Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cleary and Blume

Although I am an only child, I paraded through childhood with a group of kids who felt very much like family—they even lived in my house. They were fictional characters, but no less real to me. Actually, while I was growing up, they often seemed more real to me than real people did. That is, they were much more honest. They didn't try to stuff you with platitudes or false optimism when things weren't going well, but they gave it to you straight . . . including giving you the knowledge that you'd make it through whatever it was, intact. These characters most often were the brainchildren of one or the other of two classic children's book authors: Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. (In fact, they're so classic that I almost worry it's cliché to remember them here.) While living in Chicago, I started out with Beverly Cleary and her neighborhood of kids on Klikitat Street. Ramona may have been a "pest" to her sister Beezus—and as a parent, I tend to agree more these days with assessments of Ramona that include adjectives like "annoying" or "exasperating"—but she was also a triumph of daring. She was imaginative and could be counted on for some great moments or escapades. Who couldn't relate to the urge to pull a "boing-boing" curl on a girl's head and watch it snap back? Who didn't want to invent new joyful noises? (I must've wandered around saying "yeep!" for a while after reading Ramona and Her Father.) I, too, thought that Chevrolet was a perfectly good, if somewhat odd, name for a doll, and to be completely honest, I envied Ramona her "great big noisy fusses." I didn't generally have the temperament for those, and they'd have been greatly unappreciated by my parents, but they seemed like fun. I don't recall reading the "Henry Huggins" series of books by Cleary—those are the ones I now read to my son, who loves them—but I did go through the whole catalog of Ramona titles. I remember being pleased that, like Ramona and Beezus, I, too, had an "Aunt Beatrice," my Aunt Bea. But eventually, I made a shift from Cleary to Judy Blume. First came Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, then the "Fudge" books. If I cracked the spine of one now, that whole invented world would come back to me. It'll happen eventually, because I know I'll introduce my son to these titles before long. The only thing I remember, unaided by a trip to the local library or any kind of Web search, is the ultimate mealtime showdown between one of the brothers of this story cycle and the father: "Eat it or wear it . . ." was the final threat, and sure enough the food in question (a bowl of cereal, I'm pretty sure) was reversed overhead, by the child himself. That one got a lot of play in my family—never seriously, but I found it so funny that I think for a time it became a mock threat followed by sure laughter. Getting older, the books became more serious, and they always provoked long talks with my mother. What could you do about the kind of merciless teasing that went on in Blubber? How great would it be to really star, like Sally J. Freedman, as yourself? Then, the physical development books: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won't. One for the girls, one for the boys, though I read both with equal interest. My mother had already given me "the talk" by the time I read Margaret, I'm sure—she was always good about providing timely, accurate facts of life and womanhood, and in an open way that was never perfunctory or frightening. But reading the book was different than talking to a parent; it was somehow even more personal, because the reading was done in private. I'm sure thousands, maybe millions of girls have been ushered into puberty thanks to the genius and generosity of Blume's books. Probably a significant number of girls got their only frank guidance from her titles. I had my mom, plus my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Strauss at Chicago's Parker School in 1978-79, who sent the boys out for an extra recess period one day to talk to the girls alone. Kind, approachable, willing to answer any question. But lots of girls never have this advantage in their home or school, I know. Some girls only ever have their own versions of Mr. McMurphy, who was my sixth grade teacher in Los Angeles, and who actually banned Judy Blume from his classroom. My mom and I can still work up a fine indignation over this. He may have done it because a couple of girls were hiding Forever behind their textbooks, giggling over the "dirty" passages during class. It's true, of course, that in class we all owed him at least the respect of following the lesson plans. Still, banning Judy Blume seemed to have more to it than just anger in the moment of a couple of girls not paying attention. Mr. McMurphy had other issues, which are beside the point. (Actually, the whole public magnet school had issues surrounding reading that are beyond the scope of this post, but trust me: it wasn't a place that encouraged freedom of selection or even self esteem in reading.) Forever. This title really caused a flap when it was published in 1975, and the controversy is well known. Forever is now marketed as a "young adult" novel, but that category didn't exist when I was growing up. It's about a teenage girl's first sexual experience, in her senior year of high school. I read the book in the sixth grade, in 1980 or else the spring of 1981, the year that Mr. McMurphy banned it. The sexual content didn't make me uncomfortable, but it didn't seem like anything I wanted to try, either. It just made me and my best friend laugh. A lot. Particularly one sentence, which I can still quote, even having not laid eyes on the book since that time, nearly thirty years ago: "And he moved with her." God, we thought it was hilarious. And thinking back on it, I realize something about that sentence: reading it may have been the first time I noticed how a writer could create ways of communicating something clearly, without saying it directly; the skillful employment of a sexual euphemism was not just funny to me at the time, but also pretty interesting. That the boy "moved with her" wasn't just a literal description, and it wasn't a metaphor—the author wasn't comparing sex to something else in order to convey what it was like—Blume was writing about the physicality of penetration, but in a way that was more acceptable than if she'd described specific body parts right then (we knew what part "he" stood for). So we'd read passages out loud during lunch (where Mr. McMurphy's authority ended). We'd break into gales of laughter, not having any idea what the sex scenes would be like in real life, but we trusted Blume, her euphemisms and her more physical descriptions. We put the book away, stopped thinking about it. For years. But I think it was good that we'd read it—and that we'd read it way before we were ready to contemplate sexual activity in our own lives (I don't want to think of what sixth graders do today). As these skilled "children's" authors knew, filling a need in literature in the 1970s and beyond, girls benefit from knowing that they don't always have to love their sisters; that there is no shame in a body's development; and also that not every story of first (sexual) love is a morality tale of doom and punishment. Cleary and Blume opened up subjects of conversation that I'll always be thankful for: surviving teasing, getting a period, whether it's okay (or not) to be physically intimate when you love someone. And I'll always be hundreds of times more thankful to my mom, both for providing access to these books and also for never flinching or brushing away any question that the books provoked me to ask.

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