At the beginning of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, eleven-year-old Margaret Simon and her family move from New York to New Jersey just before Labor Day.
The story takes place over the school year. We see Margaret adjusting to a new classes and new friends, including her next door neighbor, Nancy. Nancy also initiates Margaret and two other girls into her secret club, the Preteen Sensations, and she plants unflattering rumors about Laura Danker, a tall, busty classmate.
Margaret is entering adolescence. She has questions about bras, getting her period, and boys. She also wonders about religion. Her father’s family is Jewish, and her mother’s is Christian. In their suburban New Jersey town, she does not know whether to join the YMCA or the Jewish Community Center (JCC).
Attempting to find out what she wants to be takes the form of a yearlong class project. She goes to temple and to church—and she finally meets her estranged Christian grandparents.
Judy Blume is the much celebrated—and oft-banned—author of children’s, young adult, and adult novels. Blume’s books deal with adolescence—particularly sex—in a matter-of-fact way. Like Margaret and Nancy, my friends and I were curious about sex. Sometimes we whispered about it via Tiger Eyes, Forever, and Deenie—via the books of Judy Blume.
Margaret was published in 1970. I read it the 80s when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I may have received my purple paperback copy of the book from one of my friends for my birthday. Margaret dealt with menstruation, breasts, and bras. There was a Spin-the-Bottle scene. Although it was fiction, I do remember Margaret also had the status of a manual of adolescence. It was in libraries and recommended by teachers because it was seen as “realistic.”
So while Margaret had the aura of being forbidden (and was banned on occasion) because it was about tricky subjects, it was also seen as educational. That’s how its existence in libraries was justified, and that’s why it was probably handed to me.
Margaret is the first-person, present-tense narrator. She works hard at school, but she’s not a genius. She’s not tall, not precocious. She is a middle-class Everygirl trying to find her place. Margaret’s search stands in contrast with the certainty of her frenemy, Nancy Wheeler.
Nancy defines many of the terms of Margaret’s first year in the suburbs. “Oh, you’re still flat,” Nancy notes on meeting Margaret. Margaret is immediately on the defensive: “‘Not exactly,’ I said, pretending to be very cool. ‘I’m just small boned, is all.’” Nancy says later, “I figured you’d be real grown up coming from New York City. City girls are supposed to grow up a lot faster.”
Nancy brings up every topic that will shape the book (and Margaret’s thinking) in that first meeting: sex/adolescence, insecurity, and religion. Nancy is the one who tells Margaret that she has to pick Christianity or Judaism or risk being socially stranded. She tells Margaret how she should dress for the first day of school. In later encounters, she polices their friend Gretchen’s weight. She tells her girls that they have to wear bras and that they all have to like one boy—Philip Leroy. And she tells Margaret how she should react to their classmate Laura Danker.
Laura is taller than anyone in the class. She’s pretty—this is in fact the first thing that Margaret observes to Nancy. Nancy does not like this. She calls Laura, “The big blonde with the big you know whats.”
She adds that Laura has a bad reputation. “My brother says she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.”
Nancy is saying that because Laura is pretty and mature looking, she is promiscuous. As the year goes on, Nancy adds to the rumor, claiming that their sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Benedict, has a crush on the girl.
Laura Danker is the object of Nancy’s jealousy and fascination—and despite having doubts, Margaret chooses to believe Nancy.
Nancy enforces the standards in Margaret’s peer group. According to Nancy’s vision, girls are supposed to be attractive, but not too beautiful—like Laura. They should be uniform.
There are, by the way, no queer people, no disabled people, no people of color in Margaret.
Blume captures the push-pull of Margaret’s conflicts very well—the tension between what Margaret sees and thinks about Laura, about the boys in her class, about life, and what Nancy tells her she should see.
Margaret is a normal girl. Sometimes she is mean. Sometimes she parrots her friend and her parents and she doesn’t think for herself. By the end, Margaret sees just how fallible these people often are.
This, I think, is the triumph of this book: how Blume manages, despite the tight focus on Margaret’s consciousness, to show that her assessments aren’t always right. Margaret is an unreliable narrator whose friends and family are also proving unreliable. The reader sees how her judgment can be led astray. We can sympathize with Margaret’s feelings and in turn form our own judgments.
Near the end, Margaret confronts Moose—her secret crush—about the rumors that Nancy goes behind the A&P with the boys:
“Nancy told me that Evan told her that you and Evan—” I stopped. I sounded like an idiot.
“You always believe everything you hear about other people?” Moose replies. “Well, next time, don’t believe it unless you see it!”
As I’ve said, there are no queer or disabled people in Margaret. Everyone is white. “I have not tried being a Buddhist or a Moslem because I don’t know any people of these religions,” Margaret writes about her yearlong religion project.
Of course there were Buddhist and Moslem, disabled, and queer people in the suburbs in the 1970s. My parents weren’t white. They lived in the suburbs.
“Next time, don’t believe it until you see it!” Moose says.
Well, what I knew—what I saw—was that I was alive and living in the suburbs—that my parents were there. Margaret was pushed on me as realistic, but I knew—I saw—that there were limits to its realism.
There is a relatively recent update to the book where Margaret gets her period and her mother shows her how to use a pad. “Now look, Margaret—here’s how you do it. The pad fits inside your panties and—”
In the version I had, Margaret used a belt to hold the pad in place—and belts were mostly outdated even when I was growing up. But it’s funny the things we choose to update in the name of staying “realistic,” isn’t it?
I still love Judy Blume. I like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Yes, re-reading this book frustrated me at times. But I admired the way, despite the narrow scope and focus of the narration, that Blume shows that there is a wider world, that Margaret should doubt what she’s told, that what her friends tell her, what her parents and grandparents and teachers say, is open to question.
Teachers probably told me that Judy Blume’s books were realistic; in many ways they are. But if I had doubts at the end—if I still had uncertainty about what was real and what was not—well, asking, doubting, and questioning is what Margaret taught me to do.