Jul 27 2019

A Review of and Thoughts on “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”

I’m jaded.

(J’s gonna go on a rant. It might upset some of you. There’s probably an X icon you could click to leave at any time.)

I had read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume before, as a sixth or seventh grader, because I had female friends who read it. I didn’t like it then. And reading it now reminded me of why I didn’t like it back then. (Mostly because it made me feel like I could never really be friends with my friends. They’d eventually all change and it’d be impossible for males and females to remain friends. Sadly, for about 15 years, I was mostly right. Hopefully, that’s changed in society since.)

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/claudiakoerner/children-border-detention-conditions-immigrants-hungry

I also had a tough time reading this now while being faced with current issues in my country. “There are children your age being ripped away from their families, denied basic rights to sanitation, safety, and education… and your biggest problem is puberty not coming fast enough?” That’s emotion shaming, and it isn’t fair. But a lot of the book bothered me because of it. Like, how well do you suppose it’s going for the young girls in cages at the border who are bleeding for the first time? Probably not so well. They aren’t even allowed soap and a toothbrush, you think pads are being passed around? Not to mention guards that might well be pedophiles. Seriously, who knows what’s even happening down there? Nothing good. That’s what we know for certain. Nothing good is happening to the children who, by the way, do NOT make decisions about where to live.

Just like Margaret didn’t want to move to New Jersey. But guess what? They moved to New Jersey.

I kept imagining

this fictional family moving to New Jersey and the state being in an alternative universe. “You don’t have a religion, and you’re part Jewish? Get in the cage.” Margaret complaining because she wasn’t consulted about moving, and now she’s locked up over it. And then Margaret not having socks because they aren’t provided. And not going to school because they don’t educate children who they hope will die of “natural causes” or something so they aren’t held accountable for murder. And Margaret praying she DOESN’T get her period because the girls who get it end up being molested. Her new friends trying to hide their chests. One of those friends sending the others up the river to save her own neck. Margaret’s grandparents on the border states pleading for their granddaughter to be freed. New Jersey claiming they don’t even have Margaret. New York being war-torn and run by gangsters who killed seven of the eight-point-six-million people in NYC. Another four million residents of the state being enslaved, and five million more dying of starvation. Some reports saying New Jersey doesn’t even do this, that it’s all fake. And a huge chunk of people caring far more about possible space aliens in a place called Nevada than about actual human children in New Jersey. The whole book being more like Anne Frank’s diary, with Margaret begging God not to let her suffer and die in a cage.

Area 51 or ICE camps

But the copyright is in 1970. And it isn’t about any of that. Maybe President Nixon didn’t cage two-thousand children, so Margaret didn’t have to fear someone would come for her in the night and rip her from her family. Maybe she didn’t have an uncle who had to comfort her night after night when she screamed in her sleep. “How would I prove I’m a forth-generation US citizen?”

How would Margaret prove that she’s an American? Assuming that she is. How does anyone prove it once they’ve been stripped down? And who, exactly, would listen and care even if there were some proof? An eleven-year-old girl yelling her social security number until she’s hoarse isn’t going to have a better chance. Probably just get her identity stolen.

(If you think they don’t have any American citizens in those cages, read this: https://www.dallasnews.com/news/immigration/2019/07/24/no-shower-23-days-us-citizen-held-deportation-shares-like-immigrant “Francisco Erwin Galicia, a Dallas-born U.S. citizen, spent 23 days in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection” – That’s just ONE of the stories. And yes, that guy had three forms of proof of citizenship on him when he was taken.)

None of this is about the actual book. But it took me several days to read this simple book because those are the thoughts I kept having. It’s wrong to say “your feelings about your problems aren’t valid because there are people with much bigger problems,” but it’s honestly what I kept thinking. Mostly because the main character didn’t have any goals I could care about. Which isn’t to say that other people couldn’t care about those goals. But I had no reason to cheer for this character.

I’m also not the target audience. So my opinion on this subject is far less valuable.

(Is it less valuable than $775 a night? https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/defense-national-security/putting-migrant-children-in-tent-cities-costs-775-per-person-per-night-report The current federal minimum wage sits at $7.25. 40 hours a week * 7.25 = $290 a WEEK. Or $775 for 24 hours = $32.29 an hour. Make 345% MORE by taking in one human than working at a job. And the people earning the wages are the ones paying that rate, via taxes. What, exactly, is it being spent on?)

Here is another thought I had while reading:

Why are the males and females separated to learn about puberty? Why is it treated as a secret, as something shameful to keep hidden? Margaret wants to be normal. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “normal” but it’s obvious that the system and society are stacked against her feeling normal. What if students were just told: “Here’s some stuff that changes in human bodies. Some of it will probably happen to you in the next ten years, so don’t freak out. And don’t shame others if it does or doesn’t happen to them, because there’s nothing wrong with it. It all sounds weird, maybe off-putting, but it is what it is. So just chill. You’re all people and this is part of the human experience.”

