It's Me, Jessica
By Jessica Machado
—Margaret, the most likeable pre-pubescent in history
The last time I read a children’s book, I was at some random dude’s house party, passing around Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and enthusiastically, drunkenly reciting “Hug O’ War.” Otherwise, mature person that I am, I’ve tried to steer clear of reading material not exclusively intended for an adult audience. While my thirtysomething friends were awwing over Bella and Edward’s tortured love in Twilight, I was judging them for their adolescent fantasies of romance. While everyone else on the planet was 4,000 pages deep into Harry Potter’s episodic wizardry, I was reading cooler, true-life magic like Motley Crue’s The Dirt. But perhaps I’ve been missing out.
I recently reread my favorite tween book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and I was surprised at its excellence: It was easily one of the best pieces of literature I’ve read all year. As a writer, I couldn’t help but think what talent it takes to craft something so minimal, yet so purposeful in its sparseness. Sentences are uncomplicated enough for a third-grade reading level, and yet every word still matters. No superfluous adjectives or overwrought scene setting necessary, just a great young narrator and how she sees her most terribly ordinary eleven-year-old world: “It's not so much that I like him as a person, God,” Margaret prays about a classmate, “but as a boy, he’s very handsome.”
It is Margaret’s relatability that I was grateful for all those years ago when my mom introduced me to the Judy Blume canon. For me, age eleven was just the beginning of a decades-long waiting-for-something-to-happen phase––a time when I wanted to be an adult so badly, but didn’t know what else I was supposed to be doing other than pretending not to be playing with dolls and making bargains with God for my womanhood. Like Margaret, I too was a late bloomer desperate to fill out the bust of my little-girl t-shirts. And like Margaret’s clan, my friends and I also pilfered a Playboy from my stepdad’s bottom-drawer stash to gauge what our non-boobs could hopefully look like in the (Lord, please!) near future. And then there was the time that I too dragged my mother to the mall to buy me my first bra: I walked out proud to be the bearer of a size-AAA scrap of fabric, yet furious at my mother for not-so-secretly hiding her chuckles at the “preciousness” of my life event.
What I’d forgotten about (or missed as a kid), however, was the amount of play God, or the idea of God, got in the book (it’s in the title, duh). Margaret’s non-practicing Christian mom and non-practicing Jewish dad decide to raise their daughter without religion, allowing her to follow whatever faith she wants to––if she decides to follow any at all. Being born to a defunct Catholic and a denounced Baptist myself, maybe I related to Margaret’s “Why is my religion, or nonreligion, a big deal?” conundrum too well, and that is why I skimmed over this plotline the first time around. Now, as an older person more aware of the politics of religion, I realize how radical an upbringing this was for 1970 and how ahead of its time this issue was: How does a half-Jewish, half-Christian girl identify when not everyone in her community is as progressive as her parents? It is not surprising that über-born-again types are still pushing to ban Are You There God? from schools. But Blume’s agenda is only to portray Margaret with honesty. As a curious eleven-year-old, Margaret checks out church and temple, and while she may find both services a tad boring, she continues to pray to an unknown higher power every night because she feels powerless. Margaret’s relationship with God is personal, and just one of the many things she is beginning to navigate as she transitions into pre-pre-adulthood.
Also like real life, Margaret’s issues, theological and otherwise, don’t get resolved because the school year ends. At the book’s close, Margaret still hasn’t dumped her phony liar of a BFF, nor has she done anything about her crush on Moose. It is this latter point that makes me realize not only what a romantic I am for wanting her love requited (dammit, maybe I would like Twilight) but also what a hard-won writer Blume is for not giving into the easy satisfaction we crave as readers.
What truly makes this book shine, though, is Margaret herself. She is the most level-headed yet age-appropriate young person to perhaps grace any fictional medium. She’s not an older-than-thou polished snarkster like Juno, nor is she a moany one-dimensional bitch like Holden Caufield. Margaret has the innocence and optimism that only someone who has yet to experience the confidence-crushing toll of puberty can have. Take this scene in a restaurant after she tells her grandma she’s finally wearing a bra:
“Well, how do you think it makes me look?”
“Much older,” Grandma said, between sips of her coffee.
I didn’t know whether to believe her or not, so I believed her.
When I read Are You There God? as a girl, Margaret validated both my eagerness to be a woman and my uncomfortableness in not knowing when I’d ever become one. Now, Margaret serves as a reminder of the faith, patience and sense of humor it takes to be a female, or simply a human, at any age—because there really is no end to growing up.