Author Judy Blume delivered a rousing keynote message to officially open the 2023 American Library Association Annual Conference program on June 23 in Chicago, thanking librarians for defending the freedom to read in their communities and insisting that more be done to combat a politically-organized surge in book bans. “If ever there was a chance to say thank you, this is the year this do it,” Blume told to a packed ballroom at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center. "To tell you all how much we appreciate you, and to give you all our support.”

In an insightful and fun yet serious 30-minute talk with her publisher, Justin Chanda, senior v-p at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Blume said she was inspired to come to the conference after hearing ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall speak about banned books. “I was just was so overwhelmed by her that I went up to her and I introduced myself and I said, ‘can I please come to ALA?’” Blume said. “She didn’t say I’d have to do a keynote, but she said yes, you can come.”

Blume was a perfect speaker to open the conference. With a recent documentary about her life, Judy Blume Forever, and a critically acclaimed movie adaptation of her classic bestseller Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume is currently enjoying a major career moment—which Chanda called a “Blume-aissance.” Blume said that she finally agreed to having Margaret adapted into a movie because she was a fan of screenwriter and director Kelly Fremon Craig's previous movie The Edge of Seventeen, another acclaimed story about a young person’s coming-of-age. “I loved it,” Blume confessed of that movie. “I saw it seven times.”

And as a veteran of the book banning surge of the 1980s, Blume spoke from experience about the need to defend the freedom to read. Asked by Chanda about why her books are among the ALA's most challenged books, Blume said she didn’t know exactly why the books were so offensive to some. But she offered some telling reflections.

“When I wrote [Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret] in 1970, I gave three copies to my children’s elementary school. Signed copies. And the male principal took them off the shelf. I think he gave them back to me. And he said ‘we can’t have these books here.’” Blume recalled. “Little did I know what was coming in the '80s. And then I thought, that's it. We're done with this. That's never going to happen again. And here we are again. On steroids.”

Later in the talk, Chanda asked Blume which of her characters she would choose to send to a school board meeting to defend her books. She chose Deenie Fenner from her 1973 Deenie, again bringing up the misogyny that drives so many book bans. “You know, that book was so successfully banned in the '80s that kids didn't even know I had written it,” she said, acknowledging that Deenie remains one of the ALA’s most banned books because it includes talk of female masturbation. “I once had another male principal say to me ‘I wouldn't have Deenie in my library. But if it was about a boy, that would be different. It would be normal,'” she said, prompting groans from the audience. “Female pleasure!” she then bluntly exclaimed, drawing a round of applause—and apparently a "blush" from Chanda.

"I am on stage with Judy Blume talking about female pleasure," Chanda said. "And accepting that it's normal, and desirable, and we want it," Blume added, eliciting more cheers.

Blume, who now owns a bookstore, Books & Books, in her hometown of Key West, also spoke of what’s happening in Florida under governor Ron DeSantis (who she refused to name), where librarians and teachers now face potential charges under a new state law for making allegedly inappropriate books available to students. “There's not a week goes by that I don't have people in the store who are teachers, who are librarians, and who are being hit with this. One woman said to me, ‘this is my pension. I have worked all these years for this pension. I could lose it.’ And what are we saying?” Blume said. “We have to let her know that we're all there. That we're all there and we are not going to let this happen.”

Chanda quickly acknowledged the seriousness of that challenge. “I think you're making a really interesting point, which is that so many times we get on stages and we speak to a bunch of people and we say, hey librarians, hey teachers, get out there and fight the good fight. Except that your jobs are on the line,” he said. He then asked Blume what advice she had for authors to better support librarians and educators. Blume quickly flipped the question back to Chanda.

“I'm looking to publishers,” Blume said. “I'm looking to organizations that are coming in. I'm looking for legal help. I don't have the answers. But I know that we can't be complacent. I know that. And I think what happened in the '80s is that we weren't all together. I mean, I don't think that the publishers were there for us in the '80s. PEN wasn't there. NCAC wasn't there.”

