"I must still be a girl approaching puberty," says Judy Blume, creator of Blubber, Margaret, Deenie, and Fudge -- some of the most enduring characters in young adult fiction. Blume may be 60, but she has the heart of a girl and a childlike wonder that comes through in the way she writes and lives. She can't get over the purple bougainvillea blossoming around her winter home in Key West, Florida, or the fact that it's always warm. "I love summer. That's why I'm here."
Summer figures prominently in Blume's newest work, Summer Sisters, her 21st novel and third book for adults. Summer Sisters traces the lives of Vix and Caitlin, two friends who summer together on Martha's Vineyard. Vix is the shy one. Caitlin swears in class and gets away with it. Their first summer as "summer sisters," "they clasped hands, closed their eyes and vowed they would never be ordinary." Blume takes them from adolescence -- "'You're really growing,' Caitlin said, focusing on Vix's chest" -- into adulthood, from friendship to forgiveness, with a healthy mix of drama and wry humor.
An effortless, enjoyable read, Summer Sisters was less so to write. "I call it my book from hell," says Blume. "This book was very tough to get right because these two young women were on my mind for a long time." The idea for the story came to her back in the early '80s but kept eluding her. It took over ten years and twice as many drafts to get right, a confounding experience for a prolific author whose previous works came to her whole. Why did she stick with it? "It haunted me, I had to go back and do it. I couldn't let the characters go, they were so real."
They're still real to Blume, who speaks of them as she would about friends. "Caitlin plays games. I love her, but she's really hard to take sometimes. Still I'm glad she was there to encourage Vix to try her wings."
The two women will be real to her readers, too, some of whom, like Blume, identified with Margaret in Blume's young adult classic Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Summer Sisters is the least autobiographical of her books, but Blume admits, "Caitlin represents one side of me, and Vix another. I was the good girl but excited by the idea of being the bad girl."
Of all the characters in Summer Sisters Blume feels she has the most in common with Abby, the stepmother Caitlin resents, the loving, nurturing figure Vix wishes her own mother could be. "My husband doesn't like Abby. He says it's the worst of me, the leftover New Jersey in me." She laughs, but it's not all a joke. When Blume was young, "there was no one like that for me. You're lucky if you have an Abby in your life, who really cares about you."
A whole generation of readers have looked to Blume the way Vix looks to Abby, for assurance, acceptance, and guidance. Readers feel less alone reading her books. They feel a tremendous bond with her. Many have written her letters telling her things they couldn't tell their own families -- something Blume finds to be both an honor and a responsibility. In 1986, she published Letters to Judy, a collection of readers' letters confiding in the author everything from guilt over sibling rivalry to drug use. "I didn't know how to deal with it, and I let it paralyze me, the responsibility overwhelmed me. I had to get help to find out what I could do," she says. "I wanted to save all those needy kids."
Blume has created an easier forum to connect with her readers -- her own Web site (http://www.judyblume.com). Upbeat and colorful and designed by her husband -- "George is so high-tech" -- it's visited "by all these people in their 20s and 30s who come to share things. I get about 200 hits a day. I am approachable. I like people. Everything I have today is because of my readers. We have something to give each other. There's a connection, you know, and it's so sweet."
Blume says her publisher would like her to use her Web site to promote her work, even though sales of her books exceed 65 million copies. But that isn't why she created it. "It's about giving information to my readers, it's not there to sell something."
The way her work is sold is a long-standing issue for the author. Blume captures the weird, exciting time known as puberty better than any other writer, and as a result, publishers have pigeonholed her as a young adult author. An outspoken opponent of censorship and more sensitive than many to the pangs of adolescence, Blume knows that no teenager is going to walk into the children's section of a bookstore for a book.
"If Catcher in the Rye were published today, would it be published young adult?" she asks. When a novel like Salinger's or Summer Sisters has a younger protagonist, Blume thinks the responsible thing is to "publish it adult. The kids who want to read it will find it. The only difference between an adult novel and a young adult novel is the voice and the characters. There isn't any difference in the process, just the experiences."
What makes her want to write about adolescence and childhood is the energy and ardor of the age. "Everything's new and fresh, everything is a new experience. You haven't done it all yet."
Still, being an adult has its own advantages. "You get to make your own decisions. Nobody can tell you what to do. I'm on my way to being an older adult, and I feel this great sense of I don't have to prove anything. I'm not angry, and life is good."
Blume manages to have the best of both worlds. She tootles around Key West on an old bicycle that reminds her of her girlhood Schwinn. "Being here is the best," she says. "I'm a kid and I get to play and nobody tells me what to do and when to go home."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami and a frequent contributor to BookPage.