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Are You There God? Its Me, Margaret. is still awesome

Photo from Amazon.com

Last summer, it became clear that I needed to talk to my almost fourth grade daughter about things like periods and boobs.  For one reason, she asked. For another reason, they cover these things in Family Life Education in our school district in fourth grade and I wanted to make sure she heard it here first.

So I asked friends for suggestions about books and ideas to make it all easier (for a huge list of both, click here). I did my homework and I had The Talk (the tame 101 version, we’re saving sex for later) and it went pretty well.  But in all the research and reading of the resources currently on the market to deal with these tricky subjects, there was only one book I really wanted to share with her.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  You know you read it. Some parts more than others, probably. I was a huge Judy Blume fan as a tweener and I still am.  But I hadn’t read one of her books in a long time. I hadn’t read any of her young adult books since I was one.  I was interested to see if this one held up and was as good as I remembered.

In a nutshell ? Still awesome. Still worth reading and will still make young women feel like somebody out there gets it.  I remember reading this book when I was ten and thinking, it feels real. It still does, but with a caveat. It feels authentic, but safe.  Margaret’s life is somewhat idyllic she lives in a nice home, in a nice New Jersey suburb, her mom stays home while her dad works.  Kids run around the big, green lawns of their new neighborhood with minimal parental supervision.

The version I read had been updated.  So the descriptions of sanitary napkins complete with belts and hooks had been replaced with the more modern adhesive pads (called “Teenage Softies”), making it accessible to girls reading it now for the first time.  But it remains dated.  First published in 1970, there is no way that Margaret’s experiences are the same that sixth grade girls currently experience.  There are no cell phones, no texting. Everyone’s parents were married. Everyone was middle class and white.  In this respect, it feels very much like a snapshot of another era.

But there was also a freedom and autonomy in the book that most kids now will never experience. Margaret takes the train by herself into New York City to meet her grandmother, for example. This was something I did growing up in suburban New Jersey and something I would certainly not allow my own children to do.  Free-range parenting arguments aside, it is no longer the norm.

There were several things from the book that had stuck with me through the years; how Margaret played kissing games at a party with boys, how her “best” friend Nancy was kind of assholic, and how completely desperate she was not to be the last of her friends to get her period.  It’s all still there and it all still feels very real.

There were other parts though, that I had no memory of. These were actually the most interesting to me as an adult and a mother.  One thing I’d forgotten about was the central theme of the book: Margaret’s year-long quest to figure out if she was Christian or Jewish. Her parent’s shocking (!!) interfaith marriage meant that she belonged neither to the “Y” nor the Jewish Community Center.  Margaret spends a good deal of the book trying to find God in various houses of worship, hoping for a sign that will tell her where she belongs.

The character of Laura Danker was an eye-opener for me, too. Laura was the unfortunate girl who got tall and grew boobs before everyone else in her class.  As a result of looking older, she was shunned, sexualized, and gossiped about by the other kids. I thought very little of Laura while reading the book as a ten year old. I knew her treatment was wrong, but it didn’t make a big impression on me. Now? I see Judy Blume’s prescience in a new way.

She was trying to tell us something: You think it’s awful to be the first girl to grow up and get boobs? Or maybe you think it’s worse to be the very last one without your period? How about the fact that there’s no winning here? That everyone loses when we think about it this way. Yet, we did then and girls still do.  Why didn’t I pay more attention to the lesson of Laura Danker? Why didn’t all of us?

Personally, I was too busy re-reading the sections on what it felt like to get your period and what it would be like to go to a party where kissing might actually happen.  Reading it again years later, some of the parts felt uncomfortably familiar. It made me wonder whether this book reflected or directed my 6th grade experiences. I mean we all read it, right? Moreover, we absorbed it.  At a certain point, I think I expected to play Spin the Bottle at parties.  And it felt less scary because I’d already read that chapter about 400 times.

Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m not ready for my daughter to start absorbing it all  just yet.  Because she’s probably ready to read it and she probably will absorb it. It will speak to her and inform her sensibilities, just as it did mine. I know I want to read it with her soon, but not now.  Next summer, maybe. When I’m more mature.

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