Judy Blume, Vincent Bugliosi and Me

by alisongaylin

[Editor’s note: Today, we have a special guest post by writer  Alison Gaylin. Not only is Alison the Edgar-nominated author of a string of terrific thrillers, she is also the co-author (with me!) of the upcoming graphic novel, Normandy Gold, a sordid 1970s tale of small-town sheriff who comes to Washington DC to avenge the murder of her call girl sister (forthcoming, DC-Vertigo). Alison’s upcoming novel, And She Was, comes out next year. And she used to work as a tabloid reporter, which is so exotic and wonderful I feel extra lucky to count her as a friend.–MA]

When Megan first mentioned to me that it was YA week at this wonderful blog, I thought, ‘Great!’ As the mom of a nine year old, and a veteran Edgar judge in the children’s book category, I felt reasonably qualified to discuss what I’ve discovered to be a vital and exciting genre, and a real pleasant surprise for me—especially since I didn’t read many YA books as a kid.

Then Megan said, “I’d love for you to write about the YA books you read as a kid.”


My first thought was, Does Helter Skelter count?

Because when I was in fifth grade, I stumbled across that book—my very first true crime—while trolling my parents’ drawer of grown-up books in search of The Joy of Sex. I can still remember the paperback book—the lurid title bleeding off the cover in that enticing raised red foil.

I thought it was going to be about The Beatles—until I flipped to the pictures section and saw the inside of the house on Cielo Drive, what had happened there…

I read it cover to cover, in secret. It gave me horrible nightmares. I loved it.

That book, along with all the Edgar Allen Poe stories my dad had introduced me to a year earlier, showed me an ugly, fascinating side of human nature—intricate and real as the underbelly of a bug. I couldn’t look away. While my other friends were obsessed by dragonslayers and castles—shimmering fantasy worlds they could escape into, the stories I was drawn to were the darker, all-too-real ones that made my life seem better by comparison. (No matter how horribly I’d bombed that math test, at least there wasn’t a dead body under my floorboards.)

That was the type of book I liked as a kid, and it’s probably why I went on to become a crime fiction writer myself. But I knew Vincent Bugliosi and Edgar Allen Poe wouldn’t qualify as Young Adult writers, nor would my other early favorite, Xaviera Hollander

But then I remembered someone who would.

From fourth through seventh grade, I must have read every Judy Blume book—and the strange thing is, I believe I loved them for similar reasons as Bugliosi and Poe. I never was a fan of romance or fantasy. Xaviera aside, the fictional escapes I craved were the ones that made my own life seem better, or at least, more understandable… and that’s where Judy Blume came in.

While most all the other books for girls my age featured beautiful shiny-haired heroines that oozed confidence (and yes, I’m looking at you, Nancy Drew) Blume wrote about girls with zits and weight problems and scoliosis casts and crippling anxiety. She wrote about girls who so desperately want to fit in, they find themselves—as Jill Brenner does in Blubber—becoming the very people they hate.

In short, Blume, too, was a type of dark escape. While she didn’t write about murderous cults or hidden dead bodies, she tackled the horrors of adolescence—the awkwardness, the ugliness, the cruelty and the shame—in a way that made you physically cringe while turning the pages. (While reading Deenie, I swear I could feel that scoliosis cast, digging into my sides…) But she did it with a remarkable sense of humor and a voice that was all too human.

Rather than dragging you into the tortured mind of a psychopath, Blume allowed you to make friends with a kid who was entertaining and funny, but maybe just a little bit more screwed up than you. (What was with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret’s  heroine wanting to get her period? Was she insane?)

After reading Margaret, or  Blubber, or Deenie or even that slumber party favorite, Forever, which detailed sex in a way that romance novels never did—for all of its awkwardness and silliness and potential for heartbreak—I would come away feeling satisfied, and strangely relieved to be back in my own flawed, adolescent skin.

I’ll be honest with you: Not many people made me feel that way back then, even on occasion. Judy Blume always did.

20 Comments to “Judy Blume, Vincent Bugliosi and Me”

  1. Thank goodness for this, Alison! I never would have been able to articulate or reconcile the link between my fixation with Helter Skelter and my love of Judy Blume–you did so perfectly!

