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Judy Blume Revisited! Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret

Judy Blume wisdom…

[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

It’s “revisit my childhood” month in July. For the entire month I am reading the classics- Judy Blume’s that is- and finishing with her latest release for adults, In the Unlikely Event.

I’m rereading her books in no particular order and will review them all here. So let’s start with my thoughts on her most “seminal” tale of a girl’s road to womanhood!

Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret

My rating as a kid: 5 stars (excellent)

My rating as an adult: 2-3 stars (so-so to good)

First of all, this book floored me as a kid. I think you have to be about 12 or 13 for the story to really hit home. Every single girl I knew, including myself, was obsessed with three things: boys, boobs, and getting your first period. Judy Blume covers them all.

I probably read this book at least 10 times as an adolescent. And it seemed like such a saga! She’s starting a new school in a new city, she likes a boy who doesn’t like her, she has no boobs to speak of, and all her friends are getting their periods and she’s not. To top it all off she talks to God, even though she’s of no religion. The real stinker is she doesn’t even get to go on the special trip with her Grandma Simon because of her other pesky and hyper-relig maternal grandparents! These are all the things that can consume a kid- and boy, did I relate to her.

I even did a special project inspired by Margaret’s when I was in high school. My family was also of no religious persuasion, and I was curious to find out what religion meant to other people. I had to write a paper on different cultures, but I turned it into my own religious project. I went to a Jehovah’s Witness meeting, a Church sermon, and talked to a person I worked with at the local pizza joint who was Muslim. Just like Margaret, I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for but I was awakened to a new sense of spirituality and what it means to simply ask a higher power for guidance.

As an adult, however, the book doesn’t quite hold the same resonance. I was surprised to discover that Margaret is, pardon my French, kind of a bitch! Must be due to being a hormonal, pre-menstrual kid but I’m still shocked at how almost unlikeable she is. I kept having to put myself in the shoes of a pre-teen girl. Remember when you thought your best friend was a horrible person? Remember when you made of that girl or that boy? Remember what it felt like to be an outcast, or misunderstood, or left out? My having to remind myself that no girl at age 11 or 12 is very likable, and it took me out of the story.

Also, however dated the book is (Pads with belts? Velvet hats? Plaid bedskirt, your mom says “gads”- yuck to all!), this is STILL a revolutionary book for its time and now. Is there another book that really makes it ok to talk about your period with fervor and excitement? Judy Blume is so skilled at capturing that unique age right between childhood and adolescence and all of the things that girls SHOULD be talking about, and questioning. Judy never subscribes her books to the “Young Adult” genre and I agree. It’s like saying this book is only good for a certain age range and not others, but who decides that anyway? Moms should talk to their girls about periods, boobs, and boys at a younger age than we think. Because, as Judy subtly points out, us girls are already talking about it by age 11, which isn’t considered to be under the Young Adult age range.

The God piece in the book felt out of place for me as an adult, but again, I had to remind myself that being a kid is all about figuring things out. A kid’s deep thoughts might seem trite and silly to us grownups, but how else will we learn about ourselves? I used to talk to God too. And I asked him to make my butt smaller. I think I was about 8 or 9.

As Judy says: “I had a very personal relationship with God. I talked to him about all my worries, concerns, and feelings, the way Margaret does. My readers are always asking how I know all their secrets. After reading this book you’ll know some of mine!”

Stray Observations:

  • MAVIS was apparently a sensational name circa 1970.
  • Even though not grading a year-long project is slightly lame and pointless, how cool was that to be trusted with a year long project at age 11?! Are we just less mature now?
  • I wanted to live and play in Nancy’s room: organdy skirted vanity, perfume bottles, and make-up.
  • Every time I eat a pickle, I think of Grandma Simon and say to myself “Mmm, nothing like the real thing!”
  • The size of pads back then were like bricks!

Library Memories

These past couple weeks have found me deep in reverie, looking back fondly on my childhood and time spent inside a library. For whatever reason, I keep conjuring up the library in San Jose where I basically spent the entire summer of my 14th year. There must be meaning in this somewhere…

The library I remember was not particularly inviting by any means. Picture the most institutional cinder-block gray building of the 1960s with harsh overhead lighting and you know what I mean. I even remember the old school 50s style no-frills large clock above the check-out desk. That clock was an ominous sign as to how long I could spend my entire day at the library.

What do I remember about those days? It was hot and steaming, for one. The library’s ancient air-conditioning system couldn’t quite keep up with the blast furnace going on outside. I didn’t care. That was the summer of jean shorts and the tiniest tops I could get away with. What I cared about was sitting in front of the Young-Adult and Horror sections, scouring the shelves for the latest Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel, which were, inexplicably, casually placed in either genre. I must have read two books a week that summer. I couldn’t seem to get enough of books, and I felt incredibly grown up for reading Koontz and graduating from the Judy Blume’s, the R.L. Stine’s, and The Babysitters Club series (although truth be told, I was a much bigger fan of the lesser known  Sleepover Friends series).

Each morning, my dad or step-mom would drive me to the library on his or her way to work and let me out right when the library opened. I stayed all day until about 2 or 3pm when my step-mom picked me up. I can’t ever remember leaving to get food, but the smell of all those books and the feel of the carpet where I set up camp for the day still conjures up fresh memories of pure happiness. Those were “simpler times” to say the least. It was also the first summer I equated books with music. I recall driving home one afternoon and a song came on the radio that completely tied in with one Koontz book I was reading that just so happened to take place during the summer as well.

Do I remember the name of the book or the song? No, but I heard it today I can bet you that I would be thrust right back into the middle of that book and the emotion I felt while reading it.

Books held power for me in that library and nothing was off limits. Having worked my way through all the interesting and new copies in Horror and YA, I wandered over the kids section, probably intending to scoff at was once my “youth”. The entire Dr. Seuss canon was reread that humid summer. I know I tried to read “The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy in the Fiction section, a once restricted area to me until that year when no parents were around, but even I was just a tad too young to really understand what was happening in that novel. No, horror and mysteries were my bailiwick and I couldn’t seem to get enough of anything.

It was also a lonely summer. I had just moved to San Jose to live with my dad and his wife’s family and I felt out of place a lot in that coming year. Despite my love of books and feelings of safety within that library, my life was slowly changing. I was no longer living with my mother and had been taken out of a life and routine I knew by heart. If that summer represented anything it was that fragile cusp between childhood and adolescence and what happens when you transition against your will from one part of your youth- rather carefree and light- into another, which starts to demand more and more of you whether you are ready for it or not. I don’t think it’s any secret why I crossed back and forth between the children’s and young adult’s sections so easily and freely. I still wasn’t quite sure who I was, and at the time I didn’t realize I was being forever shaped by the books I was reading and how I came to perceive literature as my savior and respite from the harsh realities waiting outside in the “real world”, a concept I didn’t fully understand back then.

Perhaps I’m in a reminiscing mood, or perhaps I’m longing for those days when I could very effortlessly be swayed and pulled into a book, but I can’t get over how much I’ve been thinking about that forlorn library lately. It comes to me at seemingly inopportune moments as well. I’ll be sitting at my desk typing away on some project or another and suddenly I’m right back on that carpet, nose stuck in a book, listening to the buzz and hum of those lights, feeling nothing except the emotions of the characters in the book. And hoping against hope that I’ll hear that song again on the way home that reminds me of a particular scene or a piece of the action in a chapter I read and get the chance to relive every moment.

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