©1970 by Judy Blume.

A teen classic. Full of terribly corny ruminations about boys, brassieres, and menstruation with some asides about theology that really work for me.
If I had grown up reading Harriet the Spy over and over I probably would have been much healthier and less self-conscious in my pre-teen years.
Margaret, the protagonist, is product of an interfaith marriage like myself. (As was also the case with me, she suffers considerable existential angst.) Anyway, the title stems from the fact that Margaret doesn't seem to know how to pray formally, and so devises her own manner of talking to God:

Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I can't wait until two o'clock God. That's when our dance starts. Do you think I'll get Philip Leroy for a partner? It's not so much that I like him as a person God, but as a boy he's very handsome. And I'd love to dance with him...just once or twice. Thank you God.

Judy Blume’s 1970 book about soon-to-be 12 year old Margaret Simon was a big hit at slumber parties with the pre-pubescent girl crowd. (We also read Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, the counterpart book for pre-adolescent boys, and passed Blume’s racy love story Forever around in class, with the “good parts” marked.) Blume created characters kids could identify with, and focused on topics that we fretted about, or spent a lot of time thinking about (divorce, integration, sex, and a host of conditions that could leave your typical teen feeling left out). Although one doesn’t see her books around quite as much any more, Judy Blume books were all the rage for a decade or two.


Margaret has just moved from New York City to a suburb in New Jersey. She’s worried about making friends and fitting in at school. She’s anxiously waiting to develop you know where and is relieved when she learns that her new friends, the “Pre-Teen Sensations”, haven’t started menstruating yet, either. Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. chronicles kissing, bra shopping, Margaret’s first boy-girl party, dealing with a friend who lies, the importance of fitting in, and of course, the official 6th grade movie, shown only to girls, What Every Girl Should Know, “brought to you as a courtesy of the Private Lady Company.”

Margaret’s father is Jewish and her mother is Christian, and their marriage caused quite an uproar in the families. Neither parent currently practices a religion, and Margaret has been told she can choose her own when she grows up. While the state of her soul is of utmost importance to her grandparents, everyone else regards her lack of religion as more of an inconvenience:

”But if you aren’t any religion, how are you going to know if you should join the Y or the Jewish Community Center?” Janie asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never thought about it. Maybe we won’t join either one.”
“But everybody belongs to one or the other,” Nancy said. (p. 35)

Margaret talks to God in her own way, and when her 6th grade teacher, Miles J. Benedict, announces to the class that he expects everyone to complete a year-long project, she decides to try to come to a decision about what religion she should be. She concentrates on Judaism, Christianity, and Catholicism (yes, I know the last is a sub-set of the second, but this is how she phrases it) because those are the religions of the people she knows. She goes to temple on Rosh Hashanah with her grandmother, tries once to go to confession, and attends church services with friends:

So I went. The funniest thing was it was just like temple. Except it was all in English. But we read from a prayer book that didn’t make sense and the minister gave a sermon I couldn’t follow and I counted eight black hats, four red ones, six blue and two fur. At the end of the service everyone sang a hymn. Then we stood in line to shake hands with the minister. By then I was a pro at it. (p. 63)

A surprise visit from her maternal grandparents--who had disowned their daughter when she married a Jew and who had never met Margaret--prevents Margaret’s planned trip to visit her other grandmother in Florida, and wreaks havoc when the subject of religion is brought up:

“Margaret,” Grandmother said, touching my sleeve. “It’s not too late for you, dear. You’re still God’s child. Maybe while I’m visiting I could take you to church and talk to the minister. He might be able to straighten things out.”
“Stop it!” I hollered, jumping up. “All of you! Just stop it! I can’t stand another minute of listening to you. Who needs religion? Who! Not me . . . I don’t need it. I don’t even need God!” I ran out of the den and up to my room. (p. 134)
The next morning I stayed in my room. I wouldn’t even go down for breakfast. I caught myself starting to say, Are you there God, but then I remembered that I wasn’t talking to him anymore. I wondered if he would strike me down. Well, if he wanted to, that was his business! (p. 135)

In Margaret, Judy Blume had created a very sympathetic character. She’s a non-pedantic, non-judgmental everykid for a lot of young girls (and boys) who needed information, who were living through the same types of events that occurred in the book. She’s far from perfect—she picks on another girl in her class, based on untrue stories she’s heard about her through the grapevine—but her mistakes and her discomfort make her that much more human, and easy to relate to. Margaret does not decide what religion she should be by the end of her sixth grade year (and the end of the book), but she does finally get her period:

Are you still there God? It’s me, Margaret. I know you’re still there God. I know you wouldn’t have missed this for anything! Thank you God. Thanks an awful lot . . . .

Although Judy Blume wrote many books for children, teens and adults, "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret" is still, 50 years later, probably her most important book. It details the life of 11 year old Margaret Simon, who has moved from Manhattan to suburban New Jersey, and is dealing with a variety of problems, including impending puberty and theological confusion. The book is 150 pages long in my edition, and is written in a simple prose style.