AND THEN

there’s the part that really bothered me.

“Moslem definition is – formerly common but now old-fashioned, increasingly rare, and sometimes offensive variant of Muslim.” –https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Moslem

“A Muslim in Arabic means”one who gives himself to God,” and is by definition, someone who adheres to Islam. By contrast, a Moslem in Arabic means”one who is evil and unjust”” – https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/524

“If someone uses the words “Moslem” and “Koran” instead of “Muslim” and “Quran,” statistically it is quite likely that the writer is hostile to Islam.” – https://www.mohammedamin.com/Community_issues/Koran-or-Quran.html

“Muslim has been the more common spelling since the 1940s” – https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Moslem

Chapter 24 used the offensive spelling.

Maybe that wouldn’t bother you if you’ve never been incorrectly identified or had people intentionally change what they call your people. It’s something a lot of groups have experienced. I guess this is another one of those Huckleberry Finn debates of should
“unintentional” racism be removed from children’s literature so as to not expose them further to what we now know is wrong? https://www.cbsnews.com/news/huckleberry-finn-and-the-n-word-debate/

But, if you read the book now, and didn’t pause to question that, have we made progress as a society? Are we doing all we can to promote peace and equality?

anti-racism

Another quote

“I don’t think a person can decide to be a certain religion just like that. It’s like having to choose your own name. You think about it a long time and then you keep changing your mind.”

I haven’t changed my mind about my name being J. I didn’t actually have a long time to think about it though. Even knowing people prefer the superfluous “ay” at the end, I stand by my decision.

Poor

Did anyone else read this and think maybe her parents are going broke, but trying to act like they aren’t?
“During dessert my mother explained to my grandparents that she had just ordered all new living room furniture and she was sorry they wouldn’t be able to see it. I knew she hadn’t ordered anything yet, but I didn’t tell.”
Nancy checked more than once to be sure Margaret was wearing her velvet, her best clothing, to the party.
They only have one car, even though that makes things difficult.
For Christmas, Margaret’s mother gives pictures she paints, instead of buying gifts.
Margaret says she knows for a fact they aren’t poor, and her reason is because of people who are far more impoverished. But is she a reliable source?


So why did I (re)read this book? Because it’s the current choice for the IWSG. My goal is to read three of their picks this year. Here are the discussion questions:


1. Throughout the book, Judy Blume shares Margaret’s prayers to God. Have you ever used prayers in either external (spoken) dialogue or internal (inner) dialogue? (Doesn’t even need to be directed toward God. Any sort of prayer counts.)

Yes. Chapter 12 of FRACTIONS OF EXISTENCE has Wend kneeling down to say her evening prayers. Religion is a big deal to her, a big part of the definition of her character.


2. Judy Blume tended to keep her dialogue short but relevant, no more no less, do you keep your dialogue short and to the immediate story point?

I’d say it depends on the character I’m writing. Some people are more verbose than others.


3. Judy Blume writes in the first person, and I noticed she used small portions of narrative between dialogue to convey thought and feelings of the main character as they talked.

QUESTION: Do you combine narrative and dialogue?

Yes. That feels realistic to me.


4. A. Have you ever written dialogue for children or young adults? Did you struggle with it or find it surprisingly easy?

I’ve been working on a YA story, ANAH ON TENTERHOOKS. The trouble is that language is not only fluid, but is influenced by a wide variety of factors. My main character doesn’t sound very much like a teenager. However, her brain is more developed than a normal teenager, and she’s been exposed to far more life experiences and thoughts than most teens.

There is one pre-school character in FRACTIONS OF EXISTENCE. I hoped the dialog would show his developmental learning difference. One person told me a “normal” child at that age wouldn’t speak that way. So, on one hand, that means I accurately portrayed the character. On the other hand, wow, an attempt to insult me was actually really mean to children who do struggle with this issue so yeah, bullies don’t age out and it isn’t a phase. The dialog wasn’t the only clue about the child, but subtle context is lost on some people.


B. If you’ve had children in your writings, what/who inspired them, their actions, and their dialogue?

I know a lot of children thanks to my day job. Many of the ones I meet there don’t have the privilege of growing to adulthood. So, yeah, they aren’t “typical,” but you know, they deserve representation too. And if basing the way I write children comes from those actual humans and is criticized for not sounding like “normal,” okay. My childhood wasn’t normal, typical, or average. Maybe all young people don’t have to be cookie-cutter characters who hit milestones based on a chart.


