Thursday, February 4, 2010

Book review: "Then Again, Maybe I Won't," by Judy Blume

Then Again, Maybe I Won't (1971)
by Judy Blume
Yearling / RandomHouse

A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first re-reading a selection of books I myself enjoyed as a kid, to see if I can figure out as an adult why I liked them so much. And being a child of the '70s, of course my favorite author during my own youth was Judy Blume; and 1971's Then Again, Maybe I Won't was my second-favorite of all her books back then, known among my childhood friends as the male equivalent of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (my number-one favorite Blume title), in that it was the book that middle-school girls read to get an idea of what was going through the minds of middle-school boys, while Margaret served the exact opposite function. And indeed, reading through it this week for the first time as an adult, I was surprised to see how the vast majority of the book actually deals with the class struggles that come from a poorer Italian family in urban New Jersey who suddenly become an upper-middle-class family in suburban Long Island, due to a McGuffin-like invention by the family's patriarch; because as many of you can guess, about the only thing I remembered anymore about the book, 30 years after I first read it, is its frank portrayal of pubescent sexuality, which as an adult I now realize is a subject that confines itself to literally only four or five pages of this entire manuscript. And this was the power of Blume's work in the '70s, I suppose, that it tackled head-on the kinds of messy yet very real issues that confront most 10- to 13-year-olds, in a candid way that kids ate up back then but that made her controversial among adults; it's a tradition that I realize now as an adult started with JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and that paved the way for such contemporary YA masters as John Green and Sarah Dessen.

In fact, one of the biggest things I take away from this book as an adult is just how much I craved flawed characters as a kid, heroes who made plenty of mistakes and sometimes had less-than-stellar personalities, such a change from the perfect little sweethearts that dominated children's literature before the countercultural '60s; and I suppose this is why I was drawn so much to character-based dramas in general during those years, although it should be noted that I was as much a fan of various action-oriented books in those same years, such as the Narnia series and the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries (several of which I'll also be re-reading for eventual critical inspection here). What I learned as a writer by re-reading this is that kids can often forget nearly everything about a book and still count it as a favorite, as long as it offers up a few genuinely unique, laser-precise insights into tricky areas of the child psyche; unfortunately from a professional standpoint, I'm told that such books are incredibly difficult to get sold, and require coming across a dedicated editor with a mindset towards winning awards, and who doesn't mind taking on the occasional censorship battle. (There's a reason, after all, that something like 80 percent of the submission guidelines I've now read from various publishers explicitly state, "We do not accept manuscripts that deal with puberty or sexuality.") Although they're the kinds of books that stick in readers' heads for decades, I'm coming to realize that one simply cannot try to base a career on such titles (unless you're Judy Blume, and I am certainly not Judy Blume), although definitely one can always be concentrating on adding unique insights about childhood to virtually any kid-lit story they're writing.

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