On the island of Key West, Fla., the tourists—in every shade of sunburn—line up to visit the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. But just a few blocks away from the shrine to Papa is the home of a writer who, for a large portion of the population, anyway, is the literary equivalent of a fairy godmother. Judy Blume, at 75, has guided countless kids through the terrors of adolescence with her books—including 1970’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; 1972’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing; 1973’s Deenie; and 1975’s Forever—which have sold more than 82 million copies worldwide.
And now Judy Blume is here at the Key West airport in a turquoise Mini convertible. She’s petite and bird-boned, clad in melon-colored capri pants and a gray V-neck T-shirt, moving with the nimbleness of a woman half her age. Her eyes are brown and bright, her face is framed by springy curls, and her smile is dazzling. (“At my age, my smile is all I got,” she jokes.) She has warmly welcomed a total stranger—a journalist, no less—to stay overnight in the home she shares with her husband of 26 years, George Cooper, a former Columbia University law professor. On the drive through Key West, Blume checks in constantly: Do you have on sunblock? Do you need to borrow a hat? Is your seat belt on and secure? At her airy, modern home, Blume worries aloud about the number of towels and quality of the soap in the guest bathroom.
It is exactly the kind of maternal fussery you might expect from the woman who’s shaped the worldview of generations of readers. Blume’s fans range from preteens to stars like Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling. She’s been name-checked on SNL, 30 Rock, and Lost. She has more than 88,000 followers on Twitter, where she exchanges quips with Kaling, Patton Oswalt, and Judd Apatow, who asked her in 2011, “What age is ok for Forever? @maudeapatow bought it. I am scared.”
Somehow, though, it’s taken until now for one of Blume’s books to be adapted for the big screen. On June 7, Tiger Eyes, based on the 1981 best-seller about a young woman mourning her father’s death, will be released on demand and iTunes, and in select -theaters. Blume co-wrote the screenplay with her son, Lawrence Blume, who directed the film, but getting it to the screen wasn’t easy—surprising, given Hollywood’s current obsession with all things YA. “It’s a Judy Blume movie. That should be enough, you would think,” says Lawrence, 49. “What shocked me was that a big -segment of the business knew who Judy Blume was but they didn’t understand who she was. Part of it is that the film business is run mostly by old white men—and some young ones, too—who didn’t grow up with her books.”
Blume writes in a sunny study in the back of a guest cottage that sits across a shady courtyard from the main house. On her desk there’s a giant blue binder marked “First Draft”—the novel she’s currently at work on—along with her copy of the Tiger Eyes script. The shelves are lined with books; Blume keeps up with new releases and is pleased by the success of young authors—especially those she’s supported along the way, like John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), Carolyn Mackler (Guyaholic), and Daria Snadowsky (Anatomy of a Boyfriend). Also on the shelves are framed photographs, many of her and Cooper and their children: There’s Lawrence and his older sister, Randy (both from Blume’s first marriage), and Cooper’s daughter, Amanda, from his previous marriage. There’s a picture of Blume with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and another of her flanked by Theodor Seuss Geisel and Maurice -Sendak. “I wanted to do what they did—write rhyming picture books,” explains Blume. Her early attempts, never -published, are in a box in her New York City apartment, with a note to her -children: If you publish these after my death, I will come back and haunt you.
Born Judith Sussman in Elizabeth, N.J., she married John Blume after she finished her junior year at NYU, where she was studying elementary education. By the time she was 25, she had two young children. It was then that she started writing stories in earnest—her first book, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, was published in 1969. But the turning point in her career came the following year, when Bradbury Press cofounder Richard -Jackson pulled her manuscript of Iggie’s House—about a girl who befriends an African-American family who’s moved into her white neighborhood—out of the slush pile. She received $800 as an advance. For her next book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, she received $1,000.
Despite the small fee, Margaret launched Blume into superstar territory, and over the next decade she produced some of her most best-known works—including Blubber, Freckle Juice, and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, as well as her first adult novel, the best-selling Wifey. Naturally, Hollywood came calling in what the author describes as a series of “Judy, sweetheart” lunches. (As in “Judy, sweetheart, let’s make a deal…”) “Oh yes, there were a lot of lunches with producer types,” she says. “I don’t think anyone was thinking movies in those olden days. They were thinking about TV.” But those producer types never came to the table with any real ideas; they just wanted to adapt whatever book Blume would sell. “That was the thing I hated,” recalls the author. “I wanted somebody who really was passionate about [the material].”
A few TV projects did come to fruition: a 1978 telepic based on Blume’s tribute to teen sexuality, Forever—which, for many, has ruined the name Ralph—starring Stephanie Zimbalist. She and Lawrence had their first outing as a writer-director team in 1991 for an ABC adaptation of Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. But Blume had a less happy experience on the Steven Spielberg/Amblin Television–produced series Fudge, based on her books Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge, which aired from 1995 to 1997. She had moved from the East Coast to Santa Monica to work on the show, under the impression that she’d have -creative control over the writing. That didn’t -happen. “The writing [on the pilot] was awful, and I spent so much time -trying to redo it.” After a careful moment, she adds, “Still…it’s nobody’s fault.”
Feature films remained elusive. There were a few false starts—idle thoughts about who could play the title role in a movie version of Are You There God? (“There was a time when I so loved that little girl from Little Miss Sunshine and thought, ‘If she’ll do Margaret, I’ll do it’ ”); initial development on a Deenie movie with Buena Vista—but nothing ever came to pass, in part because Blume was being advised by a man in her agency who pooh-poohed the idea of his client working with Hollywood. “ ‘You don’t really want to do this, do you? Why get into all that?’ ” Blume recalls him saying. “We definitely put the brakes on things.”
Today, the author isn’t dwelling on what might have been. “Deenie wasn’t right,” she says. “Maybe if they had started developing Tiger Eyes…but you know what? I never would have sold Tiger Eyes away from Larry. He always knew he wanted to make it.”
NEXT: Tiger Eyes’ journey on the big screen