Courtesy of Celeste Sloman for Variety
As one of the most widely banned authors in American history, Judy Blume has some opinions on censorship.
In an interview for the cover of Variety‘s Power of Women issue, the legendary author of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” spoke about her own experiences being censored and the recent Roald Dahl controversy, wherein Puffin Books came under fire for publishing “updated” editions of Dahl’s books including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.”
“What do I think about rewriting the Roald Dahl books?” Blume scoffed. “I think if Roald Dahl was around, you would be hearing what he thinks about that. Whatever he is, whatever he’s accused of being, there’s a lot of truth there. But the books are the books. Kids still love the books, and they love them the way he wrote them. So I don’t believe in that.”
In the new versions of the Dahl books, references to characters’ physical appearances and racial and gender identities have been significantly rewritten. Dahl has been criticized for various forms of bigotry for years, which Blume acknowledges, but she doesn’t approve of the publishers and Dahl’s estate revising his works based on contemporary cultural sensibilities.
When asked if the Dahl situation made her worry that something similar could happen to her own work, she smiled, saying, “Not as long as I’m around.”
Of course, Blume’s books are censored for completely different reasons than Dahl’s. Her 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” has been banned for featuring middle schoolers talking about the menstrual cycle, while in 1973’s “Deenie,” teenage girls learn about and engage in masturbation. “Forever” (1975) follows a high school senior who learns to stop fearing sex as she enters her first serious relationship.
“In the ’80s is when it all broke loose, after Reagan’s election,” Blume said. Her first experience with censorship came when her children’s elementary school principal refused to put “Margaret” on the library shelves: “He believed that menstruation wasn’t a topic that girls should read about, nevermind how many kids already had their periods.”
Though Ronald Reagan’s politics may have emboldened the groups that targeted her work, Blume said that trend was no match for how the issue has progressed today.
“It was bad in the ’80s, but it wasn’t coming from the government. Today, there are laws being enacted where a librarian can go to prison if she or he is found guilty of having pornography on their shelves,” Blume said. “Try and define pornography today and you’ll find that it’s everything.”
“There’s a little picture book I love [by Jessica Love] called ‘Julián Is a Mermaid,'” Blume added. “He’s a little guy, he likes to dress up in fancy clothes, and he has a wonderful grandmother who has all kinds of beads and feathers. She’s supportive of him. If you go back to the ’80s, it was ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ [by Lesléa Newman]. That picture book was banned everywhere. Well, there’s a lot of kids who have two mommies or two daddies, and that book is important! Today, they’re considered pornographic by some legislatures.”
“This is the real danger. That a governor can appoint someone to the legislature who’s thinking this way because he’s thinking this way, and getting laws about this,” she said. “We should have laws on the other side! That’s why organizations that work to protect the freedom to read widely and freely are so important.”
“I discovered ‘the little organization that could,’” Blume continued, referencing the National Coalition Against Censorship, which is the nonprofit she’s chosen to highlight as a Power of Women honoree. “NCAC is right there on the front lines. If a teacher, librarian, parent or student needs help as books are being challenged in their classrooms, NCAC is on the other end of the phone to help.”
Blume went on to say, “What are you protecting your children from? Protecting your children means educating them and arming them with knowledge, and reading and supporting what they want to read. No child is going to become transgender or gay or lesbian because they read a book. It’s not going to happen. They may say, ‘Oh, this is just like me. This is what I’m feeling and thinking about.'”
“Or, ‘I’m interested in this because I have friends who may be gay, bi, lesbian.’ They want to know!” Blume concluded. “I just read a book that was wonderfully enlightening to me. It’s called ‘Gender Queer’ [a memoir by Maia Kobabe]. It’s probably the No. 1 banned book in America right now. And I thought, ‘This young person is telling me how they came to be what they are today.’ And I learned a lot, and became even more empathetic. That’s what books are all about.”‘
Variety's Selome Hailu contributed to this post.