Ah, Judy Blume. You gave those of us growing up in the '70s and early '80s the comic sibling bickering of Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. You gave us Blubber, the first (and still one of the only) bullying book to not have a happy ending. You gave us books in which characters talked directly about things other books ignored, like getting your period (Are you there, God? It's Me, Margaret) and having wet dreams (Then Again, Maybe I Won't). All these books with contemporary American kids and teenagers talking like real people, dealing with real issues.
And then there was this one book. It wasn't set in the 1970s; it was set in the 1940s. It didn't describe my time; it described my mom's time. The characters weren't kids like me, who just happened to have a Bat or Bar Mitzvah instead of a confirmation, but a post WWII American Jewish family, which had a significant impact on the plot. In the same way that I appreciated Then Again Maybe I Won't for giving me some insight into the middle school boy's experience, I loved Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself for showing me something of my mom's childhood, and something quite unlike her life as well.
Sally, the 10 year old protagonist, is a girl with a big imagination. When she's at the pool she imagines she's Ethel Merman. When she's with friends, she insists they play Cowgirl, Detective, or Love & Romance. And when her family moves to Florida from New Jersey for her brother's health, she notices a striking resemblance between one of their new neighbors and the scariest person she can imagine: Adolph Hitler. Maybe he didn't really die in that bunker! Maybe he escaped to Florida disguised as an elderly retiree!
In the background of Sally's imagination, real life unfolds around her, whether she understands it correctly or not. The apartment the family rents is small and squalid compared to the home they've left behind, and tempers fray in close quarters. When she copies her baby sitter's tag line of "love and other indoor sports" to end her letters to friends back home, she is baffled by the adults' reaction. Her parents struggle to find their place between the Jewish and Gentile social circles of Miami Beach. Nobody will answer Sally's questions about her changing body. And when a bird poops on her arm and her grandma promises it will bring good luck, she still doesn't win that trip to Hollywood she's been hoping for.
Sally, with her big dreams, comic mishaps, and relentless curiosity, has always been one of those characters I wished I were friends with. Blume has stated that the novel is not quite autobiography, but definitely influenced by her own childhood. Her family spent a few years in Florida, Hitler and WWII were very much on her mind, and obviously, she has an active imagination. Drawing on her own experiences is probably what helped Blume to capture so perfectly what it is like to be a kid trying to make sense of the grown-up world. Unusually, I think that this book about a 10 year old appeals to slightly older kids, kids who "get it" enough to wince and grin at Sally's misunderstandings and to nod knowingly at her frustration with adults and their secrets.