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The innocence of Judy Blume

ByTeam BB

Apr 22, 2023

Are you there, Judy? It’s me, Nora.

When I read Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” for the first time, in 1982, I thought it had been written not just for me but about me. The novel was published in 1970, the year I was born. Like Blume’s protagonist, Margaret Simon, I lived in a suburban New Jersey town, wondered about my religion, was confused by boys and worried I might never blossom into womanhood. I even had a Jewish grandma named Sylvia who spent winters in Florida, went on cruises and confided in me about my parents.

With a film version of “Are You There God” coming soon — finally! — I decided to read my old favorite again. My 13-year-old daughter, for a $5 fee, read along with me. Blume’s coming-of-age novel, aimed at readers 10 and up, has been banned in numerous school districts because of its depiction of sexuality and its questioning of religion. These objections were in the back of my mind as I immersed myself once again in this slender but still-relatable novel. To me the real shock was not its depravity but its innocence. My daughter agreed.

“Are You There God” has little plot, or as my daughter put it, “nothing really happens.” True, the novel operates on a low register as it chronicles the very small moments that lead to a very significant one on the final page. (Spoiler alert: Margaret gets her period, an experience affirming her belief in God.) But, compared with many novels aimed at today’s tweens — never mind the problems today’s tweens face — the issues Margaret is dealing with are pretty “basic,” in my daughter’s words, and “mundane but important,” in mine.

Beloved author Judy Blume’s latest book and (supposedly) final tour

Margaret’s life is wholesome and sheltered. Her parents are happily married. Even their interfaith marriage causes very little tension, despite the barbs thrown by Grandma Sylvia (“I knew you were a Jewish girl at heart! I always knew it!”) and the protests of grandparents Mary and Paul, who even disown their daughter because of it, a plot line left dangling. They have enough money to buy a house in the ‘burbs where Margaret’s mom can pursue her artistic projects. Margaret’s friends can be petty and unkind but the consequences are minimal. After Margaret teases full-figured Laura about what she might have been doing with boys behind the A&P, she cries and apologies, even goes to confession, and later asks: “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. I did an awful thing today. Just awful! … I really hurt Laura’s feelings. Why did you let me do that?

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Oh, Margaret, you are so sweet, so guilt-ridden. I want to give you a hug. (Also, Grandma Sylvia is right about you.)

My daughter couldn’t quite relate. She found the book outdated to the point that it risked cancellation. I worry for this book, too — for its lack of sensitivity to issues people are sensitive about these days. What would some people think of the scene where Margaret’s friend Gretchen is chastised about her weight when she grabs six Oreos? Is that body-shaming? (A teaser for Blume’s novel “Blubber” at the back of my edition left me even more concerned.) And what about Mr. Benedict, the male teacher — who asks on the first day of school what the students think of a male teacher. Margaret replies, “the opposite of a female teacher.” (Got him, Margaret!) In one scene Mr. Benedict is said to have ogled busty Laura: “Laura Danker wore a sweater for the first time. Mr. Benedict’s eyes almost popped out of his head.” The kids play spin the bottle and two minutes in the closet (verboten today?), and again poor Laura is the object of attention — and possibly touching — that she may not have wanted: “When they came out [of the closet] Phillip was still smiling but Laura wasn’t.”

Are you there, Judy? I’m worried.

As a kid, I loved Judy Blume’s books. As an adult, I wonder: How do they read today?

Many novels published for kids today are more carefully constructed, but also bolder. Issues such as interfaith family life or puberty seem almost too beside the point for a tween generation growing up in a world of lockdown drills, climate change, social media and cancel culture. Yet Blume’s books paved the way for novels that tackle issues such as depression (“All the Bright Places,” by Jennifer Niven), about growing up in a family struggling with addiction (“Hey Kiddo,” by Jarrett J. Krosoczka), about navigating school with a significant deformity (“Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio), about living someplace that isn’t a mostly White suburb like Margaret’s hometown of Farbrook, N.J., (see Jason Reynolds) and more. For that I will always be grateful.

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