It’s taken me almost forty years but I’ve finally read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Blume was part of a trinity of authors whose books I read most growing up. The other two were Beverly Cleary and Betsy Byars. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that all three happened to be women and, at first, I didn’t specifically look for books by them. We’d get the Weekly Reader that had brief book descriptions or watch the PBS show Cover To Cover, and if a book sounded interesting to me I’d go to the library and look for it. We also had a lot of books by Cleary, Byars, and Blume around the house, and my friends passed them around.
As I said maybe it was a coincidence that most of the books I was reading were written by women and Blume, like the others, was just as good at writing from a boy’s perspective as she was at writing from a girl’s perspective. After I read Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge—which focused on a boy named Peter Hatcher—I went on to Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great, which is, obviously, about a girl named Sheila.
Somewhere in there I also read Freckle Juice, which is a much lighter story, and it didn’t even stick with me that it was one of Blume’s books but, looking back, I realize it deals with one of her major themes: the wild, often inexplicable things kids will do to fit in.
Then, in fifth grade, and specifically starting to look for Judy Blume books, I picked up Blubber, which was a book that challenged me in a lot of ways. It wasn’t a conventional narrative but more anecdotal, which felt like it was really capturing the way my own young mind worked, focusing intensely on whatever was happening in the moment. It’s also a book that deals, often brutally, with bullying, but is unusual in that its narrator is one of the bullies. Jill, the protagonist, doesn’t want to single out her classmate Linda but, under the influence of the most popular girl in her class, she doesn’t resist, either, until the end. Blubber doesn’t have a clear moral message, but that’s what makes it such a great book: it asks readers to draw their own conclusions about group power dynamics and how quickly those can shift as Jill goes from bullying to being the one bullied. I ended up rereading it several times because it spoke to me in a way few other books did. Then there was the ending—seemingly happy, but without a tidy resolution.
It also had the words “damn” and “ass” in it and, hard as it is to believe now, those were shocking words to encounter in a young adult novel, but they also added to the realism, the sense that Judy Blume wasn’t condescending; she understood what kids are like.
At the beginning of sixth grade I found Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret on the shelf of my English classroom. Hey, another Judy Blume novel. I started reading it and was really enjoying it up until Margaret and her friends talk about whether they’ve had their periods.
I thought I knew what a period was: the dot at the end of a sentence. Or a vague measure, as in a “period of time”. What Margaret and her friends were talking about was something different, something I didn’t understand, though I had a vague idea that it was important to girls. So I asked a girl. Beth and I sat at the same table in English class and, not really aware of what I was doing, I just asked her, “Can you tell me what a period is?”
She stared at me with piercing, pale blue eyes. Then laughed. Then ran to another table and hissed, “Chris doesn’t know what a period is!” More laughter.
It would be oversimplifying to say I became a class joke. Most of the girls in my class, even Beth, laughed about it for a few days then dropped it. Most of the guys did too. But a few, their own little gang, thought it was funny to catch me alone, on the playground, or just sitting by myself drawing or reading, and surround me.
“Hey Chris, do you know what a period is? Do you know what a…pussy is? Do you know what a dick is? Do you know if you’ve got one?” And then they’d laugh menacingly.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew what they were talking about. I just didn’t want to talk about it. Looking back I wonder what would have happened if I’d laughed back at them and said something like, “If you’re so smart why don’t you tell me?” That might have worked or it might not. Eventually most of them left me alone but one kid, Tommy, kept bugging me, and didn’t stop until I started hitting back and the teachers kept us separated.
It was through that experience that I reread Blubbler, and I wish I’d finished Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret too. I wish I hadn’t felt so humiliated I couldn’t pick up the book for years. Obviously menstruation isn’t something I ever had to deal with personally, but my ignorance shouldn’t have been turned into a joke. And aside from that I could relate to Margaret struggling to fit in with her friends, to fit in anywhere, while also wanting to be herself. That I could understand, even at the time. The years between ten and thirteen were difficult—not that other years haven’t been, but one of the advantages of getting older is experience provides a context for our experiences. Judy Blume’s books helped me put into words, or at least process, changes I’d never been through before, and would, thankfully, never have to go through again. They made me feel less alone while they also allowed me to draw my own conclusions.