#11: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), by Judy Blume

*Real life got in the way of continuing this list for a few months, but I expect to resume a regular reading/publishing schedule. On to Judy Blume!*

“How can I stop worrying when I don’t know if I’m going to turn out normal?”

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

Sometimes when I’m at the bookstore and I wander into the Young Adult section, I have to marvel at the marketing bonanza it’s become. At Barnes & Noble, they have begun to split off a segment of the YA area for something called “Teen Paranormal Romance.”

The Triumph of the Adolescent Book Section must be a recent phenomenon; I don’t remember anything of the kind when I was a kid, and I’m not THAT old. I just remember a part of the library where they threw all the books that were either too advanced for children but too juvenile for adults. It seems that the YA genre — not counting the assembly line of dystopian/apocalyptic stories presently glutting the market — is now able to communicate in specific demographic ways that the age-appropriate books of my youth never did.

It’s probably too reductive to credit this development to one book, but J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series looms quietly and forcefully in the background*, the books that signaled to publishers that teenage readers would demand in droves narratives that spoke directly to their own situations, in their language (not the language adults thought they spoke), and that they had the disposable income to merit this kind of niche-based attention.

To pull out a novel “for young readers” from 40 years ago is to read an oversimplified, father-knows-best kind of storytelling that would go over like nails on chalkboard to the modern teen reader. The ones that dared to buck that trend (The Catcher in the Rye, The Chocolate War) faced banishment and/or were perceived as adult novels about teenagers.**

I write all of this simply to say that the YA revolution of the last 10-15 years has had the effect of making its forebears feel almost entirely irrelevant in comparison. This is not the same thing as saying the new breed of YA fiction is somehow better or will stand the test of time, just that it’s slicker and more sophisticated, in much the same way that a new video game will make the original Super Mario Bros. look comical graphically.

That’s how I felt reading Judy Blume’s standard-bearer Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret: like playing Super Mario Bros. in a Call of Duty world. But there are plenty of people who greatly prefer the simplicity and 8-bit antiquity of SMB to the latest life-like shoot-em-up, and Are You There God still deserves a place at the table, even if the younger, edgier people sitting around it are speaking what feels like a different language.

This is no criticism of Blume, a free-speech warrior (and friend of librarians) who’s been on the front lines fighting against censorship for more than 40 years***. And speaking personally, there was a time when the Fudge books were my favorites (though I always identified more with Peter Hatcher than with his mischievous little brother), so I have always regarded her with the highest respect and affection.

It’s just the way it is: her best-known novel, the one that the blazed the trail for countless others, has become a relic, an artifact of another time (albeit a valuable artifact). Most of its readers now are probably the children of women who read it when they were around Margaret’s age, so the novel has become a rite of passage.

About the book itself, I don’t have a whole lot to say. Clearly I was not the target audience for it, then or now, and though Margaret’s fussing over when she’ll begin menstruating is usually the first thing people recall about it, I was pleasantly surprised at how many other questions the book touches upon.

This is not really a story about a girl getting her period, but about a girl trying to fit in and worrying endlessly that she doesn’t. Margaret’s quest to belong, whether it’s with her girlfriends chanting “I must–I must–I must increase my bust” or with a particular religious community, is what makes this book timeless. The particulars might change — Blume writing this novel today would have to contend with the specter of Facebook and a generation of media’s influence on girls’ self-images — but the impulses stay the same.

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*While I’m on the subject of the Harry Potter books, I am flabbergasted that they didn’t make the Time 100 list, especially since list co-creator Lev Grossman has his own series widely viewed as an adult version of Harry Potter. The best reason I can think of is that, as of the list’s publication in 2005, two of the books had yet to be written, but that seems more like a technicality than anything.  If the Time list is intended to be a representative sampling of what English-language fiction looked like after 1923, not including Rowling’s series is an unthinkable gap.

**The other sea change in young adult publishing is how many adults now openly read them. Modern YA storytellers have evolved their craft to appeal to adults even as they write in language targeted explicitly to teens. So, a bountiful paradox: By narrowing the scope of their books, they broadened their readership beyond anything S.E. Hinton could have imagined.

***”It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me,” she writes. “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.” Amen.

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Next up: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises!

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Comments

  1. Great post! While I agree Harry Potter isn’t single-handedly responsible responsible for the rise in YA books, it certainly shined a light on the genre.

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