A few years ago, my friends and I reminisced about our favorite novels as kids. One was Judy Blume’s 1970 classic, Are you there God? It’s me, Margaretreleased this week (in the US, but not yet in Australia) as a movie.
Blume’s novel is about a year in the life of 11-year-old Margaret Simon, after she moves from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs. Margaret grew up without religion: her mother was disowned by her Christian parents when she married Margaret’s Jewish father.
But Margaret secretly talks to God as she grapples with the challenges of adolescence, friendship and finding her religious identity. Margaret and her friends, who call themselves the Pre-Teen Sensations, are obsessed with growing breasts and getting their periods.
Despite the enduring legacy of Blume’s novels, there have been few film adaptations of her work – and Blume has frequently been disappointed by them.
But she was convinced by the passion from director Kelly Fremon Craig (The edge of seventeen) and producer James L. Brooks (broadcast newsThe Simpsons).
Read more: Sex and other reasons why we ban books for young people
Speak out against censorship
Blume has spoken out against current movements to ban and censor booksclimate observation is worse now than it was in the 1980s, “because it has become political.”
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret and Forever (1975) – also planned for a film adaptation, by Netflix – are Blume’s most controversial books, due to their candid depictions of puberty and teenage sexuality.
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret was listed by the American Library Association 100 Most Challenged Books – books that people tried to ban – from the 1990s (when the association first started tracing) to the 2010s. It was even banned in Blume’s children school library.
Forever, an unwavering, sweet and funny account of first love and first sex, published in 1975, ranks number seven on the list of most challenged books. Recently it was banned by a school district in Florida.
Are you there God? I agree, Margaret was also controversial for his treatment of religion. Many of us may remember it because of the Pre-Teen Sensations’ preoccupation with periods, breasts, and boys. But Margaret’s search for a religious identity—and her understanding of how this shapes her family relationships—is at the heart of the novel. Ultimately, the book’s message seems to be that organized religion matters less than Margaret’s personal relationship with God.
According to a PEN America Report released late last year, there are currently 1,648 unique book titles that are banned in the United States.
Of these, 49% of banned books are intended for young adult audiences, 22% of books are banned for sexual content – including images of puberty – and 4% are banned for stories involving religious minorities, including Judaism. But reading diverse and sometimes difficult stories is important for development empathy and understanding.
Read more: Book bans reflect outdated beliefs about how children read
‘Don’t say period’ legislation
In an era when so-calledDon’t say periodFlorida legislation is being debated, Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret’s focus on menstruation and puberty has taken on new political and cultural significance.
Legislation attempts to ban instruction on menstruation in American schools before sixth grade – Margaret’s own age in the novel.
“Even if they don’t let them read books, their bodies will still change and their feelings about their bodies will change,” says Blume about the ban. “And that is not in your control. They must be able to read, ask questions.”
Blume’s books are already on banned lists in Florida. So it might be too optimistic to hope that Florida school libraries will overlook copies of Margaret in the stacks to ensure that this generation of readers can find an empathetic voice in this context.
Many young readers found a kindred spirit in Margaret. She helped normalize the confusing feelings of puberty and the complicated process of figuring out who you are for generations of readers, and continues to do so today.
Read more: Friday essay: I watched 100 menstrual product ads spanning 100 years – shame and secrecy reigned
Menstrual belts and new generation updates
My friends and I cried with laughter at the confusion our adolescent selves had felt about the menstrual belt described in the novel – a form of menstrual hygiene product that was on the decline as early as the 1970s, let alone when we read the novel in the 1980s and early 1990s.
As Margaret waits for her period to arrive, she practices wearing a menstrual belt and pads. So she is well prepared when her period finally arrives on the last day of sixth grade. After reading the novel as a child, I remember rummaging through my mom’s bathroom supplies looking for such a device and only finding adhesive pads.
When I reread the novel as an adult, The Belt was nowhere to be found – Margaret uses adhesive pads instead. I wondered: did we remember it wrong?
The answer is no: the novel itself is updated in 1998. Other period (pardon the pun) details are unchanged. Margaret’s mother gives her a conditioner and puts her hair in rollers for a party. The girls split into pairs to call each other on the landline in the evenings (no group chat here!). And it only costs five dollars to have a neighborhood kid mow the lawn.
Unlike the recent controversial changes to Roald Dahl’s children’s books, the changes to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was created by Blume herself.
For Blume, ensuring a new generation of readers received useful health information was more important than capturing an amber text. time of menstrual history. Similarly, revised editions of her 1975 novel, Forever, include a foreword in which Blume points out the outdated sexual health advice given to the protagonist, and directs readers to services such as Planned Parenthood.
Older generations of nostalgic readers may miss The Belt (it can still be found in some ebook versions), but Blume’s attitude about revising her own work for the benefit of each generation of new readers emphasizes her sense of responsibility to them.
It also highlights the important role that literature plays in educating young readers. Sure, they may be missing a historical fact about menstrual hygiene in the 1970s, but the revised versions may make them better equipped to deal with today’s periods.
Where the 1970s might be hard to interpret on page, it provides a vibrant visual setting on screen that will involve newer generations in the visual and cultural details of the novel’s original context. (And help them learn the final mode of action the iconic chant of the Pre-Teen Sensations, “we need to enlarge our breasts”.)
It is important that the spirit of the story and the characters remain the same. At its core, are you God there? It’s me, Margaret is a coming-of-age story about identity, relationships with others and relationships with your own body.
The specifics of menstrual bands, tampons, or menstrual underwear are less important than seeing the glorious, confusing awkwardness of puberty and girlhood taking up space on the big screen.