Ours is an age of intense self-preoccupation, yet with little of the dogged reflectiveness that leads to self-knowledge and humility. The tabloids become our confessional. It is there we often look to professionals for guidance, and avidly read their columns and books, in the hope, maybe, of a quick therapeutic fix. We know their pen-names: Ann Landers, Dear Abby, Ask Beth and, lately, Dr. Ruth Westheimer. We all want to be told whether we are OK, and we want to lead the fulfilling lives we are encouraged to pursue.
Children and teen-agers are no less a part of this mad scramble for reassurance and direction, and Judy Blume seeks in her various books to address their concerns. In stories like "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" or "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," she has given voice to a range of childhood and teen-age fears and anxieties.
Her popularity indicates that she has, indeed, struck a responsive chord in many young readers, and this recently published collection of "Letters to Judy" is her way of acknowledging her correspondents and, too, a means of educating all of us. The book is intended, I suspect, as a trouble-shooter's guide to adolescence and parenthood, with frequent asides directed to "kids" or "parents."
The letters are from young people between 9 and 19, mainly youngsters "who love their parents and get along in school, although they still sometimes feel alone, afraid and misunderstood." The book is loosely organized according to the themes raised in these letters: problems with parents; difficulties encountered in school and social life; illness and disability; the breakup of family life; the death of a loved one; sexual development and relationships with the opposite sex; depression and drug use, and more.
The list is long, and although it gives the reader an idea as to the range of struggles waged by young people, it also makes impossible an extended discussion of any particular issue. As it is, each group of a few letters is followed by a brief commentary by Blume--part personal sympathy (to the tune of "I've been there too"), part advice. Yet by racing over difficult issues with a psychological glibness ("Be aware. Acknowledge your feelings."), the unspoken message is that nothing demands long and costly attention . Sometimes the popular language of "healing" obscures the complexities of the human heart.
Yet, the complexity is there in many of these letters. These young people write movingly about their earned emotions. They are crying out to be paid attention to, to have their fears and doubts given the weight and consideration they deserve. Many of them frame their own tales in fictional terms, and the reader begins to sense just how valuable the story is for these kids (and for all of us). Writes one 10-year-old boy: "Dear Judy, If I was going to write a book I would write a book about a boy named Teddy. He would be a kid in fifth grade that everyone hated. He would have all kinds of problems with other people and then one day he thinks, I don't like being teased so I'm going to do something about it! So he does. But I don't know what."
At its best, this is a book that reveals the hunger many children and adolescents feel for direct communication, along with the uncertainty they feel in the face of all the decisions they must make. Yet this book, while intimating the depth of the struggle waged by young people, ends up serving the reader psychological banalities as a substitute for a deep and sustained response.