Margaret and Me

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

In the 1980s, Judy Blume’s popular middle-grade and young adult novels were as ubiquitous as our Bonnie Bell lip smacker lip gloss collections. The books were always checked out at both the school and public library and took up a whole table at our annual school book fair. This alarmed some of the parents and educators who thought Blume’s topics might be too risky.

Our school librarian had a special meeting with parents to address the Judy Blume problem. The librarian’s biggest issue was the adult themes in some of Blume’s books. She said the fad was too big to stop. Instead, she recommended parents read the same books their children read to have meaningful discussions afterward.

But she unwisely added the following advice: “Under no circumstance should your junior high student read Forever.”

Of course, the moment we found out Forever was off-limits, someone got a copy and we passed it around. A book banned by the librarian had to be a worthwhile read. My parents had no idea I was reading this book!
For those who don’t know, Forever is about a high school senior, Katherine, who has a boyfriend, and they have sex.

As a classic seventh grade late bloomer, my favorite books included Noel Streatfeild’s Shoes books, which were almost all about orphaned British children discovering their inner talents at cool stage schools in London. These books had nothing to do with teen hormones and everything to do with discovering your talents and finding a happily ever after on the stage. I read these over and over and daydreamed about a future in a very dated view of the London stage world.

Forever was more than a tad beyond my experience. Still, the book impacted me profoundly. I remember the librarian preferred classical children’s literature, the kind that instilled some sort of moral lesson in our impressionable minds. I’m guessing she thought we’d read Forever, identify with Katherine, and have sex before we ready. First of all, I doubt any middle-schooler looked at me as a potential romantic partner. And, I was the same. How could a shy girl who read obsessively, wrote plays, and built a dollhouse of all things be ready for sex?

I remember the story left me heartbroken. I learned about the intensity of first love and the crippling pain of breaking up. After reading Forever, I thought I wasn’t ready to deal with the intensity of a romantic relationship. It could wait a long, long time, and I would just go back to my theater daydreams. In other words, the book had the opposite impact that the grownups feared. Forever taught me that sex is a messy, complicated, and potentially emotionally painful experience I wasn’t ready to experience.

I wasn’t done with Judy Blume. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, intrigued me, and I didn’t have to read in secret. My mom followed the librarian’s advice and read the book too.

One of the plot points in the book is that the main character, Margaret wonders when she’ll go through puberty and get her first period. As a result, my mom and I ended up having a very awkward conversation about periods and puberty.

I honestly didn’t care about that stuff and was a little confused about why Margaret cared. I knew some girls who had their periods, and from what I heard, they were painful and annoying. And, sure enough, a few years later, when I finally went through puberty myself, I found that menstruation was indeed painful and annoying.

What interested me more about the book was Margaret’s relationship with God. In the story, she has a Jewish father and a Christian mother. They’re non-practicing, but she’s curious about religion and what decisions she should make in her own life. For a class project, she attends different worship services and wonders where she belongs.
I grew up in a Catholic family. Though we went to public school, every week my brothers and I went to Sunday School and church. I was baptized, participated in confession, and Communion.

In the seventh grade, I was taking additional classes for my confirmation. Up until this point, I had done all of my church requirements without resistance, but this was different. My messy emotions kept getting in the way. I felt separated from my faith. For one thing, the underlying sexism didn’t impress me, but it was more than that. The church we attended was a friendly place, but I didn’t fit in. I felt like an imposter, but I couldn’t articulate my feelings. After all, I was expected to go to church.
To her credit, the nun teaching the confirmation class explained confirmation was our decision, not our parents, and we shouldn’t take it lightly. I realized if I went through with confirmation I wouldn’t be honest with myself and everyone around me.

At the end of Are You There God? . . . , Margaret doesn’t reach any conclusions about religion, though she feels that she shouldn’t have to choose. I had a religion and didn’t know what I wanted exactly, but I did know that being confirmed in the Catholic Church was the wrong thing for me to do.

Margaret gave me courage. I spoke up.

I told my parents. Lots of yelling ensued, but I stood my ground.
My older brother had been confirmed, and I was expected to follow his footsteps. My mom was the first to accept it was my decision, and my dad eventually came around.

I stopped going to church, was never confirmed, and never regretted that decision.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny the grownups thought Judy Blume’s books were going to corrupt us. Forever taught me that sex had emotional consequences, and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, taught me that there are no easy answers when it comes to finding a spiritual path. These two books, in particular, reaffirmed my views on the world and my place in the chaotic world of adolescence.

Years later, I was at a writers’ conference in Los Angeles. Judy Blume was one of the keynote speakers. As I navigated my way out of the crowded auditorium, I saw Judy standing by the door surrounded by a group of admirers. She looked directly at me and smiled. I smiled back.

