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More Judy Blume coming at you Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself signed “love and other indoor sports”.  The last time I got to spent a weekend with my six-year-old niece, she looked at the shelf of books she shares with her younger sister and said she wished she had more big girl books. I don’t need an excuse to read children’s books, but this put some immediacy to my mission of introducing her to a few of the characters I loved as a kid.

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I opened Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself on the train while heading to my sister’s place. She was moving from a tiny beach town in Bradley Beach, New Jersey. Where does this story begin? Bradley Beach, New Jersey 1945.

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Sally is in the kitchen enjoying a jelly sandwich when the radio announces the war is over. Sally doesn’t quite get what all the excitement is about, but maybe their aunts in Germany can finally join the family in New Jersey. All of the adults are crazy happy and there’s even a parade on the promenade.

Sally’s life takes a turn for the unfamiliar when her brother gets a kidney infection. Her parents decide a move to Miami, Florida will be the best thing for his health even though the dad won’t be able to go because of his dental practice. Sally boards a train with her mom, Ma Fanny and brother, and soon finds herself in a new school wearing all the wrong clothes and really missing her dad. When she can’t sleep at night, she imagines Adolf Hitler cutting off her hair, burning her toes and still she won’t break.

Through the course of the year, Sally experiences her first crush, learns how to clean a diamond with a toothbrush, makes new friends and prays that her father won’t die. She plays concentration camp with her friends and becomes obsessed with an older neighbor she believes is Hitler hiding out. This is weird, but kids are weird, especially when something terrible happens that they don’t understand. These weird, uncomfortable, awkward things kids think about and do is something I don’t see in many kids books, and it’s why I love, love, love Judy Blume.

The war isn’t the only thing confusing Sally. She wishes her dad were around to explain why there are separate water fountains and why only white people sit at the front of the train. When Sally questions segregation, her parents respond that one day things will change for the better, but for now they have to follow the rules. I wanted a different response from the parents. I wanted them to venture into sticky territory. I wanted them to talk to Sally about their relatives who died in concentration camps while those on the outside followed the rules. But that’s not what this book is – Blume writes in sticky kid stuff, the flawed adult world is peripheral.

I enjoyed this book, though Sally is more annoying than I remembered. What I appreciate most is that Blume doesn’t write down to kids; she knows they’re smart and consistently captures how they think, feel and approximate the world around them, however inaccurately. In an interview somewhere, Judy Blume said this story is her most autobiographical. That comes across. Sally’s curious about everything and continuously reminded me what fun it was to be a girl.

I think my niece will love this book in a few years. It’s slice-of-life for a girl inclined towards flights of fancy who signs off her letters with “love and other indoor sports”.

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