Are You There, God? It’s Me, a Historical Novel. Margaret Turns 50
Now that’s what I call good timing.
Recently I’ve been taking long walks in the morning. Walking, as they say, has many benefits. For example, if I am lucky I might spot my local family of beavers prepping for the winter and, additional bonus, I can also listen to audiobooks while I make my rounds. So, a month or two ago, I downloaded the audiobook via Overdrive of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Not because I was in any way aware that it turns 50 this year. Honestly, it was more because I’d never heard it as a child. Yet you can’t work in the field of children’s literature and remain unaware of the power of this book. It has a hold over whole generations of readers. And many of those readers turned into librarians.
Now there are certain takeaways that a AYTGIMM (note: it makes for a terribly acronym) newbie like myself would notice. The most inescapable? It was written 50 years ago. And yes, I understand that this isn’t news to anyone, but it feels fifty, right on down to its core. The clothes are ancient. The diversity is nonexistent. The parents smoke and are probably into EST. The grandmother . . . the grandmother is pretty neat. I like the grandmother. Except that hearing about her love of cruises in 2020 is . . . well, that’s a whole separate issue.
But what’s the one thing we all know about Margaret? That it’s the period book. The religion/period book if you want to get technical about it, though Blume doesn’t really feel like digging deep into the dual implications (for which we are grateful). It was her third novel, but her first big hit. It was also, her first widely banned title. American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction says that, “Attempts at censoring the book have continued throughout its lifetime; the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom reports that it has been charged with ‘denigrating religion and parental authority’ and being ’sexually offensive and amoral’.” Ms. Blume says of her first experiences with banning, “. . . one night the phone rang and a woman asked if I was the one who had written that book. When I replied that I was, she called me a communist and hung up. I never did figure out if she equated communism with breast development or religion.”
It also is probably the most book jacketed children’s book of the 20th century. Back in 2012 the book made #74 on my Top Children’s Novels Poll and I collected as many covers as I could at the time. Sadly I missed including my favorite, which was released six years later.
There are a lot of articles out right now talking about how Margaret is 50, but I wish they’d give a little context in the course of their pieces to contemporary books for girls that discuss menstruation. Go With the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann, for example, takes the surface discussion that began with Margaret and delves so much deeper. It owes Margaret a debt, absolutely, but that brings up a real question. With books like Go With the Flow going so far as to talk about period parity, does Margaret still speak to kids today?
It’s at this point that I think it’s time to look long and hard at the novel and to do something a little different. I propose an edition of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret set . . . in 1970. I mean it. Make it a period piece (pun intended and then some). Put a little date at the beginning of Margaret’s first talk with God. Heck, put the sanitary napkin belts back in along with the cream rinses and the hair rollers. Go wild! Make that book an official work of historical fiction.
There’s an amusing Bustle piece that goes in the opposite direction and says the book should be fully FULLY updated to today, which you should definitely read. But that’s sort of my point. We have good books that look at periods and development and religion coming out now for today’s kids. And they also talk about activism and LGBTQIA+ issues and gender norms. So we can keep trying to update Margaret, or we can admit that maybe for girls today we shouldn’t keep trying to shoehorn an old book into a new setting.
Then again, if the Netflix Babysitters’ Club series can find a way to meld nostalgia with current issues and topics, maybe Margaret has a chance to find cultural currency with people under the age of 30 with that upcoming Lionsgate adaptation.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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