Thursday, 16 July 2015

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

Until yesterday I had never read a Judy Blume book. There. I said it. As a functioning human female, hella big reader and School Librarian this might appear as a bit of an oversight. Judy Blume is a living legend, and I've kind of picked up why, via osmosis but have never read anything myself.

As a child of the late 80s I was too not-yet-alive to be around for their contemporary publication and therefore controversy...what controversy remained in the 90s  I was mostly unaware of...but this got swept aside in favour of new moral panics polluting the childhood mind, like Hitman on the PS2, chatroom crazies and Mad Cow Disease. In short, they kind of passed me by.

So, in honour of Judy's appearance at YALC this weekend, I decided to give two of her more famous offerings a go.

Are You There God? It's Me Margaret.
Margaret Simon has just moved from New York to New Jersey with her Christian mother and Jewish father. Raised without religion (or left to choose her own later in life) Margaret fixates on this gap in her life and seems to attribute her general confusion on her lack of religious identity. When in fact it's quite normal to not really know who you are or what you feel about things when you are almost 12. Obviously Margaret, like us all, doesn't realise that at the time.

I can imagine why Blume is so popular- the reader really gets to examine Margaret's thoughts, fears and feelings and they will reflect the same thoughts, fears and feelings of a reader Margaret's age. Falling in with a group of girls, Margaret obsesses over the idea that she doesn't look, act or feel as grown up as the rest of them. It's a race to be the first to wear a bra, the first to have a period or kiss a boy. They write their extensive crushes in Boy Books, and the lists are always identical. She suppresses her opinions when they differ from the others'. Anxiety-producing stuff. She doesn't realise that everybody around her worries about the same things.

I really liked the inclusion of Laura Danker, a girl in Margaret's class whose much taller and more developed than her classmates. Margaret's friend Nancy makes up rumours about her (that everybody naturally assumes to be true) and the girls envy her adult appearance. Envy that comes out as meanness and spite. Realising her fear of difference and odd-one-out ness isn't a unique fear, Margaret learns through Laura that being the puberty trailblazer isn't actually as appealing as she's imagined, and that you shouldn't believe everything you hear. Important life lessons.

All in all, a really accessible and I can imagine anxiety relieving read about adolescent milestones, about starting to find out what sort of a person you are, and learning where you fit into the World. If it came out now, it would fit nicely in the Middle Grade Arena. It's very true to life and doesn't make its protagonist out to be some kind of hero or role model- she's normal in every way.  Though it is obviously of its time, it doesn't feel too dated. As it's pre-Internet and pre-mobile phones, their absolute absence feels less noticeable than old tech. It's weird- but having like a flip phone and MSN screen name seems to date narratives more than if tech is absent completely.

Where Are You There God? Deals with first bras and first periods, Forever deals with first love and first sexual experiences. One of the most challenged books of the last 50 years, many really don't appear to see the value of a frank and honest narrative of teen romance.

Katherine is on her final year of High School. At a NYE party she meets Michael- after a tentative first date, they start 'going together'. I had to smirk at the quaint antiquity of this- and how Katherine eye-rolls at her parents' use of 'going steady'. Bless. Anyway, they begin an intense relationship- intense in only the way that teen love can be. They talk on the phone every day, they pine for each other during the week and bathe in blissful togetherness at the weekends.

It's not a particularly turbulent or concerning relationship- it appears to be based on a mutual respect, trust and desire to please. They try to be honest with each other, and Katherine certainly knows her own mind and is no fool. When Michael makes it clear he wants their relationship to become physical, Katherine thinks thoroughly about what this means for her, whether or not she is mentally ready for such a step, and the relationship between love, sex, fun and responsibility. She's sensible. She establishes boundaries, considers things carefully and takes control of her own relationship. Katherine makes quite a good prototype really. The book's tone is such that it subtly applauds her mature decision making process, rather than the conclusion she reaches. Yes there are descriptions of the first time she has sex with Michael, but it's no more graphic than a textbook and probably more informative. Bodily fluids and biological reactions seem only to be offensive when in the context of fiction. That's a weird one.

Though some of its contraceptive advice might be best consigned to the 1970s, the attitudes are helpful and honest. If it was written now, I'd like to think it would talk more openly about consent, but as it stands there's no actual bones to pick with the portrayal of Michael and Katherine's first sexual experiences with each other. PSHE in the 21st century still has a long way to go, but I imagine that in the 70s this book provided more sex education than an entire year's worth of sponsored videos.

I liked that the book too sees a whole relationship through, from meeting, to 'going together', to intense 'love' first sexual experiences, to peetering out and moving on. It acknowledges the intense fervour of  teen relationships in a way which understands how important and all consuming they can be. But also points out that this is often short lived in a way which is not dismissive. Despite Katherine's earnest insistence that her and Michael are forever, she seems to accept with maturity and grace that her parents were right after all, that forever at 18 is kind of daft.

So in summary, I completely understand why Judy Blume is the Queen Regent of Teen. She completely paved the way for teen fiction's determination to deal with real life, relatable issues, to tackle subjects that impact and shape adolescent lives. These books aren't prescriptive, they don't pretend to be manuals for life but it makes readers realise, at the height of the teenage Armageddon of hormones and frenemies and depression and relationships that it's not completely uncharted terrain. Others have been there first and can help you through. Through the characters every reader gets to have an older sister or a cool aunt from whom can get the answers to their embarrassing questions. It's impossible to imagine what Young Adult fiction might look like today if books like these hadn't come first.

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