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Author Blume doesn't think of her legacy

| Saturday, July 9, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh arts & lectures
Andy Kropa /Invision/AP
In this Oct. 9, 2014 file photo, Judy Blume attends a screening of 'Listen Up Philip' at the New York Film Festival in New York.

Judy Blume knows she is often viewed as a literary and cultural icon.

She's aware of the reverence afforded her by generations of readers who discovered her books during childhood. And she knows those readers — predominately, but not exclusively, young girls — found immense comfort and inspiration in “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret,” “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Blubber” and countless others of her books.

But Blume refuses to spend a single moment pondering her legacy.

“If I start thinking about that, I think it would just paralyze me,” says Blume, who appears July 12 at Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh's Arts & Lectures' New & Noted series. “I wouldn't be able to do anything. I just go about my life and am grateful readers care and have been with me for years. It's very sweet. But I'm just a regular person.”

A regular person, perhaps, but an extraordinary writer with a celebrated legacy.

Born in 1938 in Elizabeth, N.J., Blume holds honors, including the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement, a Living Legends Award from the Library of Congress and a Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Medal by the National Book Foundation.

These honors are the residue of Blume's innate desire to express herself.

“I'm a person who has to be involved in creative projects,” Blume says. “It doesn't have to be work, it has to be creative projects. And that can be anything. It turned out to be writing for me, but there are a lot of other things. As a kid, I loved being involved in creative projects. It didn't matter what it was as long as it got my creative juices going. And I'm the same today. I'm exactly the same.”

In 2015, Blume published “In the Unlikely Event” (Vintage, $15.95), the story of three airplane crashes that occurred in less than two months in Elizabeth, N.J. Using archival press clippings and tapping into her own memories from the 1952 incidents, Blume reconstructs the crashes through the voices of fictional families.

A newspaper article describing one of the planes imploding like a “swollen cream puff,” causes a young girl in the novel to pause and ponder: How can a cream puff be compared to a crashed airplane? “Or was it that when something so unimaginable happens, you need to find a new way to help people see it?” Blume writes.

Blume insists she wasn't trying to present the airplane crashes in a new way.

“I'm just a storyteller,” she says. “I just tell stories. I don't really think in terms of ‘Oh, I'm going to help people see things differently.' I don't think about any of that. I just try to tell a story as well as I can. And this was a hard story to tell. … Some books are harder than others, and this was long and hard to get right.”

The complexities of “In the Unlikely Event” — Blume features more than 25 characters and her research was exhaustive — challenged the author over the five years it took to write. She also plumbed her childhood memories for details. Surprisingly, the aftershocks of the incidents were brief.

“I think so many of us who lived through that as kids, nobody ever talked to us about it,” Blume says. “I don't think many of us read newspapers. … We weren't traumatized by it, those of us who didn't see it. … I don't know of one old friend who grew up and was afraid to fly. We all fly around. Some of us may like it better than others, but we all fly.”

Blume's goal with all of her books is to find a story that is timeless and relevant. Thus, the use of an editorial from the Elizabeth Evening Post seems particularly prescient: “The inflamed mob action which has been taking place in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran should point a major lesson to western democratic policy makers — the futility of placing too much faith in logic and reason when dealing with angry, impassioned people.”

Blume's use of the editorial wasn't meant to be political. It merely illustrates the cyclical nature of history.

“Do people change? I don't think people change,” Blume says. “There's a lot that's changed about the way we live, but the human condition — I don't know what you want to call it — hasn't changed. There's a lot of stuff going on that's scary stuff, that could go in a lot of different directions where history will tell us we've been before. We should be very careful.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Blume the bookseller

Judy Blume recently added one more line to her resume: bookseller.

Earlier this year, she and her husband, George Cooper, co-founded Books and Books Key West, an independent shop. Located on Key West's Eaton Street, in the same building that houses the nonprofit arts organization The Studios of Key West, the bookshop fills a five-year void on the island.

“We're a town with a lot of literary history,” Blume says. “To this day, it's the home of the Key West Literary Seminar. It still attracts people who are interested in the arts and reading and creating. We wanted (a bookstore) so badly.”

