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Are you there, readers? It's Judy Blume

The author first hit it big in the 1970s with a string of go-to books for kids. She recently helped turn 'Tiger Eyes' into a film and is busy on a 1950s-set novel.

April 20, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
(Helayne Seidman / Washington…)

When "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" first came out, publisher Dutton did not send Judy Blume around the country to talk about it. "There were no book tours!" she says. "I don't think they sent children's book writers on tour."

That was in the 1970s, when Blume had a string of hits for young readers, from small children to those grappling with adolescence. "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" (1970), "Then Again, Maybe I Won't" (1971), "Freckle Juice" (1971), "Deenie" (1973) and "Blubber" (1974) were go-to books for kids for their humor and real-life frankness. That's common now — think Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series — but it was Blume who made it mainstream. Her books have embedded the phrases "I must — I must — I must increase my bust!" and "Eat it or wear it" deep in the minds of two generations of readers.

The latter is from "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing"; Peter is a fourth-grader exasperated by his irresistibly cute (to everyone else) toddler brother named Fudge. Fudge's big personality was based on Blume's son Larry, and the final episode of the book — which one editor dismissed as too unbelievable — came from an actual event she read in the newspaper. If you've missed the book in the last four decades, beware, this is a spoiler: Fudge eats Peter's pet turtle — it is gross, heartbreaking and hilarious.

In a new, 40th anniversary edition of "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," Blume writes, "I love that Fudge's first readers are now parents sharing these books with their kids." Her books now stretch across generations.

The new edition of the book is bringing Blume to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend. Blume, who turned to writing children's books in the 1960s when she was a dissatisfied housewife, is making her first appearance at the festival. She's been to the city before; about 30 years ago, she even lived here briefly.

"We were in New Mexico, and my husband went out on a horse," she remembers. "I was surprised — I didn't even know he knew how to ride a horse. As it turns out, maybe he didn't know so much. He was thrown, and he tried to hang on, and he ripped his rotator cuff." Surgery and physical therapy in Los Angeles meant six weeks for them in Marina del Rey. "That was fun. I like L.A.; if we had wound up in L.A. instead of Key West, I'm sure I'd be perfectly happy." Except for the driving; she prefers her bicycle.

Blume, 74, bicycles around Key West, Fla., and — because she shares a fear of thunderstorms with her character Sheila the Great — she and her husband go north during the summer.

When she's not working, Blume can be found on Twitter — she has 60,000 followers — which she has taken to with uncommon flair. "I like the way it connects people," she says. Earlier this month, she used Twitter to extend an invitation to young adult authors Robin Wasserman and Maureen Johnson. "We had the most wonderful, spur-of-the-moment visit with these two intelligent and funny young women," says Blume.

"Her books approached things very head-on; they were so unembarrassed and confident," says Johnson. "I think there's a definite correlation between the way she approaches her work and the way she approaches her life."

This week, a film made from one of Blume's books, "Tiger Eyes," debuted at the Palm Beach Film Festival in Florida. There have been television adaptations before, but nothing for the big screen. "I love movies, and I've never had a feature film based on one of my books, so it's very exciting," Blume says.

"I loved the cast, I loved the crew, I loved the whole family feeling of it," Blume says. That's family in the literal sense: Her son Larry, his Fudge-like toddler years long gone, directed. Judy joined him on set in New Mexico for all 23 days of the shoot. "Larry was incredibly generous having me sit right next to him. I said it's a good thing we're both mature enough now to do this and not kill each other," she says cheerily.

Blume and her son Larry co-wrote the screenplay. "That part is not the part that I loved, because I don't like writing that much. I know that sounds crazy," she says. To work on the film, she stepped away from her current novel, set in her hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., in the 1950s, and is just now getting back to it. "As much as I hate first drafts, and I always have and always will, I'm very excited about doing this," she says. "I can't wait until I get to the end of the first draft so I can really dig in, and start the part that I like, which is second, third through 30 drafts."

Blume insists that this is not a historical novel, as some have asked, but admits that the time period is a departure for her. "I look for challenges," she says. In 1978, she wrote "Wifey," an adult novel featuring an unhappy housewife with fantasies and adventures. Although some were scandalized by the fact that a children's book author could write about sex, the book was a flat-out bestseller. "I'm really glad that I did it, and I'm glad that I did it when I did it," she says. "It has allowed me to write up and down, for every age group."

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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