‘Enriching Our Literary Heritage’

This November, Judy Blume was presented with a medal from the National Book Award Foundation. The same day, Madeleine L'Engle received a medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Though both authors are best known for their books for teenagers, they couldn't be more different. Blume made her name as the writer of DeenieForever, and other young adult novels known for their sexual themes and explicit descriptions. Typically, many of the articles written to celebrate her medal pictured Blume as a sort of big sister who provided guidance and reassurance about premarital sex, masturbation, and similar topics. Washington Post writer Jennifer Frey gushed, "Blume is, at heart, a childhood friend. . . . She is the one who told us secrets, who took the mystery out of the embarrassing stuff. She made us feel normal. She made us feel understood." Yet when her adorers in the media bring up the actual quality of Blume's writing, it's usually in a rather sheepish way. Even writer Susan Jensen, who thinks Blume's books are popular enough to be considered "contemporary classics" -- as if popularity were all it took to make a classic -- admits that "Blume has received criticism for stereotypical characters [and] flat writing." Another admirer, Ellen Barry, conceded, "You'd be hard pressed to find a paragraph of description in any of Blume's books." The medal Blume won from the National Book Foundation is for writers who have "enriched our literary heritage." Given her monotonous prose, it's hard to argue that Blume has done that. But Foundation member Jessica Hagedorn tried anyway, telling a reporter, "For young people, [Blume] is as literary a writer as you can ask for." Really? As literary as Robert Louis Stevenson? As Mark Twain? C. S. Lewis? Harper Lee? E. B. White? Madeleine L'Engle? While Blume got a generation thinking about their bodily functions, Madeleine L'Engle was transporting them to other galaxies and centuries with imaginative, beautifully written tales like A Wrinkle in Time. There are those who argue that Blume's kind of realism is better for kids than L'Engle's fantasy. I happen to think there's room for both genres, but that's not really the point. The point is that L'Engle's fantasies, with their exploration of love, God, family, suffering, death, and other timeless themes, reach emotional and literary heights that Blume's work can't even begin to climb. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Blume received her award, not for literary merit, but for something else -- promoting a worldview. By sympathetically portraying adolescent sexual relationships that are free of values (except the avoidance of pregnancy and disease), Blume did as much as anyone else to help bring the sexual revolution to the younger generation. Ironic, isn't it? Most conservatives, according to popular stereotypes, would not know a good book if they bumped into it on the street. Yet it's the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the Bush administration, that honored one of the truly great fiction writers of our time, who wrote of God and timeless truths -- while the allegedly sophisticated literary set, the National Book Foundation, awarded an honor to an author who is mediocre at best. It makes you wonder who's really interested in literary merit and who's only interested in promoting teen sexual activity and a debased worldview. For further reading and information: Today's BreakPoint offer: Invitation to the Classics introduces the reader to the masterworks of Western culture. From Homer to Chaucer, Dickens to C. S. Lewis, each author receives a chapter that includes a biographical sketch followed by a thorough summary of the classic(s) he or she penned. Note: Several of these articles contain graphic language. Read excerpts from Judy Blume's work (see sidebar) and Madeleine L'Engle's work. "Judy Blume to Receive the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation," press release, National Book Foundation, 15 September 2004. Associated Press, "Judy Blume wins National Book Award," USA Today, 15 September 2004. "Bradbury, L'Engle Honored," Scifiwire, 19 November 2004. "President Bush Presents the 2004 Arts & Humanities Medals," White House Office of the Press Secretary, 17 November 2004. Kathryn Jean Lopez, "Early Blumers," National Review Online, 30 September-1 October 2000. Mark Oppenheimer, "Why Judy Blume Endures," New York Times Book Review, 16 November 1997. Reprinted at Judy Blume's website. Susan Jensen, "Contemporary Classic Authors: Judy Blume,", 7 March 2000. Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, "Madeleine L'Engle: An Epic in Time," St. Anthony Messenger Magazine, June 2000. Karin Snelson, "A New Wrinkle: A Conversation with Madeleine L'Engle," Flannery O'Connor, "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade," Mystery and Manners (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969). Some valuable insights from one of the twentieth century's greatest authors (a devout Catholic) about teaching literature to kids. Michael and Diane Medved, Saving Childhood (HarperCollins, 1999). Among other things, the Medveds provide a clear, common-sense explanation of why certain books are inappropriate for young children. Chuck Colson and Wilberforce Forum staff members, "2003 Book Recommendations for Young Adults and Children," BreakPoint Online. See BreakPoint's 2004 Christmas Book List, Part 1. Also see Part 2. Vigen Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue (Oxford University Press, 1998). Gina Dalfonzo, "Impoverished Imagination," BreakPoint WorldView, March 2004. BreakPoint Commentary No. 040315, "In Tolkien's Steps?: Fantasy Films and Worldview." See also the BreakPoint commentaries titled, "Marching in Lockstep: The Wrong Way to Read" and "The Dangers of Reading: Dickens and the Social Order."


Chuck Colson


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