series were published over the course of the next three decades. The characters age only three years, but the last book was published in 2002. It wouldn’t make sense to implement outdated items like record players or mimeograph machines in books written in the 1990s or 2000s, so instead, the older books get updated to match the newer ones.

Judy Blume also told me about another update she has made. The personal hygiene items Margaret describes in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, first published in 1970, have been changed. Girls reading it today simply wouldn’t have any clue about the belts and pins Margaret locates when she gets her first period.

It’s this last example that resonates the most with me. Two generations of young women have now gotten information about personal events such as menstruation from Judy Blume’s books. If this is to be their most valuable source of information – and in some cases, unfortunate as this may be, it probably is – accuracy matters, and it just makes sense to describe a situation similar to one the girls will actually experience, rather than describing items their grandmothers might have used.

All of these are good explanations, but I’m still a little dubious. My kids have never actually used a cassette player or a telephone with a cord, but they certainly know these things exist, and even if they didn’t, they’re intelligent enough to realize that technology evolves over the years. One of their favorite Sesame Street CDs has a line about “What is round? A cookie! The moon! This record!” My kids never said to me, “This record? What on earth is a record?” So I was put off by the idea that they needed things like CDs and video cameras translated for them.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the whole idea of trying to make editorial changes based on the era of your audience is a bit of a slippery slope. Sure, it makes sense for Margaret to use disposable pads rather than a plastic belt, but aren’t some of the events themselves in Blume’s books sort of outdated? As a parent of an 11-year-old, I would dearly love to be wrong about this, but I’m not so sure than any 12-year-old still gets flustered over the idea of being kissed in the storeroom at a school dance. Moreover, what do we make of Tony Miglione, adolescent hero of Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, who uses binoculars to watch his 16-year-old female neighbor try on sweaters? With Internet porn a click away, what young male is going to care about sweater profiles?

Not to mention the fact that the impossibly disruptive little brother Fudge in Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing would surely be on Ritalin in today’s day and age, and therefore much less likely to carry out the hijinks that follow wherever he goes.

Judy Blume was tremendously gracious in taking the time to respond to me, and it is with appropriate trepidation that I question the editorial decisions of someone who singlehandedly changed the course of teen-and-tween literature. Make no mistake: Judy Blume is adored the world over, and for good reason. It’s still an interesting question, though. Just how much do kids need to relate to a character on a literal level in order to identify with him or her?

My guess is, not very much. Not long ago I heard Lizzie Skurnick interviewed on NPR about her new book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. She described being at a school in West Africa when the female students asked her the title of the book she was holding. It was none other than Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. The speaker had a moment of panic, worrying that the students would ask her what the book was about and she would have to describe this tale of suburban New Jersey pre-teen 1970s angst to a group of girls raised in the African bush.

She need not have feared. “I love that book!”came the unanimous cry from the audience. They’d already read it. They understood it. And they loved it.

No translations or updates necessary, apparently.


  1. Wow, i didn't know these changes had happened (no kids, and havent time to reread fun stuff like Judy Blume!)

    I remember when I was a kid complaining about missing some partoon or other, and my gramma scoffed saying "when I was little, we didn't have TVs!" It totally blew my mind! The old movies from which I drew my knowledge about life in American in times-gone-by made SO much more sense, and they were relevant!-- they were contextualised! People actually lived before TV- my grandma!

    Now, i'm all grown up, and I'm a huge history nerd. I attribute much of my initial love of the subject to such instances that personalized history. Why should kids not be exposed to the same thing- the charcters they love familiarizing bygone eras and lifestyles?

    There IS something valuable in realising that life exsisted before MP3 players, tampons, and text messages, and Judy Blume is a way to let them find that value.


  2. That's so funny, because when I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in 1990, it hadn't been updated and I didn't know what the belts and pins were all about either! Kind of sad to hear of the changes, but as long as kids are still reading them, it's worth it.