For the second year in a row, the National Book Foundation has sidestepped authors who speak to a more rarefied literary audience and decided to bestow its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on a writer for the masses: Judy Blume.
Like last year's winner, Stephen King, Blume tallies her book sales in the tens of millions and enjoys a widespread following even among people who don't consider themselves serious readers. That contrasts with other winners in the award's 15-year history, such as John Updike, Philip Roth, Gwendolyn Brooks and Saul Bellow, whose literary reputations dwarf their popular appeal. Blume has written more than 20 books, most for children or young adults, and there are more than 75 million copies of her books in print. She first become well known with the 1970 coming-of-age classic Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.
"I think it's an effort to be more comprehensive in our approach and more inclusive in our approach and both of the selections represent this," NBF executive director Harold Augenbraum said of the two most recent honorees. "They are writers who, yes, sell a lot of books, but who also have a great effect on their readers." He pointed out that past recipients have not all been literary lions—in 1999 the award went to Oprah Winfrey.
Such big-name choices help raise the profile of the foundation and the National Book Awards, a consideration not lost on the selection committee, Augenbraum said. "I don't think you can eliminate it as a factor," he said. "But I don't think it's a major factor. There is a combination of factors, including the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the work that the person has done in the literary community."
Last year's selection of King stirred some isolated sputters of outrage, most loudly from cultural critic Harold Bloom. But for the most part, the NBF was cheered for recognizing an author who motivates millions to buy and read books. The current choice doesn't seem to have inspired any objections.
This year, Augenbraum said, the foundation wanted to honor for the first time an author of young adult books. Augenbraum said Blume was chosen not just because of her longtime popularity but for her influence in tackling formerly taboo topics and her outspoken opposition to censorship.
Blume has throughout her career provoked controversy by writing frankly about sex, religion and family. Are You There God? is one of five books by Blume that appear on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books of the 1990s. The others are Forever, Blubber, Deenieand Tiger Eyes.
Asked why she has so often been a target of censorship attempts, Blume's long-time editor, Richard Jackson, quipped, "Her name is easy to pronounce." He elaborated: "I don't think most censors think about the book; they just think about their speech. Most of them I doubt have even read the books." But Jackson, the editor of more than 10 Blume books including Are You There God?,admitted that in the early years he knew they were testing limits. "I wanted to do it partly to see whether we could do it. Was the world ready?"
Though Blume has said she never set out to pen provocative books—only to write honestly—she has became a vocal crusader against censorship, often drawing on her own experience. In an essay posted on her Web site (www.judyblume.com), she talks of getting a call from a woman asking if she had written Are You ThereGod? "When I replied that I had, she called me a Communist and slammed down the phone. I never did figure out if she equated Communism with menstruation or religion, the two major concerns in 12-year-old Margaret's life." Blume continues, "I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children's lives."
When told of the award, Valerie Lewis, co-owner of Hicklebee's Children's Books in San Jose, Calif., said, "I feel it's exciting. Judy Blume has been a fighter for First Amendment rights and I think she's made a difference." Blume will accept her award November 17 at the National Book Award ceremony in New York.