05/09/2012 09:09 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Judy Blume and the Socialization of Girls

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Girls' books are a genre of literature written by female authors for the adolescent female-audience; the books commonly address issues of womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly, to give young girls "coming of age" lessons. What distinguishes girls' books as a genre is that the plot consists of female protagonists experiencing typical life issues, such as dating, relationships, friendships, roommates, body image, and addiction. Among the most iconic girls' books series is the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal (1983) the Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin (1986); more contemporary girls' books series include The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2003) and Twilight (2005). Among the oldest and most published girls' books author is Judy Blume.

Blume has written over 21 books for girls with more than 80 million copies of her books sold worldwide; her work has been translated into 31 languages, making her an internationally acclaimed girls' book author. Blume's first lengthy girls' book, Iggie's House, was published in 1970, in the midst of the second-wave feminist movement. Blume's novels for girls are among the first to tackle controversial matters such as menstruation and spirituality (Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret), bullying and body image (Blubber), and teenage sex (Forever); as such, Blume's novels have been the source of controversy since their first appearance in 1970 over the appropriateness of such topics for her middle school audience.

Despite battles with censorship, Blume receives thousands of letters each year from readers of all ages who share with her their feelings, concerns, and stories -- enough letters to fill 284 pages in Blume's 1986 published compilation, Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You. Despite what some adults deem as "provocative content," Blume's writing resonates so powerfully with young girls that in 2007, over 35 years since her first publication, Jennifer O'Connell paid tribute to Blume's influence by publishing the collection of 24 essays. In the collection, each piece reveals what O'Connell calls a "Judy Blume moment," or story that reflects the same experiences and women's issues Blume explores in her novels. The title of this tribute is called Everything I Needed to Know about Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, which affirms Blume's vast effect and ability to influence young girls. With a wide audience of young, impressionable female readers, Blume shapes millions of girls through her writing, her stories.

This paper will explore the tensions and conflicting messages seen in girls' books by using the two most widely circulated and referenced Judy Blume books as a focal point for close analysis. I will examine Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Forever. I will research the messages and themes presented by Blume in these novels through my analysis of the portrayals of girls and the gender roles perpetuated through this form of girl's literature. Because "girl's books" are a specific genre, I can analyze the messages in Blume's girls' books knowing she wrote specifically to the young girl audience. The depictions of female protagonists in Blume's novels tell girls who they are, and more importantly, who they should be.

I will argue, with evidence from Blume's writing, that while her stories for young girls may not be inherently feminist or antifeminist, neither completely complying with nor defying gender roles, what Blume's books do, quite proactively, is provide girls with access to information. Blume's novels allow young girls to relate to fiction on subjects that are often overlooked and ignored in public discussion and general education: puberty, menstruation, sex, body image, bullying, and spirituality. Although Blume's writing does not straightforwardly depict strong feminist females, as a medium, her books provide young girls insight on topics not as widely discussed and personalized by popular media. However, the problem with Blume's writing -- filled with conflicting messages -- is that young readers of these books are absorbed in demeaning images that were supposed to empower them.