At a preview screening of “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” a couple of weeks ago, I walked into the theater and counted two dozen women and precisely zero men. Some did eventually show up, but the vibe of the gathering can best be captured this way: When I complimented another attendee’s dress, she immediately showed me that it had pockets, and then her friend offered to share a coupon code for the store that sold the dress, and then her friend’s friend said she actually owned the dress in blue but it never fit right so she was happy to just give it to me – what was I, 5-foot-5?
Instead of previews, we saw an ad campaign for the movie featuring avid fans – some famous, such as Lena Dunham, and some not – talking about what “Margaret” had meant to them. How they learned about menstruation from Margaret. How they felt that Margaret really got them, more than anyone got them, more than they got themselves. Then the lights dimmed, and Margaret appeared, incarnate, for the first time since Judy Blume dreamed her up 53 years ago.
For the uninitiated: “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” is a frank, funny young-adult novel about a sixth-grader in 1970 who has just been uprooted from New York to New Jersey. Her Christian maternal grandparents disowned their daughter back when she married Margaret’s Jewish father, and Margaret decides to devote the new school year to exploring her own religious identity. That is, when she is not figuring out how to acquire bigger breasts, or a stash of feminine hygiene products for when her period arrives, or the attention of teenage lawn-mower Moose Freed.
The book has appeared on multiple best-of lists, such as the top 100 children’s books of all time and the top 100 books written in the English language. The book has also been banned, relentlessly, appearing on the American Library Association’s annual list of most-challenged books for multiple decades. The open discussions of reproductive biology were seen as obscene, and the concept that a child might choose her own religion was seen as dangerous. Adult readers wanted to preserve their concept of childhood, and that concept did not involve Margaret and her friends chanting: “We must! We must! We must increase our busts!”
In the long-awaited movie adaptation, Margaret is played by Abby Ryder Fortson, her mother is Rachel McAdams, and her paternal grandmother is Kathy Bates. While the book version was bound by Margaret’s point of view – why hasn’t her mom purchased a living-room set yet? – the movie makes room for the other female generations in her family. Barbara Simon hasn’t bought a sofa because, frankly, she’s struggling with the transition from bohemian Manhattan art teacher to suburban stay-at-home mom. Sylvia Simon might be grieving her granddaughter’s move to New Jersey, but she won’t allow herself to be pathetic; she’ll decamp to Florida and meet an interesting man. The movie is not just concerned with a girl finding her way out of girlhood but also with women navigating phases of womanhood.
Take your daughter to see the movie! Take your mom! Reconnect with your childhood best friend and take her, along with your book club and CrossFit class. Take your son, too. Doesn’t hurt for him to learn how periods work. See it twice!
It’s hard to figure out what else to say about “Margaret,” which I told my editor I had many smart thoughts on and then proceeded to stare at a blank screen for 30 minutes while eating half a bag of Doritos.
The truth about being a columnist is that it’s always more difficult to explain loving something than to explain hating it. Nobody wants to read paragraphs of mushy gushing. Snark is easy. Sincerity takes work. Often it’s a feeling more than a thought. It’s the feeling that reading books such as “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” helped you make sense of the world when you needed that most, and when other kids your age needed it, too. It’s the feeling that “Margaret” helped create the kind of girls who would grow up to be the kind of women who would offer to give their clothing to complete strangers they met at movie screenings.
How did it do that? How do some books become brief pleasant diversions, while some become buoys for younger readers to desperately cling to while thrashing through the seawater of adolescence? Why do some books save your life?
“Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” was not high concept or high art or high drama. Margaret didn’t begin the novel by discovering she was a wizard; she didn’t end the novel by saving the world. She wasn’t dying of a rare disease, and neither was anyone she knew. Nobody was in mortal danger, nobody was experiencing homelessness or poverty – it wasn’t a serious issues book.
Margaret’s biggest preoccupations were about herself, or rather her place in the world. Would she ever fill out her training bra? How would she cope if she was the last of her friends to go through puberty?
These days, a book about this might be seen as basic, or even silly. Younger generations of girls are being taught, to varying degrees of success, that your bra-cup size means sweet diddly, and that instead of playing spin-the-bottle in Norman Fisher’s basement, you can spend your weekends learning to code.
But “Margaret” wasn’t about trying to be exceptional. It was about the exquisite agony of trying to feel normal. While adults wanted to preserve their idealized concept of childhood, younger readers needed books to help them navigate the lives they were actually living. The book wasn’t introducing overly complex issues to young girls, as those who would ban it would have you believe. The book was giving voice to the issues girls were already dealing with – and had been dealing with alone, in private.
“Margaret” made it clear that yearning to feel normal is, in fact, normal. Its implicit message was: You’re not weird. You’re not alone.
Girls needed this. Even grown-up girls need this. Even grown-up girls in dresses with pockets, struggling to buy sofas and wondering if they’re doing life correctly – if they’re being the right role models, if they’re learning the right lessons – even they need to know they’re not alone.
The funny thing about “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” is that before I looked up the publication date I assumed it was a book of my own childhood, for the 1990s kid I was when I read it. But actually it would have been a book targeting my mother, who was born in 1959. And in another decade I’ll give it to my daughter, and hope it will feel like a book meant for her, too.