I don't have the answers. But I know that we can't be complacent. I know that. And I think what happened in the '80s is that we weren't all together.

One contingent that was there, Blume noted: librarians—including ALA’s longtime free speech defender, the late Judith Krug, and veteran school librarian Pat Scales, who Blume singled out for praise for her well-known work to engage parents in their child’s reading. Earlier in the program, Scales was honored with the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Roll of honor award for her dedication to upholding the principles of intellectual freedom. “We need to clone Pat Scales,” Blume said.

Later in the conversation, Chanda talked more about the need for publishers and advocates to step up and do more in the face of the current, unprecedented wave of book bans. “I think for a while in the '90s and early 2000s banned books became almost a marketing tool, right?” Chanda said. “We were almost celebrating banned books. You know, you put up caution tape in the store and it was like, ooh, it’s too hot. But I feel like it's changing. I mean, the goal should be to not ever have another banned book. We should be working to stop it, not working to sell it,” he said to applause.

“That's what we're all trying to figure out,” Chanda said, when asked by Blume how to make that happen. “PEN is doing amazing work. Unite Against Book Bans is doing amazing work. NCAC is doing amazing work. And I think [publishers] have to just spend the money and be a part of the lawsuits, as much as that scares every company involved.” Chanda also suggested a shift in approach: to refocus the discussion more on why diverse and inclusive books are important, rather than why they are banned. Blume agreed.

“That’s an idea that I came up with just now, thanks to you, for my bookstore,” she said. “Not to just have the caution tape and banned books, but ‘why this book is important to me,’ and have people write about that.”

The conversation concluded with Chanda asking Blume what she would say to Florida governor Ron DeSantis if she ever found herself one on one in a room with him. “What are you afraid of?” Blume responded. “And then I’d walk out.”

A Packed ALA

Blume’s talk highlighted a jam-packed opening program at the conference. The opening general session appeared to fill every seat in the 3,200 capacity ballroom at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, and ALA officials said that they expected more than 15,000 to attend this year’s show—up significantly from the 13,000 who attended last year’s event in Washington, D.C., which was the ALA’s first in-person annual conference since 2019.

Among the program’s other highlights, Dolly Parton was given honorary membership in the ALA for her efforts in promoting a love of reading through her Imagination Library initiative. The association’s highest honor, honorary membership is “conferred upon a living person whose outstanding contributions have made a lasting impact on librarianship, libraries, and the communities they serve.”

Parton’s Imagination Library provides free books to children from birth to age five, with more than two million books shipped to children all over the world through each month. While Parton was unable to accept in person, Norah Briggs, executive director of the Dollywood Foundation, was on hand to accept the award, and Parton appeared in a video message, finishing her remarks by thanking the librarians for their work and singing “I Will Always Love You.”

FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel made some news from the stage by announcing a new FCC initiative in the coming weeks to extend the FCC’s vital e-rate program, which subsidizes broadband access to libraries and schools, beyond school and library walls. Among the proposed provisions, the initiative, called Learning Without Limits, will expand broadband hotspot distribution in libraries and schools across the country.

Local television personalities Matthew Rodrigues and Cortney Hall of NBC's Chicago Today lifestyle show also had an announcement to make. The pair, who have hosted ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall on their program as part of a banned books club for viewers, announced that NBC is planning to expand the banned books club to other media markets.

And Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, the architect of the state’s recently enacted law to discourage book bans was on hand to welcome librarians—and to announce a new effort to promote the new Illinois law for adoption in other state legislatures.

“Somehow, tragically, librarians have become targets of a movement that disingenuously claims to pursue freedom but instead promotes authoritarianism,” Giannoulias told librarians, acknowledging that many librarians across the nation have been harassed, intimidated, fired, and threatened with fines or jail time simply for doing their jobs. “Well, in Illinois, we are saying enough—because authoritarian regimes ban books, not democracies."

The 2023 ALA Annual Conference kicked off with a Rally for the Right to Read on June 22, and will conclude on Tuesday, June 27, with a keynote from bestselling poet Amanda Gorman and illustrator Christian Robinson.