The highlight of the 2015 BookCon for me was – without a doubt – a conversation between Jennifer Weiner and Judy Blume. For me, and I’m sure many others in the audience, just hearing Judy Blume’s new conjured up all kinds of feelings: feelings of nostalgia, of hours spent reading during the summer; feelings of relief, of realizing I was not the only one going through that crazy adventure that is puberty. When I was in fourth grade, my mom gave me a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret which I read very quickly, spurred on by curiosity and the connection I felt to Margaret and her friends. Talking about Margaret with my mom is a memory I’m thankful to have, and I do think this gift helped make the whole growing-up thing a little less terrifying.
(My cousin and I also went around chanting “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” Did that work? I don’t think we’ll ever know.)
On Sunday afternoon, Gabriele and I rushed into the Special Events hall and claimed seats in the fourth row for the panel. The fourth row! I kept thinking back to the Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak panel the morning before, where we were situated very far back and behind a column, our view to the stage totally obstructed by concrete.
“Teenage girls have been lined up all morning to see Youtube stars,” I kept saying to Gaby. “But they should be here seeing Judy Blume!”
(Nothing against the Youtube stars. When iJustine, Justine Ezarik, came out on stage to introduce the panel, she seemed incredibly happy to be there talking about an author who undoubtedly factored into her childhood, too.)
Jennifer Weiner, the author of such best-sellers as Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, was absolutely bubbling with excitement. She started the panel by thanking Judy Blume (who received a standing ovation as she walked on stage), for being the “cool babysitter” who let her stay up late, the one who had a boyfriend, the one who told it like it was. She was thankful to Ms. Blume for speaking to young girls everywhere.
“Thank you for letting those girls know they’re not the only one whose friends are being weird, and whose parents are too strict… You’re not the only one who wondering when her boobs are going to start growing.”
The crowd roared when Blume opened up her denim jacket and looked out at the audience.
After a lovely, incredibly sweet introduction, Weiner and Blume started discussing In the Unlikely Event, Blume’s newest novel which released today, June 2nd:
In 1987, Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life. Thirty-five years earlier, when Miri was fifteen, and in love for the first time, a succession of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving a community reeling. Against this backdrop of actual events that Blume experienced in the early 1950s, when airline travel was new and exciting and everyone dreamed of going somewhere, she paints a vivid portrait of a particular time and place—Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” Elizabeth Taylor haircuts, young (and not-so-young) love, explosive friendships, A-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threat. And a young journalist who makes his name reporting tragedy. Through it all, one generation reminds another that life goes on.
Jennifer Weiner, who read the novel and was so enthusiastic about it, wanted to know why Blume had never told this story before. Why is this story from her childhood only finding its way into her writing now?
“I’ve been a writer for forty years,” Blume said. “Why did I never write this story? I don’t know. It was so deep inside of me. I never forgot about it, but it never occurred to me to write about it.”
She sees the novel as a labor of love. “It was a long, intense, painful five years.” Despite this seriousness, her excitement over the experience and the finished product was apparent as she laughed:
“I’m the one who always tells her friends not to talk about the book you’re writing because then you won’t have to write it,” she said. “And I told everyone! And I still had to write it!”
The story’s characters are fictional, but she acknowledges the inspiration she received from real people. A dentist in In the Unlikely Event was inspired by Blume’s father, who was a dentist tasked with examining the dental records of victims of the plane crashes. Blume likes to include “heroic dentists” in her work, as an homage to her father.
Blume may have been writing professionally for forty years, but she’s been a writer much longer.
“I was a writer inside my head… when I was eight or nine years old, bouncing a ball against the side of my house. You know,” she mimed chucking a ball, “Stories, stories, stories.”
At age 77, Judy Blume had lots of advice to offer the audience. She is, as Jennifer Weiner put it, the cool babysitter who “tells you like it is.” And while Blume insists that she’s just a normal person, and she joked about her husband asking “the Goddess” what she wants to do for dinner, she had the audience in the Special Events Hall enthralled. We laughed (a lot), and many of us even discovered tears in our eyes. In that hall, we knew we were in the presence of someone great.
Blume kicked off a small book tour on Monday, when she visited Elizabeth, New Jersey to sign books in the mayor’s office. What must it be like, to return to your hometown, and to share this book – this labor of love – with your town? While I’ve only read the first thirty or so pages of In the Unlikely Event (while waiting on the autographing line), I can tell that this book is going to be special. Blume tells the story from various characters’ perspectives, and even in the short amount I read I could already see myself falling, and feeling for, these characters.
The longest lines at the BookCon on Sunday may have been for Youtube stars, but there in the Special Events Hall was the real celebrity. And she is a writer, and a mother, and a wife, and a friend. Readers, if you have the opportunity to hear Judy Blume speak, take the opportunity. It is a memory I will cherish as a reader, and as a human being, forever.