I have probably been hearing about this book since elementary school, when my older sister read books like this, and I have used it as a way to compare modern trends in YA fiction, which despite being "gritty", are very sanitized compared to this book. So I decided I should actually read it. And after reading it, it is even more clear that like many of Blume's books, it is both revolutionary in content while having serious literary flaws---and the two are related. The thing that I disliked while reading this book is that Simon, while dealing with so many big issues, often comes across as a blank slate with not much personality of her own. Blume, and Simon, detail events in a straightforward, prosaic way that doesn't really let us know too much about what Simon is thinking. Things happen to her, but she doesn't seem to be very proactive about forming her own value system. Despite the theological angst inherent in the title, Margaret seems to take most of the world at face value. But there are two reasons for that: first, as a book written for middle school girls in 1970, and not for me, the storytelling style is meant to be simple and easy to follow. Secondly, that could be the point of the book: Margaret starts the book without much introspection or an ability to question the world around her, but by the end of the book, does learn that she shouldn't believe everything she hears (significantly, in a piece of dialog where an older boy tells her not to listen to rumors about what a precociously developed girl might be doing with older boys). So in some ways the book does include significant character development, just not telegraphed in the usual way.

But this is where the book being revolutionary, and also somewhat quaint, is a factor. The book is revolutionary because it talked about the physical facts of adolescence, including sexual development and sexual desire--things that were considered inappropriate or even obscene in 1970, and which have also disappeared from the genre since then, to the point where a popular book like The Hunger Games can detail a teenage girl killing other children for sport---but can't go as far as to talk about her menstruating. That this book talks about things like bras, periods and clumsy sexual exploration in a flat style makes it more realistic, in a way. But this book also seems quaint in a way, not just because some of the specific topics are no longer quite so important (I can't remember "interfaith marriage" being a controversy for a while), but also because it is possible to imagine an 11 year old girl being a blank slate at the time. If Margaret Simon was coming of age today, even as a sheltered girl, she might have already had access to Instagram explainers and other forms of social media that would have given her some sort of critical viewpoint to think about things such as her friends' low-key bullying or her grandparents religious bigotry. So the contradiction of this book for me is that while in some ways it was ahead of its time---talking about things that still can't be talked in young adult literature, in some ways it is hard for me to understand being a middle school student without any exposure to viewpoints outside of the immediate environment.

"I liked it. My mother liked it more."
--Local fifteen-year-old girl.

After fifty years, Judy Blume's novel, famous, celebrated, and notorious, finally made it to film. It's well-acted, expensively-produced, and true to its source in all important respects. Rarely has a movie been so entirely aimed at 11-14-year-old girls and their moms.

The basic story: eleven-year-old Margaret moves, makes new friends, explores religion (her father was raised Jewish and her mother, evangelical Christian. Neither is devout, but Margaret prays regularly), and deals with the concerns that attend young girls undergoing puberty.

They've kept the setting to the early 1970s. There has been too much cultural change since then, and putting it in the present would have required too many alterations to the story and the characters' interactions. It's a stunning recreation. I was a young child in this era. This film captures pretty much what it looked and felt like.

The acting is exceptional, even more so when one considers the young age of the main cast. Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret necessarily has to carry the movie, interact credibly with her peers, and play opposite the likes of Amy Adams as her mother and Kathy Bates as her grandmother. She succeeds beyond a director's wildest dreams.

And so we get explorations of friendships, both within and outside of gender, familial relationships, a personal quest for God, and, of course, puberty and periods.

The film received nearly unanimous critical acclaim and numerous awards and nominations. It did well enough at the box office, though less successfully than anticipated. It probably didn't help that it received a PG-13 rating in the United States, which suggested that a depiction of the trials and tribulations of puberty might not be appropriate for, you know, people experiencing them. Streaming and other home-viewing options should make amends. The grade six girl down the street is reading her mother's old copy of the novel and they plan to watch the film together when it's done. But, despite its intended audience and some inherent too-precious moments, Margaret can be enjoyed by anyone.

A few changes from the novel:

-while the neighbourhood remains predominantly white, it is more racially diverse than in the novel.

-the grandparents get to meet.

-Margaret and two of her friends reconcile with Laura Danker, the girl who developed first and has become the target of rumours. There's also a more definite negative reaction against the girl who spread those rumours.

-a creepy action by a male teacher gets omitted. However, we only hear about in in the book, second hand, as a claim made by the rumour-spreading character whose comments on other matters get questioned and in some cases revealed to be outright fabrications.

-Perhaps most significantly, Margaret's mother moves out of the margins and gets her own subplot. Her experiences somewhat reflect on her daughter's, they connect to the shifting social landscape of the times, and they flesh her out as a character. They also justify hiring a high-profile actress for the part.

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Writer: Kelly Fremon Craig, from the novel by Judy Blume.

Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon
Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon
Kathy Bates as Sylvia Simon
Benny Safdie as Herb Simon
Elle Graham as Nancy Wheeler
Amari Alexis Price as Janie Loomis
Katherine Mallen Kupferer as Gretchen Potter
Kate MacCluggage as Mrs. Jan Wheeler
Aidan Wojtak-Hissong as Moose Freed
Landon S. Baxter as Evan Wheeler
Mackenzie Joy Potter as Mamma Bunny
Olivia Williams as Witch
Echo Kellum as Mr. Benedict
Simms May as Norman Fisher
Zack Brooks as Philip Leroy
Jecobi Swain as Freddy Barnett
Isol Young as Laura Danker
Judy Blume as Neighbour walking her dog

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