I have a distinct memory of reading Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret in my newly-painted pink bedroom, closing the book in the middle of a chapter, walking straight across the hall to my mother, and asking her something about periods. She responded frankly and we talked about it for a minute, and the I went back to reading the book. I don't remember what I asked my mother-- certainly by then I knew the basics, the where, how, and why of the thing-- but girls are much more concerned with when will it happen? Who will I be afterwords? What will it feel like? And, most importantly, will it hurt and how badly?
It is cruel, in retrospect, for this rite of passage to come completely out of your control. It could be anytime in about a five-year span, at the beach, at school, at home, in your sleep (if you're lucky). Unlike bat mitzvahs and school dances and first kisses, there is nothing you can do to speed or slow or personalize the process. Your body just does something, and you get the credit. Congrats! You're a woman now.
Judy Blume is one of the only people, in my mind, to truly accept and dramatize this waiting. If you haven't read it, Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret encompasses one sixth-grade year in the lives of Margaret, Nancy, Jane, and Gretchen. In its pages it contains a huge amount of little moments that ring true to any twelve-year-old-girl, such as:
"My mother went to the counter and told the saleslady we were interested in a bra. I stood back and pretended not to know a thing. I even bent down to scratch a new mosquito bite."
But despite the popular fact that this book directly addresses the anxieties girls have around periods, bras, boob development (we must, we must, we must increase our bust), seven minutes in heaven (I'm suddenly wondering if the continued prevalence of this game is entirely due to the prevalence of this book), the complex world of female friendship, and boys in general, the real subject of this little novel is religion.
Margaret is half-Jewish and half-Christian, but since religion detroyed her parents' relationships with their families, she is raised as "No religion." (Her words.) She prays-- see the title-- conversationally, asking for no one to find out she's put six cotton balls in her training bra. She embarks on a quest, a school project to find out what church and temple are really like, and she talks to God about these things with a sincere directness that rang true to me, and, I suspect, to a lot of other young girls.
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just came home from church. I loved the choir-- the songs were so beautiful. Still, I didn't really feel you God. I'm more confused than ever. I'm trying hard to understand but I wish you'd help me a little. If only you could give me a hint God. Which religion should I be? Sometimes I wish I'd been born one way or the other.
Her parents and grandparents, as in all Judy Blume books, are drawn carefully and with complexity. They have adult conversations right over Margaret's head, with some lines I'm sure I did not understand when I was ten:
(Margaret's father, raised Jewish, angrily explaining why his wife's Christian parents suddenly want to visit after a decade of estrangement:) "They want to see Margaret! To make sure she doesn't have horns!"
Margaret thinks, during another adult conversation: "I didn't want to listen anymore. How could they talk that way in front of me! Didn't they know I was a real person-- with feelings of my own!"
Judy Blume is the first author whose name I remember knowing. These books were written by a person who had given them quite a lot of thought. She had a lot of answers, Judy did, and she wasn't afraid to ask a lot of questions without answering them.
It's easy to talk about puberty-- or religion-- or friendship-- or love-- or school-- to just about any woman you are close to. It's easy to think about these things, and how they affect our lives, one at a time. But we often forget as adults, when the years start to run together and our resolutions are singular and often small ("this year I'm going to lose twenty pounds," or "this year I'm going to get a promotion"), that when you're twelve, everything happens at once. You move to a new town and your body changes, your friends change, your religion is called into question, you start kissing people, your grandparents and
your parents have all sorts of expectations of you. Every school year, you remake yourself, willingly or unwillingly.
Nothing really happens in this book. There is no divorce, no drama, no death, no magic, no breakups. But it doesn't need them. For a twelve-year-old girl, just living through the year is a story all its own.