Late Night Library

Famous First Words: The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo

Throughout most of the 1960s, Judy Blume was known to those in her life as a homemaker.

“I wanted to become an elementary school teacher and to find a husband,” Blume later explained. “That’s what was expected of most young women back then.” She accomplished the latter, getting married in 1959 to a law student that she had met during her sophomore year at NYU, and never got around to the former after becoming pregnant with their first child while she was still in school. Blume’s father, whom she would go on to frequently acknowledge as the principal formative influence in her life, died only weeks before the wedding. She finished up her degree in 1960 and the couple’s daughter was born in 1961, followed two years after by a son.

The family settled in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, ten miles away from where Blume grew up in Elizabeth, and she began to feel isolated. Her best friend since the seventh grade, Mary Sullivan, was now Mary Weaver, and the two women gradually grew apart as their lives diverged. Searching for a connection outside of her home life and finding none, Blume did her best to keep up appearances, even to her mother. “Each time a moving van brought a new family to our cul-de-sac, I’d be out there, a welcome committee of one, hoping this would be it,” Blume said. “It never was.” With the walls slowly closing in, she raised her children and played tennis and kept the house clean. Her mind wandered.

Restless and unfulfilled, Blume actively explored new outlets in order to find out if one of them might stick. After a series of fruitless experiments, including a brief attempt at songwriting and a basement craftwork venture that failed to attract new customers beyond the initial batch of inventory, she started to write after her second child went off to preschool. According to Blume, she wrote “out of loneliness, maybe even desperation,” but it was also the most natural application of her creative energy that she could have landed on. She realized then that she had been doing it since she was a child anyway—making up stories in her mind while she was occupied with something else at school, or while playing outside, or while practicing the piano (pretending, for example, that she was the music teacher, and keeping a notebook with the names and progress reports of all her students). It had just never really occurred to her to write down any of those stories.

When Blume began putting them onto the page, she did so on her own. At home, the process was dismissed as simply another diversion, and she was met with either indifference or outright discouragement whenever she solicited the opinions and guidance of people she knew. Toiling away at the typewriter that she had held onto from her college days, Blume spent the next two years piecing together stories and sending them off, getting as many as six rejection notices back each week. “With every rejection, it was tough,” she said. “But each time, I got a little stronger, and I said, ‘Well, yeah, okay—that one. But wait’ll they see the one I’m doing now.’” Eventually, she decided that she could benefit from more focused instruction, if only to have some support along the way, so she signed up for a class at NYU called “Writing for Children and Teenagers,” which was being taught by Lee Wyndham, an author of children’s literature who had gained renown during the ’40s and ’50s. Though Blume ultimately found Wyndham’s teaching philosophy to be somewhat rigid and restrictive, the weekly sessions were just what she needed. At the conclusion of the semester, she registered for the class again.

Blume’s breakthrough came when she sold her first two stories in 1966. She also finished her first book, which went unpublished, but the motivation had already taken hold. Blume mailed off more packages, improvised and relatively unrefined by industry standards (with rough illustrations of her own added into the picture books by necessity), and the rejections continued to pour in. She kept at it, though, and finally hit the mark when the Reilly & Lee publishing house sent back an offer for a Blume story about Freddy Dissel, a second grader and middle child who feels invisible to the rest of his family until he lands a role in a school play. Blume got an $800 advance from Reilly & Lee, and The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo hit shelves in 1969.

Then, of course, the flood. Blume finished her second book around the time that Green Kangaroo came out—this time a novel called Iggie’s House. The book examined racial prejudice in what would be the first example of Blume’s insistence on fostering a realistic discussion of issues that actually affect the lives of children and young adults: loneliness and alienation, social pressure and bullying, biological development and sexuality, divorce and death. Many of her most well-known and influential books (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret came right on the heels of Iggie’s House) were written during that shockingly productive first decade of her career, during which Blume had the gall to talk out loud about subjects that continue to inspire protests, occasional bans, and reliably consistent hate mail from an uncomfortable and perpetually incensed opposition. The backlash is an echo of the environment that she grew up in—“a world of secrets kept from children, a world of questions without answers.” Meanwhile, another generation of young readers is let in on the conversation.

Posted on: February 4, 2015 · Blog, Famous First Words, Homepage ·Tags: , , , .

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