I was afraid to go up and say hello. I thought I might burst out crying or something totally embarrassing. Also, I didn’t need to say anything. Judy already got it. She understood, and she understood all those years ago when I first read her books.

A Blast from the Past

I’ve been organizing bookshelves in my office, and I found some classics from my past.

When I was 13, I had to make a decision about continuing my Catholic faith. I decided to step away from the church, and I had many questions. This book helped me with that:



Well-worn reminders of why books are so important.

I had almost forgotten about this fun middle grade adventure:


Check out these great interior illustrations:



I found this disclaimer in the introduction of the mystery novel, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers:

For, however realistic the background, the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offense in the world.

I shall now return to my own version of CCL. I think the name of my world is different, but it hasn’t whispered itself to me yet.


Imagination in the Real World

Recently I wrote a play review for a production of Love Song by John Kolvenbach. The play explores the relationship between what is real and what is imagined, and how it helps us find love and understand our world.

On a deeper level, the play considers that intersection between fantasy and reality.

As a child I often told stories because they seemed so real in my head. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t real. As an adult, I write those stories.

I read books about imaginary worlds, and a really good book can pull me into a world that seems real. This was true for me as a child and is still true for me as an adult.

Objectively, we can tell the difference between what is real and what is made up, but it’s fun to consider the “What if?”

The imagined world calls us . . .

As adults we may understand the difference between reality and imagination perfectly, but some of us choose to write stories, act on stage, make movies, draw pictures . . . .

We give ourselves a chance to enter that imaginary world.

Could a fairy live there?
Could a fairy live there?

After posting this, a friend emailed me a link to Mac Barnett’s recent Ted Talk on imagination and writing for children. If you haven’t heard this yet, I highly recommend listening in. Not that I’m telling you what to do or anything, but Mac is an amazing writer. I’d listen to anything he has to say:


On a side note, I’m still looking for that secret door–

The magic portal to something extraordinary . . .

Picture Books and Plays

A light went on (so to speak).

A connection I hadn’t thought of before fused in an unexpected way.

In April I was at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference. I attended Justin Chanda’s session on editing picture books. Justin Chanda is the vice president and publisher of a bunch of imprints at Simon and Schuster, and he edited, among many other books, Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s book, Battle Bunny, a book I happen to adore.

Justin Chanda was fantastic! Not only did he hand out actual manuscripts for three great picture books (I love, love, love models to work from), but he explained how he felt editing was a lot like directing a play.

This is when I had my connection.

During the month of April I was working on “Main Course,” my short comedy I wrote for the Orcas Island Ten Minute Playfest. I attended rehearsals as a very talented director worked with actors to create life from my script.

The results were much more awesome than I even imagined. I never grow tired of the magic which transforms words on a script to a live performance.

Stage Magic with Adam and Brian
Stage Magic with Adam and Brian

Adam, Aaimee, and Brian
Adam, Aaimee, and Brian

(Photos by Michael Armenia)

When Mr. Chanda made the director/editor connection, I could totally see this. The editor, like the director, coaxes and encourages the story along. As I considered the writing versus the finished picture book, I thought, perhaps, the artist is like the actors; the ones who make the story come to life.

Suddenly I could see what I do as a playwright in relation to what I could do as a picture book writer.

Playwright, director, actors: Performance

Writer, editor, artist: Book or story.


I love it when this happens!


Two Hundred Years of Mr. Darcy . . .

And Elizabeth Bennet.

Today is the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

This is one of the best opening lines of a novel. It promises adventure, wit, and a touch of appropriate sarcasm.

Another of my favorite quotes (though I suppose this one makes me a bit of a misanthrope):

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”

Thank you, Jane!




A Letter to Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

Dear Ray,

I would have preferred another day instead of  my birthday to find out about your death.

You probably didn’t know this, but  I wrote a book about you in 2006. An editor of small publisher sent me a list of potential subjects for middle grade biographies, and I saw your name. I read a few short stories, of course, but I knew little else about you. For whatever reason, your name popped out at me, and I selected you as the topic of my next book.

I started doing my research, I was struck with your passion for writing. Your tendency to create worlds and find the landscapes of “what if” scenarios stunned me. You were not afraid.

I like this.

I reread Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. I read Something Wicked This Way Comes and dozens of short stories.

Your writing passion and your lifelong goal to create and keep creating impressed me most. You seemed to have this headlong, wonderful enthusiasm you brought to every project.

You said many great things about the craft of writing, but this is my favorite, the one I repeat when I get stuck or over analyze what I do.

“Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”