Judy Blume Testy at Book Awards; Kid Defends ‘The Five Unknowns’

Judy Blume snarled! Whatever will we tell our kids? At a cocktail reception an hour before she was to become the first children’s-book author ever awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on Nov. 17, the cherished queen bee of kid lit bared her teeth at what we frankly thought was one of our better interview questions (well, John Updike liked it when we put it to him a few years back): “Has your ideal reader gotten any older as you yourself have gotten older?”

She looked as though a puppy had done something nasty on the blue-and-gold-squiggled carpet of the Marriott Marquis. “I’m not answering questions like that!” she snarled.

Maybe the courageous anti-censorship crusader didn’t want to be reminded that it’s been 34 years since her classic Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was first published, though she seems to have held up remarkably well, considering it was some 75 million copies and 20 translations ago. “I’m here to give a speech!” she elaborated.

Struggling to make the most of her non sequitur, The Observer rallied by asking if she had her speech memorized. ” No!” she declared stonily, apparently judging that the sixth-floor carpet had been soiled again. “It’s long!” Relenting at last, she made a visible decision to crank up the charm. “Don’t worry,” she said, batting her lashes and nearly flouncing with insincerity, “when it’s done, you’ll know everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Judy Blume … and more!”

Other than that, the 55th National Book Awards ceremony was a hearty hoe-down. Divided between the tuxed and the non-tuxed (a.k.a. publishing mavens and the workaday press, loading up on polenta hors d’oeuvres before being relegated to the crispy tuna-fish gallery upstairs), the pre-banquet session featured the Five Unknowns-the relatively unsung New York women controversially nominated for the fiction award over the likes of Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe (none of whom were in attendance. Were they miffed? Wouldn’t you be?).

To a man, the nominees’ spouses were stalwartly supportive. “Our 5-year-old doesn’t consider it controversial,” said Rafael Pelli, the husband of Kate Walbert (destined not to win for Our Kind: A Novel in Stories). Equally admiring was Mike Fleming, the husband of party organizer Meg Kearney, who as head volunteer was charged with laying out nominated books on all the banquet tables for guests to take home. What was it like being the husband of the boss? “Very easy-she’s extraordinarily organized,” he said. Even daughters got in on the synergy thing: Rebecca Chace, the daughter of poet Jean Valentine (who was to win for Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003), was effusively proud. “To us, she was never just ‘Mom,'” said the blond dazzler.

Elsewhere, a famous wen went whizzing by on the face of Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission, which produced The 9/11 Commission Report (due to be disappointed later in the evening when the nonfiction award went to Kevin Boyle for his Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.) An entire table of moribund government-type wonks left early after that one; were they miffed?

At the bar, no one seemed particularly sedated by the absence of Roth, Wolfe and Co., though a stately woman with a flowered glass brooch did allow that she hadn’t spotted any of her fellow board members anywhere. “Maybe they didn’t show because they’d be stoned,” said her companion.

Adjourning to the $1,000-a-seat banquet hall for the main event, Garrison Keillor did a workmanlike job as M.C., in his bemused singsong manner. (How come mock-weary works so well for some, so dismally for others?) Executive director Harold Augenbraum professed to be pleased that this newspaper had called him a “bad-ass”-he promised he would milk the phrase for all it was worth to impress his small sons. Rick Moody, in a tie that could only be called polka-dotted, eloquently defended his committee’s choice of the Five Unknowns by saying they were on the hunt “for excellence, and nothing else,” defined as that “which adheres in language and in imagination” and “extends the life of the American tongue.” Mr. Moody done good.

When it was time for the winners to be announced, it was evident at once that Oscar needn’t fear that the National Book Foundation was going to steal his glitz anytime soon. Apparently, the notion of glamour held by bookworms is of a different category altogether from the one held by screen actors. Shortly after each name was delivered, a feeble huzzah went up from some dim corner, everyone looked about in strobe-lit confusion, and at length the award winners stumbled forth (sometimes literally, though it would be cruel to name names) to claim their bronze statue, blinking as though unearthed from beneath a rock. For pizzazz, a half-hearted attempt at music occasionally warbled on, though you could be forgiven if you thought it was emanating from someone’s late-night bar mitzvah down the hall.

As is customary, certain revealing truths were unveiled from the podium. Pete Hautman, the author of Godless, the young people’s winner about teens worshipping a water tower, said: “I would give anything if I could be 11 years old again, reading Lord of the Rings.” Lily Tuck, author of the fiction winner The News from Paraguay, confessed, “I have never been to Paraguay, nor do I intend to go.” But all of this paled in comparison to the revelations delivered during Ms. Blume’s turn.

One of the things The Observer likes best about sitting with the press is that we’re not supposed to take part in standing ovations when everyone else does. Even clapping is suspicious, like we’re compromising our precious objectivity. So The Observer did neither when Ms. Blume took the stage to receive her lifetime-achievement medal (the one that caused such a dust-up when Stephen King got it last year).

Evidently, Ms. Blume is one of those people who waxes warmer at a distance, dropping only a few names, admitting that she had eczema as a child and that she suffered “emptiness” when her own children were young, revealing that she cried in the closet when she got her first rejection, before she came to the Solomonic realization that “rejection hurts but doesn’t kill you.” She didn’t even lose points when she bragged that she is “more connected to Philip Roth than he will ever know” (she claimed their mothers went to high school together in Elizabeth, N.J.). The beloved author had a stage presence that was belovable.

But still, you could tell. After thanking an 11-year-old for her fine reading of a passage from Margaret, she didn’t stop to let the applause build, but barreled on to talk about how speechless the award left her, as well as to choke back tears that seemed, from The Observer’s vantage, distinctly crocodilian. And was she being sarcastic when she thanked her husband of 25 years, George Cooper, with a dedication that she had to know sounded like an inscription from a junior high-school yearbook? (“I love you, you’re perfect, don’t ever change!”) But then again, we weren’t objective. We’d been snarled at.

The take-home lesson? Never talk to an aging children’s-book author about aging, especially before she delivers a speech that she hasn’t memorized. Oh, and one other thing: Apparently, books on the Shoah sell even worse in 2004 than they used to. After the ceremony was over and everyone had hit the many escalators home, almost half the banquet tables still had a copy of one worthy book left, mid the empty coffee cups and crumpled napkins. Its title? Shoah Train. Holocaust marketers, take note: They couldn’t give ‘em away.