Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is one of only two books that I read by skipping the first chapter. (The other was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in case you were wondering.) As most of you know, I was a huge fan of Judy Blume as a child and I devoured every book of hers that I could get my hands on, but when I opened Sally…I was stumped. The thing had a prologue (something I only associated with grown up books) and was set in 1945. What the heck?
I put that book back on my bookshelf faster than I you can imagine but it bothered me. Why would Judy write a book that seemed like such a radical departure from everything else she penned? The blurbs on the cover suggested it was a wonderful story, but I didn’t connect to it. For months I would try to start it again and again but I couldn’t get through the first couple of pages. In addition to the title’s namesake there was this character named Ma Fanny and they were on this beach and a guy comes on the radio to announce that the war is over and two pages later we are in chapter one and trying to find out if Sally’s brother Douglas is going to live or die. Sound confusing? Then you are feeling my pain.
At some point, I had the book at school when a teacher told us to read quietly and in an effort to look busy, I pulled out Sally and opened it up to the middle of the book. It was the chapter in which Sally starts her new school in Miami Beach, Florida and it felt like a second beginning to the story. I read through the rest of the book but when I was finished I had more questions than I had answers for. Why was part of Sally’s family in Florida? Were her parents divorced? Why does she call her father Doey Bird and her grandmother Ma Fanny? I started backing up on chapter at a time and re-reading the text piecing together more and more of the story…finally, when I backed up to Chapter 1 and the Prologue the whole thing made sense and I realized it may very well be Judy’s masterpiece.
I was not surprised to discover in adulthood that Sally is the most autobiographical book Blume ever wrote. She grew up in the post war era and at one time, did spend the winter in Miami with her mother, brother and grandmother while her dentist father stayed up north to work. In Sally, Judy brilliantly captures that moment of childhood in which you are still naive, take everything literally, do not understand sarcasm and when no one wants to tell you what is going on. You are still young enough to let your imagination run away with you, such as when she thinks her old Jewish neighbor is actually Adolf Hitler in disguise and she truly believed that at any random moment, someone would come up to her and say “Hey kid, we’re going to make you into a star!” (Yes, I suffered from that delusion as well.)
The thing about Judy Blume books is that you always learn something, whether you are planning to or not and Sally is no exception. Not only did I learn about movies I would later make a point of seeing, but it spawned an early interest in the Greatest Generation. In addition, it helped me learn a lot about Judaism and some of the traditions her family adhered to and ultimately became one of my favorite books.
While I ordinarily do not suggest that people read a book out of order so that they can eventually fall in love with it, sometimes it is worth it. Several years later when I opened up a book about a boy wizard my son was so crazy about, I nearly closed it inside of three pages, but he assured me I had to get past that first chapter in order to appreciate it. I let the book sit for six months and when I picked it up again, I thumbed to Chapter 2. Suddenly everything fell into place and I went back and revisited the pages I’d skipped. If you have never read Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, I highly recommend it. Check it out of the library, find a $1 used copy…I don’t care, just do it. Within the story you will discover the young Judy Blume and how her upbringing and imagination would lead her to create characters like Peter, Fudge, Margaret and more. If I ever had the chance to discuss one of Judy’s books with her, it would be this one. (OK, maybe “Margaret” because it had such a profound impact on me, but Sally would be up there!)
As we celebrate the return of Judy this year with “In the Unlikely Event” (which I am currently reading) don’t let this golden gem pass you by!
Until next time, keep calm and rock on!