Judy Blume Accepts the 2005 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Presented at the 2004 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 17, 2004
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York

Deborah Wiley, Photo credit: Robin Platzer

Deborah E. Wiley, Chairman of the Board of Directors of National Book Foundation (introducing Judy Blume): Thank you, Garrison. And thank you Abby for such a wonderful reading.

One of the great pleasures of being the Chair of the National Book Foundation is having the honor of presenting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This year is the first time the Foundation will bestow the Medal on a writer whose principal audience has been young readers, and whose work has made her one of the most influential and important writers in America.

Various authors desire different outcomes from their work, including fame, fortune, social influence, political change, love, and to leave an everlasting mark. Perhaps young adult writers have a special place for the last item on that list. Their books reach still-forming minds and have the opportunity to imprint themselves, to help these growing personalities over a few of the rough spots, to explain a bit about how the world works, and, perhaps most important, to be enchanters, to be literary alchemists, to be the sorcerer’s apprentice who takes the jumble of letters and words and sentences, and out of them creates lifelong readers.

Judy Blume is just such an artist and artisan. You see her readers on school buses and subways and in bookstores, their noses buried deep into Fudge or Superfudge or Tiger Eyes, or late at night when they are supposed to be asleep they huddle under the covers with a flashlight and speed through Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Though boys often read her work, especially the Fudge books, it’s to girls she has spoken most powerfully. You can turn to your neighbor tonight and if she’s under 55 Judy Blume was one of her best friends from the ages of 9 to 13. If she’s over 55, Judy Blume was her daughter’s best friend in those years. Few writers in America have had such an enormous impact in encouraging children to be children and adolescents to be adolescents, and inspiring them to develop in their own ways, in their own time, in accordance with their own dreams.

Her individual works are among the most acclaimed books for young readers in the country. Blubber won the New York Times Outside Book of the Year, Tiger Eyes was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and won the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award. And in these perilous times, just two months ago, the American Library Association designated her as the second most censored author in America over the past fifteen years. She has taken up the gantlet of that censorship and dedicated her time, energy, fame and money to ensure that the written word will continue to be free and unfettered in our society.

On behalf of the Board of Directors, it gives me great pleasure to present the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Judy Blume.

Photo credit: Lorenzo Ciniglio, Judy Blume accepting the NBF's Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Medal.

Judy Blume: Thank you, everyone, thank you so much for being here and for your applause, making me feel so welcome. Abby, thank you for reading that passage [from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret]so beautifully. Dick Jackson and I were holding hands remembering. And to Deborah and Harold and all the Members of the Board of the National Book Foundation, thank you so much for this great honor.

Garrison [to Garrison Keillor]– in my book, Summer Sisters, there are two young girls who call a guy they covet “The National Treasure.” But you truly are our national treasure. [Applause] And thank you for being with us tonight.

I can’t believe I’m standing here, as my family will tell you. This honor was so totally unexpected it left me speechless and for months I remained speechless, even knowing I would have to stand up here tonight and deliver a 15 to 20 minute speech. Yes, that’s how long it’s going to be before you get your main course.

Standing in this darkened room tonight, which is exactly how Stephen King described it to me, knowing that you’re all out there even if I can’t see you, I feel totally connected — to you, to those who have been honored with this award before me, to the nominees, to all the writers in this room, and especially to those who write for young people. By honoring me, the National Book Foundation is also honoring the community of children’s book writers and a more talented, hardworking group I’ve never met. I dedicate this beautiful medal to them – especially those who most inspired me when I was starting out: Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh and Elaine Konigsburg. [Applause]

I have my readers to thank for my career and not a day goes by that I don’t remember that. I doubt there’s a more loyal, supportive audience anywhere and almost from the start, as many of you know, they have written to me. So I wanted to share a couple of their earliest letters, which remain my favorites.

Dear Judy,
How do you do these books? Do you do them with your mind or do you use a kit?

Dear Judy,
Please send me the facts of life in number order.

My connection to books goes way back. Some of my earliest memories have to do with books. Sitting on the floor at the Elizabeth Public Library in New Jersey, not just turning the pages and pouring over the pictures but sniffing the books. I loved the way they smelled, like a warm, ripe blankey. When I got my first library card, I decided I would become a librarian — and it wasn’t just that librarians got to spend all day surrounded by books, it was that they had magical pencils, pencils with rubber stamps attached so you could write and stamp the date at almost the same time. I hope somebody here is old enough to remember those pencils. No one else had pencils like librarians.

Photo credit: Lorenzo Ciniglio Judy Blume with Harold Augenbraum, National Book Foundation Executive Director

I was a small, shy, anxious child with eczema, as fearful as Sheila the Great, as imaginative as Sally J. Freedman. I could play alone for hours, bouncing a pink Spalding ball against the side of our brick house, making up stories inside my head. One day I was a tough, gritty detective in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the next, a double agent during World War II. Sometimes I was a surgeon amputating the arms and legs of my paper dolls, then taping them back together. My patients were eternally grateful.