  2. Thanks, so much Megan — though I have no doubt you could! And I do love that we have such similar and inappropriate childhood influences.

  3. HELTER SKELTER was HUGE for me at a tender age!! I love this connection w Judy Blume…you are some super smart + sick people. Thanks for this!

    • You too, Nathan?? I’m beginning to wonder if all crime fiction written in the last 10 years is due to a bunch of kids in the 70s/80s sneaking in readings of Helter Skelter….
      Nathan, I DID read Tiger Eyes, by the way–Judy Blume crime novel, so it should’ve been perfect for me, but it felt too….real. I wonder now about needing to keep her separate from my crime book fixation…
      Did you read it, Alison?

  4. Thanks, Nathan! And as for the early HELTER SKELTER reading… we may need to form a support group. 🙂

  5. I’d forgotten about TIGER EYES, Megan! I started it but couldn’t finish. Same as you, I think. It was a little jarring to see her out of genre and so “adult…” Of course, I didn’t seem to have that issue with WIFEY…

  6. I can still remember the “dirty” parts of the edition of FOREVER that I had-page 86.

    • I tried something about FORVER on facebook and couldn’t stop giggling. Was the whole naming thing as batshit strange as I remember?

  7. Oh yes, Lesley. Dogearred and highlighted for easy slumber party access!

  8. I too was a big Helter Skelter fan! And there was the TV movie (or was it a miniseries?)! Was HELTER SKELTER somehow the ultimate YA book? Such a wonderful post, Alison!

  9. Yes, I think it was a mini-series!! (Speaking of which, do you remember THE EXECUTIONERS SONG mini-series, w Tommy Lee Jones as Garry Gilmore and Rosanna Arquette as Nicole? Probably one of my favorite things ever…) And so funny about Helter Skelter as YA. For years, I’ve horrified people by telling them I read that book in 5th grade, and now I see that there are so many others like me! Thanks so much, Sara!

  10. It’s an excellent TV movie. I just rewatched it about five years ago. And completely terrifying.

  11. Oh, I love this. I still have my tattered Deenie. I remember thinking I was “something” when I read WIFEY by Judy Blume. Helter Skelter was an obsession for me. I read the book and saw the movie. I then had to research everything possible about it. It stuck with me all the way until I first traveled to Los Angeles and had to see Sharon Tate’s house on a Graveline tour. I love this visit down memory lane with YA book week. Thank you.

    • Michelle! I too went to find the Tate house about ten years ago–but I couldn’t get access to it! What was it like to see?

  12. So on this talk show years and years ago i saw some celebrity mention that the real estate agent showed the the Tate House as a potential purchase! and the host said, me too! I guess it’s quite the white elephant.

    And as per a conversation we were having on another post, doesn’t this tie back in with Fatal Vision–didn’t he try to make those murders seem like the manson family? Alison, were you a Fatal Vision fan too?

    • Yes!! Jeffrey MacDonald said that hippies (Manson copycats) had done it–he described a woman in blonde wig and floppy hat, holding a candle. And the word “Pig” was written in blood on the headboard. But the police found a bloody thumb print on a cover of Life magazine or Time magazine with the Mansons on the cover and thought that’s where he got the idea to blame druggie-hippies.
      And for a long time, I believed him! Because they did find synthetic hair on scene, and candle wax was found not matching any candles in the house. And this local hippie woman said she’d been in the house, etc.
      (I’m scaring myself that I remember this)

  13. Yes!! Oh God Fatal Vision was fantastic…. I’m thinking we should have a 70s true crime book club. Also, one of my favorite things to do during my later high school and college years — to impress friends visiting from out of town — was to drive by the Tate house. Looked exactly as it did in the Helter Skelter pics and felt so haunted…

  14. I have to say that I’ve never met a Judy Blume book that didn’t speak to me. Even years after when I was re-reading them with my kids. In fact, my 4th child is getting more and more into Judy Blume books, and I’m so glad! Great post!!

  15. Thanks, Barrie! Very heartening to see so many similarly influenced people. I love this blog!

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