5. At the time it was written, this story was a contemporary, and now it reads more like a period piece (no pun intended). Is this story still effective? How could this story be re-imagined or updated to better appeal to the youth of today?

The first part asks if this story is still realistic or if it is set in that point in time. Do I think young people still struggle with puberty, religion, relationships, popularity, and family issues? Yes. There’s a sprinkling of racism and sexism and other such prejudices that have perhaps evolved. More male teachers, for example. The class didn’t have active shooter drills, so that would be needed for an update. Social media would have made Nancy far meaner. There aren’t students worrying if the world will still be habitable if they reach adulthood.

The religions Margaret tried out didn’t have negative connotations explored in the story. (“If you pick this one, you’re a Klan member. That one, you automatically get to be better with money but the Nazis will try to kill you. Here’s one that worships space aliens. Or this other one that makes you a terrorist by default. Hey, what about this one, which is widely practiced by a country that’s using money and debt to take over the world. Or this other one that is both a philosophy and a religion so people will say it doesn’t count.”) There are roughly 4,200 recognized religions in the world, which means Margaret gave up way too soon. The consequences of picking one are much larger than going to the Y or the JCC. Certain colleges consider which religion box is checked when deciding on admission. And if she plans to go into politics, it’s going to be a huge issue because of donor money. (There hasn’t been a Jewish president yet.)

Plus, she thinks about boys. A lot. There’s another best-seller that had a female teen main character.
“The impact of Edward’s departure hits Bella so hard Meyer illustrates her depressive void by omitting four chapters from the book (October, November, December, and January ) in order to emphasise this fact.” – https://intertheory.org/eddo-lodge.htm “The Anti-Feminist Character of Bella Swan, or Why the Twilight Saga is Regressive”
And yet, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”, is considered a very feminist book.
https://www.makers.com/blog/judy-blume-real-life-inspiration-for-are-you-there-god-its-me-margaret
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bjp77m/judy-blume-feminism-generation-young-girls
The girls gossip, backstab, ostrosize another girl, and care more about boys than future careers.
But I can only support feminism, not say what does or doesn’t qualify, because I don’t have the anatomy required to form an accurate opinion.
“Do you think I’ll get Philip Leroy for a partner? It’s not so much that I like him as a person God, but as a boy he’s very handsome.” — That doesn’t seem like feminism to me. That’s the objectification of a person. It’s a funny spin on the negative behavior and thoughts of too many straight men. Just picture a guy saying he doesn’t like Beyoncé as person, but she’s sexy as a woman. Is that guy a feminist? Is he supporting feminism? I’m just putting it out there because, if the book were redone, I think this would come up.

If the story were reimagined, I’d like to see one of her friends be a gay boy. One who grows tired of Nancy’s crap by the end and takes over the group, adding Laura Danker to the fold because body-shaming isn’t cool. My blog post here also mentions turning this story into one where Margaret is one of the children in the ICE cages. There’s a dystopian-but-real twist.

A lot of stories are reworks of older ones. Jane Austin and Shakespeare, for example, have hundreds of books that are a kind of fanfiction, but have been published and exist on their own. Reimaginings happen all the time.


Review

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

4 star rating image on the blog of @JLenniDorner

#WeNeedDiverseBooks #BeatTheBacklist
Originally published: 1970

It is a well-written book. The target audience is young ladies (which I am not). The book is interesting within its genre because it was rare for girls to be able to discuss puberty when this book was published. Exploring religions was also a rare topic, which this book addresses. So, if I were to recommend it, it would be to young ladies or young people struggling with religious identity.

I got a copy of this book because it was the IWSG bookclub book for July 2019. It isn’t my typical or preferred genre to read.

The book is diverse because Margaret is part Jewish, and faith is a big part of the story. It’s realistic fiction, with some light romantic aspects. It could be a tear-jerker for some readers, as the parents fight and the grandparents fight with the parents and there’s drama there. It was controversial at the time, but now probably less so. It is spiritual in that the main character explores a handful of religions. (“Moslem” is used instead of Muslim, which is either offensive or ignorant, depending on how educated you’d expect an eleven-year-old girl from NYC to be in 1970.)

The way Margaret’s age was revealed, by her not needing deodorant, was clever. I would, and have, read something else from this author.

I learned that some names are sensational, but I have no idea why or how to determine which names are or aren’t. The title is a big part of the book, as the character more “chats” with God, and sometimes makes ultimatums, than prays. That might bother some readers. There’s also body-shaming of the character Laura, for developing first.

The theme, or life lesson, is about wanting to seem normal and having a desire to fit in. It did remind me of some people I once knew.

Margaret’s biggest goals are for her body to hit puberty (which she can’t actually do anything about, but that doesn’t stop her from trying), and picking a religion (which she doesn’t do).

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