Dell Yearling; Atheneum Books for Young Readers
The older we get, the harder it is to remember how heavily some things weigh upon our hearts when we’re young. Fortunately, we have Judy Blume, whose books about the emotional gauntlet of pre-adolescence and beyond remain as vivid and affecting today as they did when her YA career began a half-century ago. Blume’s puberty classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret turns 50 years old today, and rereading it as an adult felt like spending an afternoon with my 11-year-old self — part nostalgia, part Freaky Friday nightmare.
Are You There God? follows Margaret Simon, an only child whose indignities begin when her parents decide to move from West 67th in Manhattan to Morningbird Lane in the fictional town of Farbrook, N.J. Anxious and stressed about the upheaval, Margaret calls on the great guidance counselor in the sky:
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.
As the title suggests, Margaret’s relationship with God is a key theme in the book, but I had forgotten how prominent it is — and how it almost overshadows our heroine’s fraught journey to her first period. The subject of religion is taboo in the Simon household. Barbara and Herb, Margaret’s parents, are actively anti-religion, but with good reason: Barbara’s mom and dad disowned her when she married Herb, because he was Jewish. (Judy Blume was never afraid to go there when it came to bigotry — the same year she published Margaret, the author also released Iggie’s House, which tackled racism in a white suburban neighborhood.)
For someone who grew up going to Sunday school every week — very much against my sleepy weekend will, mind you — the idea that a girl my age would voluntarily buddy up to God seemed very foreign to me. It never really occurred to me as a child, but now it makes sense that Margaret’s need to feel close to God is probably precisely because her mom and dad are so against organized religion. “My parents don’t know I actually talk to God,” Margaret explains. “I mean, if I told them they’d think I was some kind of religious fanatic or something. So I keep it very private.” Blume folds Margaret’s search for God into another timeless teen theme: Grappling with conformity and the dueling desires to be independent and “normal.” In her move from Manhattan to Farbrook, Margaret goes from the anonymity of the city to the homogeny of the suburbs — where everyone fits into a predetermined box. When her friends Janie, Gretchen, and Nancy learn that Margaret isn’t any religion, they are flummoxed. “But if you aren’t any religion,” Janie asks, “how are you going to know if you should join the Y or the Jewish Community Center?”
Margaret’s paternal grandma, Sylvia, wants her to be Jewish, while her mom’s parents insist their granddaughter is Christian. Some of Margaret’s struggles to determine her religious identity are depicted so beautifully, I actually felt guilty for not appreciating Blume’s writing enough as a kid. This moment in particular hit me right in my grown-up-lady heart:
I’ve been looking for you God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. And today, I looked for you when I wanted to confess. But you weren’t there. I didn’t feel you at all. Not the way I do when I talk to you at night. Why God? Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?
Though Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was a commercial success at the time and is considered a classic today, it was also one of Blume’s most controversial novels — both for its uncompromising examination of religion and its frank depictions of female puberty. Critics were scandalized for decades; Margaret ranked at 99 on the American Library Association’s list of the top 100 most banned or challenged books from 2000-2009. In the novel, Margaret agonizes over the size of her breasts (say it with me, readers: “We must, we must, we must increase our busts!”) and worries that she’ll be the last of her friends to get her period. Though she’s not as obsessed with boys as her new friend Nancy Wheeler — who practices kissing on her pillow and insists that her friends make a "Boy Book" listing their crushes — Margaret is definitely starting to be interested in the opposite sex. (Side note: Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer did not, in fact, name Natalia Dyer’s character “Nancy Wheeler” as an homage to Blume. Yes, I asked. Per their spokesperson, "It is indeed a coincidence.")
Looking back on Margaret now, I love how Blume uses two of the story’s male characters to impart some valuable life lessons to her young readers. First, there’s Philip Leroy, who all the girls in Nancy’s “secret club” think is the best-looking boy in class. Margaret shares her first kiss with him — during a game of “Two Minutes in the Closet” — but he later reveals himself to be more dolt than dreamboat. He's a “lousy worker” when Margaret has to do a group project on Belgium with him for school, and on Margaret’s birthday, Philip goes full-on neanderthal. He pinches Margaret’s arm and cracks, “That’s a pinch to grow an inch. And you know where you need that inch!” Though a 2020 protagonist would have jumped down Philip’s throat for objectifying and body shaming her, Margaret can only seethe: "It was none of Philip Leroy’s business whether or not I needed to grow an inch anywhere!” Damn right, missy! Thank you, Judy Blume, for teaching me that God doesn’t give with both hands.
Let us not forget Moose Freed, the 14-year-old who mows the Simons' lawn and sets butterflies aflutter in Margaret’s heart. He may be named Moose, and he may hang around with Nancy’s doofus brother Evan, but Mr. Freed utters perhaps the wisest words in the entire book. When Margaret confronts him for spreading rumors about Laura Danker, the most developed girl in her class, Moose just shakes his head. “You always believe everything you hear about other people?” Blume wanted her readers to understand the dangers of gossip, and so she made her message simple, brief, and entirely unfussy. It’s the opposite of a parental lecture, but orders of magnitude more effective.
Reading Are You There God? today, the only thing that gave me pause was the ending: Margaret gets her period, and cries tears of joy. “Now I am growing for sure,” she thinks. “Now I am almost a woman!” Of course, it makes sense that Blume would give her heroine a happy ending — but I just wish Margaret’s happiness could have come from self-acceptance, a realization that she and her body are okay just as they are. But who am I kidding? I was an 11-year-old girl once, too, and 11-year-old girls do hang their sense of self-worth on things they cannot control — from their training-bra size to whether or not their crush likes them back. Even 50 years on, God knows that hasn't changed.