Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, 1970.
This is one of the more controversial children’s books because parents raised concerns about the discussions of religion and puberty which are central to the story, and it has been banned or challenged in some libraries. (Read to the end and see the spoilers before you decide if you agree with that.)
I wouldn’t recommend this book for young children because they wouldn’t understand the issues the story discusses, but it does speak to the concerns that pre-teen girls typically have about growing up, finding their place in the wider world, and fitting in with their friends as well as that haunting fear kids often have that they aren’t normal, compared to everyone else. This isn’t a spoiler for the story (although there are plenty of those later on because I can’t really describe my thoughts about this book without them), but I just have to say that, in my experience, by the time people are done with college, maybe even by the time they’re done with high school, most of them come to realize that nobody out there is completely “normal.” Some are just better at giving that impression. Everyone out there has their quirks or issues, so if you think you’re a little odd in one way or another, or if you think your family is a little weird, you’re in pretty decent company. Generally, it’s best not to worry too much about it and just get on with life. In a way, I think that does fit in with the ending of the book. But, I’ll talk a little more about my personal opinions about the controversial parts later.
When Margaret Simon is eleven years old, her parents decide to move from New York City to a suburb in New Jersey. Margaret is accustomed to living in an apartment in a big city, and her new town and house seem a little odd to her. She isn’t sure that she’s going to like her new home, and she knows that part of the reason why her mother wanted them to move was that she was worried that Margaret was becoming too close to her grandmother in New York and too easily influenced by her.
Margaret’s family is a little unusual in that her mother is Christian but her father is Jewish. (This is a little more unusual for when the book was first written than now because marriages of mixed religions are more common now than they were before, although they can still be complicated.) The religious differences between her parents caused conflicts in their family even before Margaret was born. Neither side of the family really approved of the match, so Margaret’s parents had to elope to get married. Margaret’s mother’s parents disowned their daughter because of her marriage and haven’t seen or spoken to the couple in years or met their granddaughter. However, Margaret’s father’s mother (his father is deceased) continues to spend time with the family, although she admits that it’s mostly for Margaret’s sake. Margaret’s only close grandparent likes to spoil her and pays for her education at a private Jewish school, which is why her mother has become concerned that Margaret is influenced by her too much. Margaret’s mother wants some separation so that she and Margaret can become closer as mother and daughter. The move and Margaret’s new friendships in New Jersey raise a number of troubling questions for Margaret about growing up, both physically and spiritually.
Because of the family religious conflicts, Margaret’s parents purposely raised her without a religion, telling her that she could choose for herself when she was old enough. Until now, Margaret was not terribly concerned about it, but the move, the new friends she makes in New Jersey, and her increasing awareness of how religious differences have influenced her relationships with her family and other people cause her to question the choices she must make and what she really believes. Throughout the book, she prays frequently in a casual, conversational fashion, telling God about the things that are happening in her life, the questions and problems she has, and what she really wants most. Sometimes, she gets angry with God or disappointed when things don’t work out well, but the story makes it clear that her relationship with God is evolving, just as Margaret herself is changing as she grows up. At one point, Margaret worries that, at age twelve, she is too old already to choose a religion and wishes that her parents had just given her one when she was little so she wouldn’t have this uncertainty. However, growing up is a long process that Margaret is only beginning to appreciate.
The first new friend Margaret makes is a girl her age who lives next door, Nancy. Nancy is eager to grow up and not at all shy about talking about things like boys, periods, bras, kissing, and even sex. Sometimes, Nancy talks like she knows a lot about such things, although more mature people (and, eventually, Margaret) would realize that she doesn’t. She introduces Margaret to two other girls, Gretchen and Janie, and the four of them form a kind of club that they call the Pre-Teen Sensations (PTS for short). They give themselves secret names and hold meetings, talking about boys, people they know at school, and concerns that they have in their lives, especially related to growing up, periods, and sex (no one has any in the story, but the girls are fascinated by the idea). One of the requirements of this club is that each of the girls has to wear a bra, and they feel each other’s backs at the beginning of each meeting to make sure. Up until then, Margaret didn’t have a bra, so she has to buy her first one. The girls worry about their breast size (none of them has much yet), and they try exercises to see if they can improve it (which is ridiculous, but it is the kind of thing that some pre-teen girls believe). At the beginning, none of the girls has had their first period yet, and they’re looking forward to it with nervousness and anticipation, wondering what it’s going to be like. They agree that whoever gets their period first has to tell the others about what it’s like. Margaret nervously worries that she’ll be the last one to get hers or that she’ll turn out to be “weird” and never have one for some reason, although her mother assures her that it’s not likely and that it’s really just a matter of time.
