Are you there, Judy? It’s me, Jenny.
I’m a fan, Judy, but to call me just a fan would be an understatement. If fans are people who read and appreciated “Margaret,” then I’m a full-fledged air-conditioner. I’ve read everything of yours, from “Superfudge” to “Summer Sisters,” and I have to say that you totally get me. Your characters are spot-on; your dialogue is perfect; your plots are peerless. I’ve spent countless hours reading your books in happy isolation; I’ve read your words perched in trees, on moving train cars, and while walking up and down flights of stairs.
I first read “Deenie,” your novel about a girl coming to terms with her scoliosis, when I was around 10. It didn’t matter that “Deenie” was first published in 1973. It was 2007, and I wanted the same thing that Deenie did: social acceptance in the form of not being explicitly ostracized; a spot in line that wouldn’t force me to touch hands with a classmate with leprosy-like eczema; and a straight back—in that order. The story of Deenie is painfully awkward, and so was the story of my life.
Let’s talk too about Rachel Robinson. She’s a normal girl with straight As and a penchant for the flute and organizing her socks. She worries that her friends don’t like her, wonders why the mysterious Jeremy keeps visiting her house, grinds her teeth at night, and hopes that she won’t get motion sickness on the bus to Ellis Island and hurl in front of everybody. These are real worries. And I’m not sick of reading about them, because they haven’t stopped being real.
The thing is, Judy, that no matter what people say, your books aren’t outdated. They’re innovative, some of the first books for young readers that help to depict the world in the way that it actually is: filled with divorce, menstruation, racism, and sex (the meaning behind those ellipses in “Forever…” weren’t lost on anyone, Judy). All of those things, Judy, are pretty uncomfortable, and the problem is that not so many authors today want to write about them. For some reason, they think we’d rather read about the so-called “problems” of insanely beautiful girls who can’t choose between the shiny vampire and the hunky werewolf who pine for them. Also, murders of pretty people at private schools. What’s so awkward about that?!
Nowadays, to appear in a book, characters must have the requisite clear skin and eye for fashion. Margaret didn’t have that. Neither did Stephanie of “Just As Long as We’re Together,” or Tony of “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.” (You’ll never know how much that book taught me about boys, Judy.)
Your books have spoken to so many generations—a 13-year-old who read “Margaret” when it was published in 1970 is now 56—because they’re honest. Our lives have gotten a lot more complicated, and include many more electrical outlets, but they haven’t gotten less awkward. If anything, technology provides more ways for us to embarrass ourselves and be humiliated by others.
I know you must feel a lot of pressure to modernize for this new generation of readers. That’s what the “Tiger Eyes” movie, released just last spring, was all about, right? Maybe you think we need cute bikinis, and lots of beach-kissing footage, and a handsome half-Native-American man to stay engaged.
When I read “Tiger Eyes,” Davey Wexler was a greasy-haired girl from Atlantic City, N.J., who liked to take long bike rides, said sarcastic things to her mother, and remarked that one of her classmates seemed to lack a chin. But when I saw “Tiger Eyes” on the big screen at its premiere at an Upper West Side Jewish Community Center, you were there, looking tasteful in a silvery blue jacket; my friend and I tried to take a picture with you but ended up taking a picture of us with you in the background. I was heartbroken.
In the movie, Davey had been glamorized. The actress who portrayed her—you call her a genius, Judy, but the old you would have poked fun at a girl like that—was as generically beautiful as they come: a willowy brunette with blue eyes and clean hair. She sang without embarrassing herself—come on, Judy—and looked tasteful and attractive in a pair of jeans and a checkered blouse (do people say “blouse” anymore?).
The inclusion of a character that had achieved cowgirl chic added insult to injury. I couldn’t believe that you had chosen this beautiful person to portray the angsty Davey as, dare I say it, a Bella. What about all the frizzy-haired, chunky girls who had come to casting calls, Judy? What did you say to those girls?
I guess what I’m trying to say, Judy, is that we need you now more than ever. Awkward characters are on the verge of extinction. Just because our reality has changed on the surface level—we have newer technologies, perhaps, and probably better acne medication—we’re just as awkward as we’ve ever been. Don’t yield to the pressure of glamour. Because at heart, most of us are still 12-year-old girls wondering whether or not it’s time to start wearing a bra.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.