By Chana Stiefel
This month, I attended JudyBlumesDay, an event at Symphony Space in NYC celebrating the 80th birthday of beloved author Judy Blume. Four well-known children’s authors--Jacqueline Woodson (the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature!), Rachel Vail, Debbie Ridpath Ohi (who illustrated Blume’s new book covers), & Soman Chainani--held a panel discussion about the influence of Judy Blume’s 30+ books on their writing and their lives.
Then Judy Blume herself addressed the audience of kids and their nostalgic parents. She answered questions, such as which book is her favorite (“It’s like asking ‘who’s your favorite child?"); what inspired her to write (“It was my need. There were so many stories inside me, I had to let them out”); and her age when she started writing (“From the time I was 9 I had stories in my head, but I didn’t start writing until I was in my late 20’s. I had two babies and I was going cuckoo so writing saved me!”).
As a children’s writer, I’ve also been taking Judy Blume’s online Master Class. Many of the key takeaways in the class resonated at Blume’s birthday bash, including what I’ll call Three R’s of Writing:
#1 Real Life
What is it about Judy Blume’s books that have struck a chord for two generations? Her books speak to real kids about real-kid problems. And the source of all that tween angst was Blume herself. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, she says, includes all of her childhood fears exaggerated. (At the birthday event, Broadway actress Colbie Minifie read a dramatic passage in which Sheila overcomes her fears and swims across the pool.) In Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Blume relates her own experiences of what it was like to be a 6th grade girl obsessed with puberty. When writing the book, she took notes on her own life and her childhood fantasies of what it would be like to be a grown up. The part about choosing a religion was fictional, though she says the book is more about finding your place and what you believe in. She calls Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself her most autobiographical book. Blubber came from stories that her daughter in fifth grade shared about bullying at school.
In her Master Class, Blume quotes Maurice Sendak saying, “I’ve never had children, but I was a child.” She advises writers to “be in touch with the child we were!” Remember the smells and all the details. “Go back into your childhood and put yourself in the classroom with your teacher. Who’s around you? What are you doing?” she asks. While writing, authors need to see and feel and react to the details around them to make their books real and relatable.
Two of the biggest challenges for writers is finding time to write and sticking to a routine. Each author at the event spoke about his or her writing rituals that keep them in their chair. For example, Jackie Woodson lights a candle, wears headphones, and listens to a favorite playlist. Soman Chainani exercises before and after writing. Judy Blume famously wears a silver bracelet that reminds her that it’s time to write (although she shared with the audience that the bracelet gets really annoying and she takes it off while writing!). Kids at the event were given elastic bracelets, white paper, and a writing prompt. They had an opportunity to share their writing with the audience--and Judy Blume!
Often as authors, we feel pressure to be writing all of the time. But Blume says she often takes a breather between books. “It’s not fun to write,” she says. "It’s hard work." And if the inspiration isn’t there it’s doubly hard. “Once the inspiration comes, hold on to it,” says Blume. Then write like crazy.
Happy birthday Judy Blume! We wish you many more happy, healthy years of writing!
Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel are picture book critique partners & friends who are passionate about kids' books & are eager to share tidbits from their writing journey with other aspiring writers.