Every year, Symphony Space holds Bloomsday on June 16th, celebrating the life and work of James Joyce on the date the entire plot of Ulysses takes place. On Super Bowl Sunday, novelist Meg Wolitzer posed the question to a crowd of mostly female adults gathered in Symphony Space’s Peter Jay Sharpe Theatre: “We love James Joyce, but where was he when we got our periods?”
Who was there, famously bringing period talk out of the shadows and embarrassment felt in middle school bathrooms and gloriously into a novel’s climax in the seminal Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret? Not Joyce’s Blooms, but author Judy Blume.
On February 4th, fans young and old gathered to celebrate Ms. Blume’s 80th birthday (the actual date being February 12th) at Symphony Space’s dedicated event: Blumesday. The honoree even broke her decree that she won’t fly during winter to witness the series of comedian and actor-led readings.
Over her 50-year career, Ms. Blume wrote 29 titles, most shelved in the children’s and YA sections of the Key West nonprofit bookstore she now runs with her husband, George Cooper. “But I’m not prolific,” she claimed in a phone interview before Blumesday. “I was prolific when I started, “she says, “but then I got personally happy when I met George,” joking that he ruined her productivity.
Despite marital bliss, Ms. Blume’s latest novel was published in 2015, and—fans rejoice—there’s something “small and different” currently brewing in her writer’s mind.
But when Ms. Blume penned such classics as Margaret (1970) and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972), the YA section didn’t exist. At 40, actor Michael Chernus grew up in the heyday of Blume novel releases. “Kid’s books were kind of silly and dumbed down, and all of a sudden there was this person who was speaking to us in a very frank and relatable way,” he said. He, alongside Orange is the New Black co-star Laura Gómez and actor Giullian Yao Gioiello, slurred with particular realism reading a scene from Ms. Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.
Ms. Blume has the unique ability to speak right to, and from, the heart of child and adolescent insecurities. Mr. Chernus coped with the “embarrassment around every corner” facing an overweight child in middle school with help from Ms. Blume’s Blubber. Ms. Wolitzer, the night’s host, had a more topical entry point. “I was a Margaret too, on my birth certificate,” she says, but she quickly fell under the spell of one of Ms. Blume’s greatest strengths: “How does this writer know me and all of the things my friends and I think about and quietly worry about?”
The protagonist in Ms. Blume’s latest novel, In The Unlikely Event, is 15 years old compared to Blume’s 80. Ms. Blume no stranger to the question, how do you write so authentically and poignantly from a kid’s point of view?
“I have a great memory,” she explains simply.
In addition to remarkable retrospect, Ms. Blume is gifted with sexual frankness, which was a thread throughout the evening. Actor Julie Klausner and comedian Samantha Bee read particularly blush-inducing passages from Wifey.
The deflowering scene in Forever—one of Ms. Blume’s most controversial novels and not the only one to be banned from libraries (she has long been a member of the National Coalition Against Censorship)—received a comedic treatment from Phoebe Robinson, co-host and creator of 2 Dope Queens and Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj.
Before Blumesday, Minhaj cited the Fudge series as his most influential foray into Blume world. As an older sibling himself, he shared in the indignation when Fudge (spoiler alert) swallows his older brother’s pet turtle. Yet, Forever clearly wasn’t part of his collection, and he squirmed (without much empathy from the audience) alongside Ms. Robinson, who elicited near hysterics replacing “yeses” with “yahses” in her reading.
The laughter comes from a place of vulnerability for those of us who turned to Blume novels for answers to life’s most intimate questions. In a music video recorded as a surprise for Ms. Blume (who watched smiling but helpless as the performers brought her characters to life), singer Amanda Palmer throatily summarized: “You and me lying at night in my room. You’ll be inside us forever, Judy Blume.”
She wasn’t so much the voice of a generation as the voice of every generation when its members were of certain age—namely, 7-12 years old. A sizeable contingent from this group turned out for Blumesday’s midday kid-dedicated event.
Amelia Farrell, seven, is excited to begin reading the entire canon with her mother Katheryn, who had practically the entire canon stacked in hand at the event’s pop-up bookshop. Josh Stiefel, Scholastic reporter aged 12, learned through Fudge about the stresses a younger brother might spare his older siblings. Ten-year-old Guadalupe Mejia has moved twice. That, and the universal dread of embarrassing Dad jokes, drew her to Margaret and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself.
However, the books that these kids had clutched to their chests look quite different from the editions that accompanied their parents through puberty, religion, friendship and loss. Notably, Margaret’s new cover shows the title as texting bubbles. “Are you there God?” the protagonist types, “It’s me Margaret.”
Tavi Gevinson, founder of the digital magazine Rookie for young female readers, portrayed Deenie’s eponymous protagonist and Blubber’s bully victim at Blumesday. As someone born into a world of screens, she succinctly states Ms. Blume’s enduring magic: her ability to make life’s inevitabilities “accessible and unscary,” whether it be 1970 or 2018. She notes, “there are young users taking to the internet for the same reasons Margaret was having her private conversations with God.”
God’s ellipses on Margaret’s new cover suggest that he’s listening, though perhaps encouraging Margaret and her rapt audience spanning genders and generations to find the answers themselves. That, or he’s a bad texter.
Thankfully, we have Judy.