Meanwhile, Margaret has some awkwardness at her new school, getting to know new people, sometimes making mistakes in the ways she relates to others, and figuring out which boys she likes the best. (She doesn’t get a boyfriend, just crushes.) Her new teacher is also a little awkward because he’s young and this is his first teaching assignment, and he seems self-conscious that male teachers aren’t as common as female teachers. Even adults can worry about being accepted by others. He seems to be a good teacher, however, and he asks the students questions about themselves in an effort to get to know them better. He learns early on that Margaret doesn’t have a religion and that it bothers her. When he tells the students to choose a topic for a year-long research project into something that they care about, he allows Margaret to choose the topic of religion.
Margaret decides that her project for the year will be to learn about different religions and to finally choose one for herself. Her focus is mainly on trying to decide between Judaism and Christianity because that’s what the two sides of her families are, that’s what most of the people her community are, and she says at one point that she doesn’t know anyone who is Muslim or Buddhist, so she can’t talk to them about their religions. People in this community tend to belong either to the local YMCA or the Jewish community center, and Margaret thinks that if she figures out if she should be Christian or Jewish, she’ll be able to join one of those herself and fit in better. Her friends help her in her project, some of them letting her come to church with them. Each of the PTS girls is a different religion. Janie is Jewish, and Nancy and Gretchen each attend a different Christian church.
Margaret’s friends aren’t particularly concerned about which choice Margaret will eventually make. They find the story of her parents’ elopement romantic and are sympathetic to Margaret’s feelings. However, Margaret notices that other people react differently to her project. It seems like some of them view the idea of winning her to their side as some kind of personal victory for them, which hurts because she realizes that this is how her grandparents view her, even her beloved grandmother. When her mother’s parents decide to visit them for the first time, there is an ugly scene where the family conflicts over religion come to a head, and Margaret feels so overwhelmed that she wants to give up on God and religion completely. However, Margaret’s story isn’t over yet. She’s really just started growing up, and whether she believes it or not at first, God hasn’t given up on her. Getting what she wants most is really just a matter of time and patience. Everyone grows up eventually.
So, what’s my overall opinion? Generally favorable. I read this book when I was about Margaret’s age and had the same concerns she did (or very similar, no two people are alike) and my friends and I were talking about the same kinds of things she and her friends were. I think the key to this book is age-appropriateness. Like I said, girls younger than about ten or eleven years old probably would not understand Margaret and her concerns because they just don’t share them. It’s like Margaret and her friends themselves: they talk about the concerns that they all share, growing up and their new interests in boys and the idea of first periods. If the reader isn’t a girl at that phase of her life, she just wouldn’t understand and connect with the story, and a few years later, those girls would likely move beyond all of that and on to other concerns (like whether or not they should go to college, what their major or career should be, etc. – life is full of things to figure out). The things that seem so new and mysterious at age eleven, like real signs of growing up, later won’t matter so much because they’ve already lived it and found out that it’s not such a big deal. Girls eager to get their first period or start shaving their legs at age twelve because they want to feel grown-up often start thinking of these things as hassles when they’re older and it’s all just become part of the routine of life. They groan when a period starts on the day they want to go swimming or wear long pants on days when they’re too busy or just don’t want to bother shaving. The novelty wears off, and you never look at it the same way again. When older girls and women enjoy this book, it’s mainly as nostalgia for when they were Margaret’s age and still figuring things out.
The reason why this controversial story still remains popular even decades after its original publication is because it pretty accurately captures the thoughts and feelings of that pre-teen phase of life, when girls are just starting to grasp the complexities of life and the changes that lie ahead, alternately worrying about them and eager to get on with it and grow up. It speaks to girls who are currently in that phase. Reading it again as an adult, it reminds me of a time when I was in a similar place in life, although part of me now wishes that I could take young Margaret aside and tell her a few things that she eventually will come to realize:
- That her friends are still finding their own way in life, just like she is, and even the ones who act like they know a whole lot really don’t (especially Nancy).