I was always a storyteller, although no one ever told me I could grow up to become a writer, and it certainly never occurred to me. I never shared my stories but they were there as far back as I remember. In my early fantasies, I was Esther Williams, a movie star of my youth. (I hope somebody remembers her.) She could swim underwater and smile at the same time without ever getting water up her nose. This seemed totally amazing to me, a little girl who always kept one foot on the bottom of the pool just in case.

Though I was a reader — and I owned all the Oz books, bought Nancy Drew mysteries at the Ritz Bookshop for 25¢ apiece, and loved the Betsy-Tacy series — I never found my kind of reality in children’s books. No child was anything like me. No child thought the kinds of things I did, leading me to believe I definitely wasn’t normal — which my brother, who is here tonight, might say is true — so I thought I had better keep this inner life of mine a secret.

By sixth grade I had lost interest in children’s books so when it came time for book reports, I would make up a title, an author and a theme (I hated themes — I still hate themes) and I would stand up in front of the class and report on this imagined book. I must have been convincing because I always got an “A” on those reports, and when I reported on a book I’d actually read, I didn’t.

For the most part, I couldn’t report on the books I was actually reading because those were the books I found on my parents’ bookshelves: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye and an illustrated copy of Lysistrata I found particularly interesting. I loved those books. I may not have understood everything in them but they gave me a glimpse into the secret world of adults which is what I was after, and I’ll always feel grateful and connected to those authors.

And then for a while in my twenties I became disconnected, not from books but from my inner life. I was married then with two small children, living in the suburbs of New Jersey. I adored my children but inside was an empty space, a gnawing, an ache that I couldn’t identify, one that I didn’t understand. The imaginative, creative child grows up and finds that real life, no matter how sweet, is missing some essential ingredient. I’m often asked how and why I began to write and I answer, “Out of desperation,” although now with “Desperate Housewives” on TV, I may have to rethink that. I was physically sick with one exotic illness after another in those years but once I started to write, my illnesses magically disappeared. I found an outlet for all that emotion, all that angst. Writing saved my life and it changed it forever.

When my first manuscript was returned with a letter of rejection, I hid in my closet and cried. “Does not win in competition with others,” was the reason checked off on the rejection form. I discovered rejection hurts; it can even be humiliating, but it doesn’t kill you. You still eat your supper, bathe your kids, go to sleep and get up again the next morning. Rejection only made me more determined. I stopped crying in my closet.

I didn’t know anyone who wrote or anyone who had ever written. I didn’t know anyone even remotely connected to the world of publishing. But I was a reader and by reading I learned to write. Why children’s books? It never occurred to me to write anything else. I’d always identified with children and I was so connected to the child I was, I remembered everything so vividly, that when I sat down to write Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, which is, by the way, my third book – we’ll forget the first two – Margaret spilled out spontaneously. And yes, for those of you who are wondering, I really did do those exercises, and no, they don’t work, at least not for me.

I had no agenda. I wanted only to write the best, the most honest books that I could. I hoped, I prayed, that some day I would be published, and later, that some day I might reach my audience. After two years of rejections, I was discovered in the slush pile at Bradbury Press by Dick Jackson. [Applause] You just don’t know; you can’t imagine being that lucky. Those who do know, understand that Dick is one of our most gifted editors. I hope I’m not going to embarrass him by saying this, but Dick is legendary in the world of children’s books. And he saw something in my early work – don’t ask me what — that made him take me on. He taught me well. He was gentle, wise and funny. He still is. Dick, thank you for being here with me tonight and thank you for believing in me all those years ago.

I was in a hurry in those days. Life in my family was short. I grew up sitting Shiva. Shaped by death, I was alternately fascinated, terrified and consumed by the ultimate ending. Like my mother in her later years, who on the day she finished knitting one sweater started another, sure that God would not take her in the middle of a sleeve — as soon as I finished one book, I started the next. I’m not in such a hurry now, though I know my mother would not want me to tell you that, just in case someone is listening.

Looking back, I believe that not knowing anything about writing or publishing worked in my favor. I was free to write just as I had been free to make up stories inside my head when I was nine years old. There were no rules. There was no critic on my shoulder taunting me, no censor warning me that I was heading for trouble.

My work has saved me when I was sure I couldn’t cope, when I was sure my personal life was falling apart. It’s given me a strength, an identity, a reason to keep going.

I think there must have been something in the water in Elizabeth, New Jersey because the town produced quite a few writers, Mickey Spillane for one – does anyone remember I, the Jury? My Uncle Bernie taught Mickey Spillane in high school. Do you remember when Mike Hammer discovered she was a real blonde after all? It took me a long time to figure that one out.

