When I decided seven years ago to try to read every title on the TIME 100, the book that intimidated me most wasn’t The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest. It was a 150-page book aimed at children, one I refused to read until it became available in e-book format because I couldn’t be seen reading it in public – Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which the title character has to deal with moving to a new school, facing the onset of puberty, and exploring religion in the midst of a family battle over what faith, if any, she should follow.
The book touches on a few themes I’m not really prepared to cover here, including the ardent desire by Margaret and her classmates to get their first periods. (Given what many of the women I know have suffered as a result of this process, this must be the greatest example of “be careful what you wish for” in literary history.)
Blume’s broader theme in the book is about the need to fit in with one’s peers, especially for children approaching such a sensitive stage. Every child character in the book acts in some way on his/her insecurities about fitting in socially or even physically. While the treatment of the one girl in the class who sprouted early (in fourth grade, which would mean she hit puberty at nine) has an obvious resolution to any adult, it matches lessons my wife and I try to teach our daughter when she notices kids picking on other kids at school, that the bully and the victim often both need others’ help.
Even the subplot of Margaret’s search for God or religion works within this broader theme, although in this case Margaret is trying to fit in within her family, where her parents, one raised Jewish and one Christian, don’t practice any religion, while Margaret’s mother is estranged from her parents because of their fury over her marrying a Jewish man. (They eventually make a horribly awkward appearance toward the end of the book, straight out of central casting.) Of all the various strands within the book, this one was the most sophisticated and thoughtful, as Margaret, who generally sees herself as behind her peers, shows a more mature side in her desire to at least understand more about religion and her open-mindedness about the subject.
I appreciated the subtle humor of the book, even though some of it would likely fly over younger readers’ heads. Margaret commenting, without meaning to pick on the boys who haven’t seen their voices drop yet, about music class where “mostly the boys sang alto and the girls sang soprano,” or her grandmother using the expression about Mohammed coming to the mountain in the midst of the family’s battle over religion, or her matter-of-fact observation that her mother can talk her father into anything, each kept the book from becoming dry and preachy with its simplistic morality.
But unlike a lot of classic young adult novels, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret comes across as juvenile to adult eyes, not due to gender differences but because it’s so thinly written. The plot is highly predictable, and the stories are all flimsy enough that you’d have trouble stretching this into more than a half hour of television. Most of the adults in the book are ineffectual, while the boys are mostly creeps (as is the 24-year-old sixth grade teacher who can’t stop staring at the girl who has already hit puberty). It feels like a book you might give your nine-year-old daughter to prep her for a Big Talk, but it’s not the kind of book that’s serious enough to answer any questions on its own. Its main value may be in making its readers feel better about their social anxiety around puberty, changing schools, and generally fitting in with peers, which is worth something, but maybe isn’t as ambitious as the book could have been. None of which made it any less awkward for me to read, although at least now I can cross it off the TIME 100 checklist.
Next up: I just finished Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, which blew away my modest expectations.