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An author who's helped girls to grow

At Blumesday, devotees celebrate Judy Blume and her groundbreaking books on sensitive topics -- and even spend time with the writer.

September 24, 2008|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

Judy Blume has written "a book for every conversation you do not want to have with your child," quipped one of the emcees at Blumesday -- a sold-out event celebrating the 70th birthday of the bestselling author at Hollywood's M Bar on Friday night.

The line drew knowing laughs from the many women in the audience who'd grown up reading "Forever," "Deenie" and other Blume classics in the 1970s, when too-hot-to-handle subjects such as menstruation and masturbation weren't readily discussed, even among friends.

But Blume took them on, boldly going where young adult fiction had previously feared to tread, writing in the first person on topics that had long been taboo. In the process, she earned a following so devoted that 30-plus years later, many of her original readers still can't get enough.

This was definitely the case at M Bar, where a packed house listened to readings and watched comedic reenactments of scenes from their favorite books. Even Blume made an appearance -- albeit briefly and via live video feed.

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A role model

Ten minutes before Blumesday's 8 p.m. start, the onstage video screen broadcast an image of a piece of paper posted on a cupboard: "Judy is coming" was all it said. Unbeknown to the audience, most of whom were excitedly chatting over caprese salads and fried calamari in the red velveteen supper club, the note was hanging inside Blume's very own New York home.

A few minutes later, the camera spun around to reveal the author's shockingly youthful, smiling face, ringed with a mane of Annie-esque red hair -- and she went on to prove that she's every bit the role model now as she was in her heyday.

"I can't think of any better way to celebrate my belated birthday than with my readers," said Blume, who has more readers than most. Since her first novel was published in 1970, she's sold more than 80 million books.

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Readers want to know

Blume went on to answer a smattering of audience questions.

What would she keep or cut in a 2008 edition of one of her most famous books, the menstruation-themed "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret"?

"We've already changed the pads once. I can't change Margaret," Blume said of the premenstrual girl with whom she's long identified.

Was it true Blume's books were among those Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was rumored to have wanted banned?

"It's not true. There's a lot to say about Sarah, but she didn't give that list to the library," Blume said, adding, "I'm an Obama chick."

Did she realize she'd be breaking boundaries when she started writing?

"I didn't know anything. I was just writing about what I knew to be true," she said. "You had that special place, and so did I."

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Blumesday's origins

The audience was (predictably) female and (predominantly) Gen X. These were the women for whom Blume wasn't just an author but a sort of genetic imprimatur. It was one of these women -- Joanna Miller -- who co-created the first Blumesday in Portland, Ore., last year as a YA riff on Bloomsday, the annual literary event that celebrates the lead character in James Joyce's "Ulysses."

At last year's event, and also during Friday's show, Miller, 37, waxed comedic about the Judy Blume diary she'd received as a gift in sixth grade and the adolescent highs and lows of its entries, such as her trip to the Esprit factory and complaints that she had no friends.

"Judy Blume is so huge and seminal," said Jill Soloway, 40, the "Six Feet Under" and "Dirty Sexy Money" writer who not only performed at the event but also helped bring Blumesday to Los Angeles in conjunction with Object, a neo-feminist group designed to help "young women move from being the object in someone else's story to being the subject in their own stories."

Whether it's the overweight Blubber enduring ostracism at school or model-pretty Deenie suffering from scoliosis, Blume's characters offer quintessential examples of girl-women being the subjects of their own stories and finding truths and their own power.

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Comic digressions

That theme was played out throughout the evening, as scenes from "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" were reenacted and discussed by "Saturday Night Live" alum Melanie Hutsell and then comedian Lauren Weedman, who killed with digression after hilarious digression.

"When I was first writing, my little prayers were, 'Please, please, please. Let something be published someday.' Then it went to, 'Please, please, please. Let somebody read this,' " said Blume in a separate interview.

"My prayers never went so far as, 'Please, please, please. Let this last 40 years.' I wanted to write books that people wanted to read. I never realized there would be this group that would remember them so fondly and celebrate them."

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susan.carpenter@latimes .com

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