Blume and Cooper partnered with Mitchell Kaplan, a bookseller from Miami, to open Books and Books Key West. She's involved in every aspect of the store, from dusting shelves to greeting customers. And when she travels, Blume seeks tips from fellow booksellers.

“Every place George and I go, we go to indie bookstores and get creative ideas, how to display your books,” she says. “It's just so exciting. It's totally new and it's wonderful.”

Pittsburgh writers on Judy Blume

Kathleen Shoop, Oakmont, author of the novel “Love and Other Subjects”: Judy Blume's writing spanned my entire childhood and the tales still bring back distinct memories of various times in my voracious reading life. “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great,” and “Blubber” were pretty much sanctioned by parents and teachers alike. ... These stories were relatable, readable and fun.

But as we grew up, Blume's novels written for pre-teen and teen girls transformed us from novice readers into full-blown, we-see-the-power-of-the-written-word readers. ...

Blume's stories got to the core of the unsettledness of adolescence; the dread of insignificance, the fear of actually being noticed, romantic relationships, family issues, human development and sexuality. While the early set of Blume books were passed along happily between teachers and parents, this set required many readers to be stealthy in acquiring and consuming them. Reading became an act of rebellion for those who had very protective parents and currency for those of us whose parents allowed reading of just about anything. Judy's magnificent sense of what it was to be a child or a girl growing up is something I will remember and appreciate forever as both a reader and a writer.

Heather Benedict Terrell, Sewickley, author of “The Books of Eva” series: Judy Blume's books were a constant companion throughout my middle-school and early high-school years. During those years, I envisioned Judy Blume as a smart, funny, extremely hip aunt who would tell me anything and everything. And to whom I could tell anything and everything. She showed me how essential an author could be to a young person and how an author could fill in certain gaps in a young person's life — inspiring me then and now.

Rebecca Drake, O'Hara, author of the novel “Only Ever You”: The first Judy Blume book I ever read was “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.”... I can still remember the shock of reading a book that dealt with aspects of becoming a woman (the embarrassment of bra shopping, for instance, and the agony of getting your period) that had always seemed vaguely shameful and extremely private.

... Judy Blume's novels explored the breadth of that experience in a way that exploded the myth of childhood innocence. In Blume's books you had characters dealing with bullying before there was an anti-bullying movement, with childhood obesity before fat shaming became a term and with teen sexuality, before “Twilight” and other books made this mainstream. She was a trailblazer and one of those authors that you carried with you from childhood to adulthood ... Judy Blume's directness and honesty have helped inspire writers like me to examine the lives of ordinary people and create stories about them.

Jonathan Auxier, Regent Square, author of “Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard”: I believe that contemporary slice-of-life children's series like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” owe a huge debt to Blume, who set the mold 35 years before with “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.” These are books I read compulsively growing up, and any time I revisit them, I am newly awed.

The best works of children's literature force readers to simultaneously inhabit two separate states of being — adult and child. When I look at Judy Blume's “Fudge” books, I am struck by how brilliantly they do just that. The anxiety that 9-year-old Peter Hatcher feels as he witnesses his little brother wreak havoc on their home mirrors the universal anxiety of middle childhood: envy for more carefree days even as we fight to grow up.

Sherrie Flick, South Side, author of the short-story collection “Whisky, Etc.”: For those of us born in the late '60s, Judy Blume was the cornerstone of our adolescent and sexual education. Her books were passed from desk to desk in elementary school, the most precious contraband. Dog-eared, those paperbacks came to represent knowledge. And we learned that knowledge was power as we watched “Afterschool Specials” and “School House Rock” videos.

We understood that Judy Blume's books weren't the books our parents read: They were ours. ... Her funny and honest tales formed us, made us into the future Generation X and have continued to influence the generations that have followed. We owe her so much.

I felt like she was writing for me, telling me the secrets of my own life, and because of that I felt OK some days in my own skin and when I knew I wasn't alone. She took the safe genre of young adults and made them real, and for that we will never be able to thank her enough. But I would like to anyway: Thank you, Judy Blume. You are amazing.

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