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.