If I start to get overly anxious about the technical details of relevance (slang, technology, social customs) in my writing, I only need to think back to Judy Blume and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Judy Blume is a giant in the field of YA and MG lit. She was part of the vanguard of 1970s candid contemporary writing, especially when it came to the topic of puberty.
It seems incredible now, since coping with puberty is one of the main challenges of the tween and teen years, but for decades, most books for kids glossed over or just plain ignored this reality. Five years before Judy Blume’s Margaret agonized over when she might start her period, editor Ursula Nordstrom took a big risk by allowing author Louise Fitzhugh to admit, in the pages of The Long Secret, that young girls menstruate. This was so new and unusual that Nordstrom’s correspondence spent a fair amount of space on it.*
So Blume’s honesty was refreshing and novel. In the pages of her book, I identified with so many of Margaret’s problems: the friend who is less than true, the crush who doesn’t know she’s alive, the curiosity about how and when her body will change, the pressure to like the cutest guy in the class even though he’s an arrogant jerk, the left-out feelings when you realize some things about your family are different from those of the other families around you (in her case, this revolved around religion).
But even at the time it was published, the details about menstrual paraphernalia were already outdated. Margaret was talking about belts and hooks, and I knew even then that such products weren’t really around anymore. Then there was the party she went to (her first boy-girl party!), at which she wore a fancy velvet dress, instead of the jeans that would be common at the parties in my real life.
I just shrugged off those details, though. Blume got it right about the things that mattered. The emotional ups and downs of the characters rang true. There’s the time your parents made that unfair decision ... the time the boy you like caught you in an embarrassing situation ... the time you caught your best friend in a lie. There are the games that boys and girls use to try out their first tentative approaches toward one another, toward kissing and physical attraction. In the character of Laura Danker, Blume addressed slut-shaming before there was even a name for it. Those situations all rang true.
I understand that Blume has now updated Margaret to reflect more contemporary details, but the book found a huge audience even before she did that. Of course we try to get all the details as perfect as possible. But the most important part of a story to get right is its heart and soul: the struggles, the choices, the emotions, the ties between people. That’s what really makes a story relevant.
*see Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, compiled by Leonard S. Marcus, an entertaining read in its own right