Judy Blume stood up for the right to read at Variety‘s Power of Women luncheon, presented by Lifetime, in New York City on Tuesday.
The resident Floridian spoke passionately against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent moves to censor public education in the state. “I live in Key West — even though we like to pretend it’s not in Florida — we have the same governor,” Blume said to the crowd. “A governor who wants to control everything, starting with what kids can think, what they can know, what they can question, what they can learn, and now even what they can talk about. We have a legislator who’s trying to put through a bill preventing girls in elementary school from talking about periods… Good luck there.”
Blume is, of course, referencing her 1970 children’s novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and the backlash the book suffered for having the audacity to talk about puberty. Starting off with a little history lesson, the celebrated author painted a picture of what she had to endure and how that experience led her to the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC).
“Let me take you back to the 1980s when the censors crawled out of the woodwork overnight, following the presidential election,” Blume said. “And what a time that was – with parents rushing into [their] children’s schools waving a book saying, ‘I demand that you get rid of this book!’ Most of the time these parents had never even read the book (maybe they had pages turned down). But because in many places schools and libraries didn’t have their policies in place, the books were removed, sometimes quietly, sometimes not.”
Blume went on to accuse the censors of operating out of fear and recalled how fellow author Madeleine L’Engle was accused of promoting new ageism. “I guarantee Madeleine never heard of new ageism when she was writing ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’” Blume said.
“With me it was sexuality, and specifically puberty – which to some people was a very dirty word. It wasn’t something the censors wanted to talk about with their kids. You know — if they don’t read about it, they won’t know about it, and if they don’t know about it, it will never happen to them… guess what,” she continued. “So when I first came under attack, I felt alone. I felt scared. I mean this was America, right? I thought we were a country who celebrated our intellectual freedom? So after awhile I was absolutely thrilled to find NCAC, or maybe they found me. I can’t remember but either way it was a life changer. And it turned out that I was not alone.”
It was during this time that the NCAC was there for not only Blume but also “readers, teachers, librarians, parents, students, everyone who cared about the freedom to read, to know, to question, to choose, to learn,” she said. Blume described the group as “first responders” and credited their involvement with strengthening her cause. And, decades later, the writer realized the world needs their help now more than ever.
“I would like to end this on a sweet and positive note but the reality is, we are right back where we were in the ’80s except it’s the ’80s on steroids… This time it’s not the moral majority or only the religious right. This time it is coming from our government,” Blume said. “Lawmakers, drunk with power, with a need to control everything. Sure it’s still sexuality, but it’s gender, it’s LGBTQ+, it’s racism, it’s history itself that’s under fire.”
Blume then turned her speech directly to the recent censorship moves from DeSantis, dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida.
“Teachers are under fire, librarians are threatened,” Blume said. “They are criminalizing teachers and librarians. It’s not just that they’re threatening their jobs, they’re threatening them. They could go to jail, all because they stand up for the rights of the students they teach. All because they refuse to give in to fear. I’ve known librarians who have saved lives by handing the right book to the right child at the right time. And for that one kid, finding themselves in a book can be a lifesaver.”
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