And just a few miles away in the Weequahic section of Newark was Philip Roth. I am more connected to Philip Roth than he will ever know and I’m not just another fan, although I surely am a fan. His mother and mine went to high school together in Elizabeth. When Wifey, my first novel for adults, was published, my mother ran into Mrs. Roth on the street. Mrs. Roth had some advice for my mother: “Look, Essie,” she said, “when they ask you how she knows all those things, you say, ‘I don’t know, but not from me’.”

When you write a sexy novel, old boyfriends crawl out of the woodwork and contact you. They’re all sure they missed out on something hot when they were teenagers. Believe me, they didn’t. My favorite Wifey letter, though, comes from a stranger:

You’re rude and crude, depraved and lewd
You’re caught in a moral crunch.
You’re vexed, perplexed and oversexed
So when can we have lunch?

How sweet it was in the first decade of my career.

But then my life as a writer took another turn, unexpected and frightening. I never dreamed my books would become a target of the censors. I mean, this is America, right? Aren’t we supposed to celebrate our intellectual freedom? That’s what my parents taught me. That’s what I learned in civics class in sixth grade, ironically, about the same time as the McCarthy hearings.

I’ve always believed that learning to think for yourself, learning to make intelligent, thoughtful decisions, is one of the most important parts of an education. So it makes me sad and very angry that encouraging young people to think for themselves is seen by some as subversive.

I never planned to become an activist but things happen. You either take action or you don’t. Standing up and speaking out for what you believe in — well, it feels a lot better than doing nothing. And while you’re doing it, you find out you’re not as alone as you thought you were.

I am proud to be able to introduce you tonight to my Fab Four – they don’t know I’m doing this – my Fab Four are tireless freedom fighters who work day after day to protect our First Amendment rights. I know they won’t want to, but I’m going to ask them to stand up anyway.

Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. [Applause] Please, please, if you’re not already members, join this most amazing organization. The newsletter alone will make you glad you did. And what a celebration we had last night for NCAC’s 30th birthday.

Chris Finan, President of ABFFE, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. And if you haven’t already, please do sign the Reader’s Privacy Petition to amend the Patriot Act. It will be in the lobby as you leave.

Judith Krug, Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. The first time I heard Judith speak I was wowed by her articulate, fearless stance on behalf of free speech. I am wowed every bit as much today.

Pat Scales. Pat is a librarian and teacher extraordinaire, who came all the way from Greenville, South Carolina to be with us tonight. It would take me all of my twenty minutes to tell you what Pat has done on behalf of Free Speech. But besides everything else, and one of the things I am always most impressed by, is that Pat teaches kids what the First Amendment means and what it would mean to lose those rights.

I can’t begin to thank these four for their commitment to writers, readers, students, teachers and librarians. I fear they are going to be busier than usual during the next four years and for years to come. You know, the urge to ban is contagious. It spreads like wildfire from community to community. If it happens at your school, your library, your theaters or museums, please speak out. Censors hate publicity.

I want to thank my long time publishers for their continuing support, especially the teams at Dutton, Penguin Putnam, Random House and S&S (Simon & Schuster) for keeping my books alive and well for so many years. And especially to Beverly Horowitz and Carol Baron. They’ve worked with me almost from the start and I thank them for their smart and savvy publishing and for being godmothers to my books.

Thank you, Owen Laster, my current agent. And I would like to remember Claire Smith, who guided my career for almost three decades. She would have loved this. My wonderful loving family is here with me tonight — my daughter Randy, my son Larry, my grandson Elliot, who said he would come tonight if he could sit next to Stephen King. Elliot, I wish I could have arranged that for you. Elliot is my inspiration, the light of my life. And you look handsome in your tux. My brother David is here, and my sister-in-law Maggie, and my dear, dear old friends who know me best. Thank you for sharing this moment with me.

Finally, to my husband, George, who I sometimes accuse of having wrecked my career because in our 25 years together I’ve been happy, and contentment isn’t nearly as good for writing as angst. I love You, You’re Perfect, Don’t Change!

And now, because this is where it all began and this is why I’m standing here tonight, one more letter:

Dear Judy,
My mom never talks to me about the things young girls think most about. She doesn’t know how I feel. I don’t know where I stand in the world. I don’t know who I am. That’s why I read. To find myself.
Elizabeth. Age 13.

And Elizabeth, wherever you are, you are the reason I continue to write.

Thank you. Thank you so much. [Applause] I told Elliot before we left tonight, “Elliot, this is a big night for me.” And it really is. Thanks to all of you for making me feel so warm.

Copyright © 2004 Judy Blume and the National Book Foundation. All rights reserved. This speech may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.