Before we had "16 and Pregnant," push-up bras for tweens or mandatory sex education, girls like Donna Liska-Johnson learned about the birds and the bees from author Judy Blume.
Liska-Johnson was 11 years old when her aunt gave her a copy of Blume's breakthrough novel, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." She formed an instant bond with 12-year-old Margaret Simon who, like her, was embarking upon puberty at a time when people didn't talk openly about boys, bras and periods. She had finally found someone she could relate to.
"I would close my door and the world would fall away," she said. Blume's first-person narrative "always connected me with the character because she wrote so close to the heart."
Believe it or not, it's been nearly 43 years since "Are You There God?" jump-started Blume's prolific career, which changed the way a generation of readers learned about menstruation, masturbation and sex, among other growing pains. Though she's had her critics over the years, Blume, who turned 75 last week, can still draw a crowd in this latest chapter of her career, which includes a forthcoming novel and the first major motion picture adaptation of one of her novels -- and it's not "Are You There God?"
"Tiger Eyes" may not be Blume's most popular book, but it's the one she and son Lawrence Blume (the inspiration for Fudge) had always wanted to bring to the big screen. Both said they felt a strong connection to lead character Davey Wexler, a teen whose mother uproots her from New Jersey to visit relatives in New Mexico after her father is killed in an armed robbery. Plus, it was the only novel they could film in 23 days on a budget that only allowed them to cast three professional actors from outside New Mexico, said Lawrence Blume, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with his mother.
Still, they managed to pull together a strong cast that included Willa Holland, best known for her roles in the OC and Gossip Girl and former pink Power Ranger Amy Jo Johnson. American Indian activist Russell Means was cast as the father of Wolf, who is played by Mean's real-life son, actor Tatanka Means. Even Blume and her husband, the film's executive producer George Cooper (who she met while writing the book, dedicating it to him), have cameos.
Because of religious themes in the movie and Blume's own heritage, the film has shown at Jewish film festivals including the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, where it was screened on Sunday.
For Blume's fans, though, it probably didn't matter which film was showing as long as she was there to talk about it. A sold-out crowd showed up Sunday in a suburban Atlanta movie theater for a screening and Q&A of "Tiger Eyes," many carrying tattered copies of Blume's books for her to sign afterward.
Among them was Donna Liska-Johnson, now a 44-year-old special education teacher with a bookshelf full of first edition Judy Blume novels procured via eBay. She arrived two hours early with copies of "Are You There God?" and "Tiger Eyes" in hand and a purple fabric flower in her hair, a play on the word bloom, she said.
When her turn came to meet her hero, she got choked up, struggling for words and fighting back tears while her husband gently rubbed her back.
"I can die happy now," she said after regaining composure. "It's kind of like meeting a superhero."
Across the table, Blume smiled patiently and nodded her head in the gracious, knowing way of someone who's used to this sort of thing. Normally, Blume keeps a box of tissues on the table at book signings, she said, keenly aware of her effect on fans. Usually, they're mothers and wives, teachers, doctors or cancer survivors (like Blume herself) in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. In her presence, though, they revert to gushing, hand-wringing teens who show their excitement through nervous laughter, professions of adoration or tears.
"I represent to them something from their childhood, wherever she was in her life when she was reading those books," Blume later said.
Dressed in a sleek black ensemble of straight-legged jeans, fitted leather jacket, short leather boots and patchwork scarf, Blume carried herself with the poise and confidence of someone who has spent decades in the public eye writing and talking about herself. To answer some of the recurring questions, she maintains a website decorated with cartoon bodies bearing Blume's head and containing annotated bibliographies, information on her battle with censorship and tidbits like her favorite color.
She wears her signature friendly grin whether she's chatting with a fan or demanding extra lighting for a book signing. She doesn't hesitate to speak her mind if, say, someone asks her to sign the 1981 unauthorized biography purportedly "based on firsthand information from the writer herself."
"I'm not sure if I want to sign this. I didn't even write it!" she wondered out loud before deciding to acquiesce with the note, "Do not believe anything you read in this book!"
The fan apologized, but Blume flashed her grin and told her not to worry.
"Don't be sorry. I'm so glad you came," she said, beaming.
Blume is evolving with the times in other ways, having cultivated a respectable Twitter following of more than 82,000 "tweeps" whom she gave out a shout-out to during Sunday's screening. She uses Twitter to share information about screenings and thoughts like how one advantage of turning 75 is that she no longer has to take off her shoes at airport security.
Otherwise, little has changed over the years within the pages of her classics, she said. Sure, in new editions, Margaret's sanitary napkin and belt have been replaced with adhesive pads. Fudge, the insufferable younger brother of Peter Hatcher, has new electronics. Otherwise, the struggles of her protagonists still resonate with her devoted fanbase.
"I don't think people change; electronics change, the things we have change, but the way we live doesn't change," Blume said as she waited in the lobby Sunday for the screening.
A few changes were made in transition from novel to film, which became the natural focus of questions after the screening. Why was the relationship between Davey's mother and her nerdy suitor downplayed, one person wondered, or why did Davey's aunt became her mother's sister in the film instead of her father's sister?
Blume and her son assured the audience that changes were made to preserve the film's narrative flow, which can be challenging in adapting a first-person novel.
"There's only so many times she can go to her room and slam the door," Blume told the audience. "I think a lot of stuff in the movie is better than the book."
She also told the audience that cries a lot when she's writing, especially if she's on the right track.