Spot any elementary school-aged reader the name “Judy” and they will likely quickly reply: “Moody.”
Since 2000, the redheaded third-grader and her enthusiastic exploits have taken the children’s chapter book market by storm. It’s often one of the first chapter book series children read and, impressively, continue to enjoy as they get older. This month, Judy is back in her 13th book: Judy Moody and the Bucket List.
In her latest adventure, Judy finds a list of exciting possibilities in her grandmother’s purse, which the latter explains is her Bucket List. In her typical full-steam-ahead fashion, Judy decides to make her own list of things she wants to accomplish before she enters fourth grade — ride a horse, learn to do a cartwheel, invent something rad, and more.
And, also in typical Judy fashion, “of course she gets carried away,” laughs author Megan McDonald. “So many things go wrong for Judy, and that’s how real life is.”
The character’s comedic reflection of the frustrations and imperfection of real life is one major reason she continues to attract and retain young readers.
"I didn’t even realize the power of that until I started writing these books,” says the California-based author. “When I went out among kids and started talking to them about the books, I realized that is a really powerful thing for kids — to be able to read a book and think, Wow, it is OK to be frustrated and get mad and have a bad day. It happens to everybody and it’s not just me. Right around this age of third grade seems to be when kids become aware of that.”
Whether she’s successful or stalling, Judy Moody is always her own person and — an unexpected bonus in a children’s book — an effective nontraditional leader. She dives passionately into whatever her latest escapade may be, and instead of telling her friends to join her, she hooks them via her enthusiasm. Comfortable in her own skin, Judy likes what she likes, regardless of whatever anyone else thinks.
“So many books I read around this age, especially with girl main characters, it’s all about the dynamics and machinations of having a best friend,” McDonald notes. “You hurt their feelings and you have a falling out and there’s the mean girl…not that that isn’t real, that’s true. But I was just trying to do something different from those dynamics with Judy, creating a character who is fiercely independent and creative in her own imagination. So whatever she’s into, she’s a leader in the sense of, ‘If I decide I’m going to try to break a record or save the planet, I’m going to pull all my friends and all the people around me into this passion or enthusiasm, too.’ They all get swept up in the Judyness of it.”
Team Judy Moody
Just as Judy has evolved over more than a dozen books and a decade and a half, so has McDonald’s writing.
“I grew up with four sisters, so the original stories were trying to capture some of these antics and things of growing up with sisters, even though I was doing it with Judy and a little brother to make it different from my own life,” she says. “The early books had more to do with stories that were from my own childhood. Then as I was writing the series, it got further away from who I was as a kid and more into the character of who really Judy Moody is. She’s come into her own much more as a character. I got braver and more courageous going further from my own stuff.”
Yet two constants over the years have been series illustrator Peter Reynolds and editor Mary Lee Donovan of Somerville-based publisher Candlewick Press.
McDonald and Reynolds were paired by Donovan, and at the time the Massachusetts-based Reynolds was brand new to book illustration.
“The first book, he really broke the mold,” McDonald says. “Most chapter books at that time had maybe one spot illustration per chapter, and he just drew all over the pages; if there was slime he’d have it dripping down the page. When Judy’s looking for the fake hand in the toilet in the first book [Judy Moody Was In a Mood], he drew the whole thing in comic book vignettes, he did double-page spreads. It was so wonderful to see. He didn’t really know there was a formula, so he just did what he wanted to do.”
Later, Reynolds told McDonald his approach was influenced by his own childhood.
“He told me that he was a reluctant reader as a kid, so he would always count ahead the number of pages until he got to the next picture because he wasn’t very text-oriented,” she adds. “When he designed this book, he said he didn’t want kids to have to wait 17 pages of text until they get to the next visual image.”
Reynolds’ iconic illustrations, right down to the lone curl that juts straight off Judy’s head, have even replaced McDonald’s original visualization of the character.
“At the beginning, you have what’s in your imagination, but once Judy became Judy, that’s how I think of her now,” she says. “We’ve been together all these years, and I’m so lucky he wanted to be with Judy from the beginning.”
Yet the pair is not together in the literal sense, as many young readers imagine.
“Most kids think I get to sit in my kitchen with Peter and tell him what to draw, like we’re sitting there having tea and I’m, like, ‘That’s not right. Do this.’ They don’t realize we live 3,000 miles apart and all of our communication about the book goes through our editor,” she laughs.
McDonald calls editor Donovan “an unsung hero” in the series’ success.
“So much of what goes into Judy Moody is really the brilliance of Mary Lee. She’s so good,” she adds. “Whatever the book is, I seem to have so many more ideas than will fit in 150 pages. I way overwrite, and then she helps me contain it and bring it back down to earth. What happens in that process is it gets funnier. When you are able to shape it and cut out the right things, the funny stuff really comes to the fore.
“With humor, it’s easy to get slap-sticky. Judy is obviously exaggerated in terms of her character and her moods and her extreme passion about everything, but I want to keep it real because that’s one of the ways kids really connect with Judy. They relate to her and they think she’s a real kid. Mary Lee really helps with that, too.”
Judy’s lasting appeal
When the first Judy Moody books were published, McDonald says the average reader was around 10 years old. Today, she’s finding Moody fans as young as first grade.
“It’s gotten younger and younger over the years because I think there’s been such a push to introduce chapter books earlier and get kids reading sooner,” she notes.
Now, McDonald is finding a range of ages at book signings and speaking engagements. She recalls a recent trip to an elementary school to talk to second and third graders, only to have the school ask if sixth graders could attend, too: “I said, ‘Sure, if you think they’re going to be interested.’ [They] wrote back immediately: ‘They’re the ones who want to come because they read Judy, they still love Judy, and they don’t want to be left out because they’re in sixth grade.’ I thought that was amazing.
“Now Judy’s been around long enough, I actually have young adults and people in college come through an autographing line,” she continues. “I think, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s how I feel about Ramona!’ It’s so wonderful to see these 18-, 20-year-olds who want to meet the author of Judy Moody because that was their beloved third grade book.”
Which begs the question: Will Judy Moody ever get to fourth grade? As much as she loves her teacher Mr. Todd, Judy has now been in third grade for 16 years.
“I figured Ramona was in third grade for 25 years or something, I probably have a little bit of time,” McDonald laughs. “I just love that 8-year-old sensibility. There’s a part of me that wants to have Judy be frozen in time, forever third grade. In a way I keep it timeless so that I’m not hemmed in, I’m sort of fast and loose with the time. Is it spring break? Is it May? I don’t really ground it in a particular time so it can go on forever.”