- That growing up doesn’t end when you get your first period or even when you hit 18 or 21 because change is a life-long process and people mature at different rates, mentally as well as physically.
- That many of the questions she’s struggling with are ones that everyone wonders about. Some of them, like the religious issues and her own identity, are life-long struggles, even for people raised in more religiously-conventional households. What human being can say that they thoroughly understand God and the mysterious ways in which He works? It’s a worthwhile struggle, but not one that people resolve with complete certainty, certainly not by age twelve (Margaret’s age at the end of the book). Margaret is far from being too old to consider these issues. Philosophers and theologians have spent entire lifetimes on that subject.
But, even if I could say some of those things to young Margaret, they probably wouldn’t help completely because some things just have to be lived to be understood, which is the main reason why I would say banning the book is a mistake. The issues Margaret deals with in the book are just common issues that come up in daily living, and the questions she asks about what she believes and what’s ahead for her are things that girls think about anyway and talk about with their friends, whether they read about them or not. There’s no point in trying to get kids to stop thinking about these things because, at some point, they just have to because it’s a part of life, growing up, and the world around them. Until they do consider some of these issues, it is difficult to move on to other, even more complex aspects of life, so I think it’s better to face them directly when the subjects come up instead of trying to dodge the subjects or put off thinking about them.
I think that Margaret’s elders were somewhat unhelpful in their approaches to Margaret’s religious life. Her maternal grandparents are clearly selfish in their motives, caring only about winning the argument for their side, not really taking any interest in getting to know Margaret personally or caring about her feelings. In fact, they only decide that they want to meet Margaret when they realize that she will be their only grandchild by blood, and even then, they make it clear that they expect the relationship to be on their terms alone. Margaret’s paternal grandmother is better in her approach, nurturing Margaret from an early age in the hopes that she will grow up in the way she thinks best, but she endangers her relationship with her granddaughter when it seems like her previous nurturing and attention had the same selfish motive, wanting to win the argument in the same way that her other grandparents did. Margaret wants them to like her for the person she is, not for what she might become or the ego boost they might get from her agreeing with their point of view. Margaret’s parents are more interested in allowing her to develop her religious side on her own terms, loving her no matter what she chooses. However, Margaret might be correct in that they should have started discussing the issue honestly with her earlier in life, being a little too hands-off in order to avoid trying to win the argument or influence her too much one way or the other.
Even if the adults in Margaret’s life aren’t always the most helpful, children also learn the things that they don’t want to do from their elders. Margaret at age twelve thinks that she’d like to raise any children she might have with a religion early in life so they won’t have to deal with the uncertainty and conflicts that she has, but she still has a lot of growing up to do, so anything can happen in her future. Margaret’s future children (if any) will depend in equal measure on who Margaret’s eventual husband turns out to be and what he believes. Life is a long journey, but Margaret seems headed for good things.
Many of Margaret’s growing-up issues will, like her first period, resolve themselves in time, and when she’s more experienced, part of her will look back and wonder why it all seemed so big and serious back then. But, that’s just the phase of life she has to live through first. Her religious issues will probably take a lot longer than physically growing up, but I think it’s important for readers to remember (as well as Margaret herself or anyone in a similar position) that Margaret is still young. At the end of the story, Margaret still doesn’t know what religion she will choose (if any), but she’s still growing and changing, her life is changing, she’s becoming more aware of the larger world, and her mind may change many times with maturity and experience (like how many of us change majors about two or three times in college and then eventually end up in a completely different career). Anything could happen in her life, and the range of possibilities in her life are part of the real magic of being young. Because Margaret is a thoughtful person who seriously wants to understand the bigger issues in life, I think that she will probably be okay in the long run and that her personal relationship with God will continue to develop even if she finds it difficult to connect to an established religion. That might not seem ideal to many people, but Margaret does the best she can with what she has in life, her circumstances and her understanding, and I think that’s a good sign.
Later editions of this book were revised to reflect new details of modern life, including how women and girls handle periods. I’ve never actually seen the old belt-style of period pads that Margaret describes in the original version of the book, and later versions of the book describe the ones that are common today.