Just as Long as We're Together by Judy Blume (Orchard Books/Watts: $12.95 hardcover; 296 pages)
Like that of Ann Landers (which it rather resembles), Judy Blume's career is a great American success story: how a warm-hearted Jewish girl with a keen sense of humor but no specialized training became the respected adviser of a whole generation of readers.
About 85 million people are said to read Landers' column daily, and though Blume can't quite match that, her books have sold more than 30 million copies in two decades. She receives 2,000 letters a month from young people who want to tell her their problems, ask her for help, and urge her to write her next book about their special dilemma.
A Universal Experience
Reading Blume, like reading Landers, is an almost universal experience in modern American life.
Blume is a widely imitated cultural phenomenon and almost a publishing industry in herself. "Just as Long as We're Together" is her 16th story for young readers. Her audience is sometimes grade-school kids and occasionally older teens, but her favorite age is almost 13 in seventh grade, just like Stephanie, the heroine of this latest fiction.
Blume has also published two novels about adult heroines having problems growing up and a collection of "Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You," interspersed with advice and autobiographical revelation. She has even marketed "The Judy Blume Diary: The Place to Put Your Own Feelings" and has been the subject of a biography for young readers, "Judy Blume's Story."
Why is she so popular? Pretty, youthful, and small (about the size of her favored age), Blume smiles ingratiatingly at her readers from the back cover. The photo sums up the appeal--and the limitations--of her work. Always supportive and non-judgmental, she is, like all her main characters, someone with whom kids can identify. Her stories often relate to her own life experience, and she has claimed almost total recall of her childhood years.
Though she has won some children's book awards, her work has generated more controversy than critical acclaim. Her stories have been banned because they speak frankly about the problems of masturbation from a child's point of view. God must often have listened to prayers for help from young girls without much in front, but Blume was among the first to say so in print, just as she was among the first to depict kids using language unprintable here.
Stephanie's problems are far less dramatic than those of many Blume protagonists, but the formula is the same. Blume is fond of first-person narration, and the heroine here tells her story in simple, real kid language, inviting readers to identify with her dilemmas over girlfriends and boyfriends and that most basic of all teen problems: "Sometimes I feel grown up and other times I feel like a little kid. I seem to be more than one person."
She lives in Connecticut (as Blume now does) and has a best friend named Rachel (as Blume once did). She has a picture of a "hunk" taped on the ceiling above her bed and a young brother prone to nightmares (as Blume's was). Soon she acquires another best friend, Alison Monceau, adopted, Vietnamese, from California, owner of a dog who seemingly talks.
But can a girl have two best friends? Alison is laid-back, lovable and quickly popular; Rachel is super-smart, a perfectionist and a worrier. When Rachel labels Steph "an eternal optimist," Stephanie has to look it up: " 'One who has a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of happenings and to anticipate the most favorable result.' Well, I thought, what's wrong with that?"
Clearly, Blume shares Steph's predisposition, but the heroine's optimism must be tried by family and friendship crises. Less a plot than a meandering record of seventh-grade experience, the story interweaves the tests and trials of female friendship with other characters and themes. There are Jeremy Dragon, the beautiful, unattainable older guy all the girls sigh over and the more bratty boys one's own age who turn out not to be so bad after all. There are Steph's much-loved father away on "business" in California and a go-getter mother with her own travel agency (a big change from the housebound mothers in Blume's earlier stories).
When Steph discovers "business" is really a trial separation, she acquires an eating disorder. Meanwhile, her brother Bruce has to be comforted when he wakes in terror over nuclear war, and Steph finds herself painfully alienated from Rachel: "How can you be best friends with someone who keeps secrets from you?"
If it all sounds grim, it is anything but.
If not one of Blume's better books, this latest novel delivers the familiar hope and help her readers expect: It's all just part of growing up, so hang in there.