The words uttered by a fictional character named Margaret more than five decades ago spoke not only to the Almighty, but also to generations of girls struggling to understand their bodies, their emotions and the world around them. Judy Blume’s unforgettable middle-grade novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” debuted in 1970 and continues to echo the wonders and agonies of female adolescence.
Everyone from Chelsea Handler to Chuck Palahniuk has borrowed Margaret’s famous phrasing. For you CW fans, there was even a “Supernatural” episode called “Are You There God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester.” This past weekend, Margaret made it to the big screen. Some fans feared the movie wouldn’t be true to the book while others were concerned it would be “better,” perhaps meaning they would have to bequeath their beloved to the kids of today. I’ll be seeing it tomorrow night, but I’m not concerned about the film’s tone. (This comes from a person who considers the new “Velma” series Scooby-Doo blasphemy.) I’m happy for the new audience Blume will reach. Believe it or not, readers have not always had easy access to “Margaret” as it has consistently been on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books.
Realizing I sound like someone telling a story about walking uphill to school in the snow every day, I must start the following sentence with these words: In my day, preteen girls in small towns with protective parents had few resources. Sixth grade Amanda, aka Mandy, relied mainly on a monthly column in Seventeen magazine and whatever vulgar comments older kids let slip to make sense of things. Not all parents gave “the talk,” and often when they did, only one word of it was memorable: “DON’T!” Eleven-year-old Margaret had lots of questions, and as a New York Times (NYT) writer recently expressed, Blume answered with candor and respect.
Margaret was dealing with a Christian mom and a Jewish dad who were willing to let her choose her own path. Most of her worries, however, were about her first period, her bust size (say it with me, “We must, we must, we must increase our . . .”) and the terror of being freakishly different. It’s amazing that the most common experiences — from menstruation to that first all-consuming crush — make us feel unique and therefore terrible. We believe our version of growing up is warped in a way others wouldn’t understand or that we’re warped because we’re unable to understand and embrace the phenomena of everyday life that should come naturally.
The NYT piece, written by Elisabeth Egan, talks about why Blume’s work still matters. If you’ve read Stephen King’s “On Writing,” you know that he gets to horror readers by articulating all the discomforting things people don’t want to admit they consider or fear. Blume, in her way, does the same as she puts her characters’ secret shame on the page. She is flawlessly frank — but not in the way so many books, TV shows and movies tend to be. Her characters’ voices are not full of emotional hyperbole. They’re not anticipating a book prize with every alliterative syllable. Margaret is painfully self-conscious; Blume as an author is not. That’s why her work will always matter.
In 2007, writer and editor Jennifer O’Connell assembled essays from 20+ notable female authors for a book called “Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl, I Learned from Judy Blume.” One of the contributors notes that the protagonist in Blume’s young adult novel “Forever” describes the experience of losing her virginity as a letdown. It’s also underscored that Blume’s characters often do things because they’re curious — not because they’re pressured by boys.
Blume actually wrote “Margaret” for her daughter, and the result is an amazingly nonjudgmental representation of adolescence. Blume, who now teaches a “MasterClass,” once said, “Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear.”
Despite the constant connectivity of the internet, I’m sure there are plenty of modern Margarets who need more than information; they need the assurance that others have felt their fear and that they have every right to their feelings and their queries. For that reason and many others, I’m glad Blume and Margaret are still there, and I’m thrilled the incomparable author, at 85, walked the red carpet this year knowing her words matter.