Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)


Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

It may or may not be surprising to find out that I didn’t grow up reading Judy Blume’s novels – I went to a private Christian school from 4th until 12th grade, and so the librarians weren’t exactly pushing fiction from the banned books list. I’m fairly certain, in fact, that my school librarians were the kind of people who contributed to the lists of books to be kept from innocent children – hoping in vain that they could keep our vulnerable minds from learning about subjects such as menstruation, sex and religious freedom.

But this is exactly why everybody loves Judy Blume’s novels so much – she actually writes about the subjects that most parents and librarians consider inappropriate, yet are the most significant subjects that preoccupy and shape young adults. I’ve heard that many adults who grew up reading Blume’s novels in the 1970s and 80s now swear that the author saved their lives because she was the only adult that was honest with them. Honesty – a policy preached but not practiced by the majority of conservative adult society.

I decided that it was finally time that I learned more about Judy Blume, starting with the novel that I had heard the most about – Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. And oh, would this book have infuriated my Christian school librarians! To talk frankly about menstruation would have been unseemly, to entertain the idea of religious freedom for an audience of elementary schoolers would have been irresponsible and inappropriate – but to combine the topics? I believe that might actually fit under their definition of blasphemy.

As I read the novel and thought about all of this, I grew more and more frustrated with adults – parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians, who all have forgotten what it feels like to be a kid and be left in the dark, especially about something so important. Margaret is old enough to understand that religion and the development of her body are both extremely critical elements to the person that she is and will become. She may even understand that better than the adults in her life, who don’t want her to think about these things in a critical, rational manner, but would rather simply dictate to her the kind of person that she ought to be.

But what we’ve really got in Are You There God? is a case of the blind leading the blind, with quite selfish intentions. Margaret’s Grandma Sylvia is insistent that Margaret is a Jewish girl, while her maternal grandparents are adamant that because Margaret’s mother was raised a Christian, Margaret is a Christian too. Even her own parents, who are certainly more open-minded because they have been able to sustain an inter-faith marriage, aren’t so open-minded as they seem – they would prefer that Margaret remain undecided in terms of her own religion, presumably in order to justify their own choice to reject both Judaism and Christianity. I was not feeling too sympathetic toward any of the parental figures in this novel, none of whom actually took the time to explain the significance of religion or the purposes of any religious practices to poor Margaret.

Instead, I really felt sorry for Margaret, who had to struggle through her religious crisis all on her own, while also dealing with puberty. These two crises are intertwined in Margaret’s experience – she is desperate to get her period and behave in socially acceptable ways with boys so that she can fit in with her friends and peers. Likewise, a major reason that she wants to make a decision at this point about her religion is so that she can understand where she fits in socially – she wants to know whether she should join the local YMCA or the Jewish Community Center. A lot of Margaret’s self-concept is built on how well she can assimilate into the social landscape. This isn’t exactly healthy, but it is realistic – most young adults would rather die than stand out from their peers. It’s too bad, then, that some readers focus on Margaret’s anxieties regarding her period and her relationships with boys, while loosing sight of how her religious crisis is so closely-related to her sexual anxieties. In other words, her emotional, spiritual intellectual and physical development are all tied together – which is the case for most adolescents.

All in all, I doubt that I’m saying very much about Judy Blume’s novel that hasn’t been said before – but if nothing else, I want to communicate that I think it’s important for everyone to read this classic for themselves. It’s entertaining (who can’t help but laugh at the chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust?”) but it’s also an important reminder that children are capable of thinking critically and therefore need answers. Most of the time, an adult’s attempt at shielding a young adult simply stunts their growth – instead of trying to protect teenagers, we should be attempting to guide them and support them. I couldn’t help but think of how much easier Margaret’s struggle would have been if someone had set her down and said, “Listen, here is why Jewish people do this and this, and here is why Christians do that and that. This is the way that they think and believe, this is what is important to them. Now you have to decide whether or not those things are important to you, too.” Margaret still would have had a lot to sort through on her own, but she wouldn’t have felt quite so confused and alone.

And so one of the things we can take away from this novel is that honest communication between children and adults will build trust and foster critical thinking, not contaminate the young adults in question. Kids and teenagers need information just as much as adults – they need to understand what’s going on around them and what is happening to their own bodies. This novel is great because of its brutal honesty about all kinds of adolescent anxieties – and I think all adults stand to learn a lot from Judy Blume.


[Disclaimer: My parents, despite being the ones who placed me in private school, did not attempt to restrict my reading materials in any way – so this review/commentary is not meant as a criticism of them at all. They let me check out anything I wanted from the library, and only once did they even bat an eye – when I came home with a stack of Anne Rice novels at the age of twelve. But despite being disconcerted, they let me carry on – and it did me no harm. So, a big thank you to my parents.]

2 comments:

  1. I second this entire post and agree whole heartedly.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Gina, I feel like you must be a great mom :-)

    ReplyDelete

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