I Forgot About Margaret’s Search For God — When I Reread It, I Realized Why
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was never about religion for me — rereading it as a parent reminded me why.
The book Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret begins and ends with Margaret Simon, age 11-going-on-12, having a one-sided conversation with none other than her private confidante, God. Margaret’s family is moving from New York City to New Jersey, and she begs him (excuse her specific pronoun usage, it’s barely 1970) not to let her new life be “too horrible.” The story ends with a thank you to him for — spoiler alert! — finally getting her period. The book is brimming with these one-sided conversations — her hopes, her questions for the universe about who she is and where she fits, her wondering whether her confidante is even listening — yet, God and religion are not what I remembered most from my childhood readings of this Judy Blume classic.
Over the years, what stuck with me from the book were conversations about puberty and your period; about boobs, boys, and body confidence; about fitting in and friendship. As an elementary-aged, precocious reader, I remember wondering if Margaret would have had the same conversations with her mom as I did when I first read this book. I remember revisiting that iconic “we must increase our bust” chant — the one that still lives in the minds of many women in their 40s, 50s, 60s — when I asked my own mom to take me to Lord & Taylor on the first day of seventh grade to get a “real” bra (not a training bra or sports bra, but a literal scrap of fabric with a tiny bow in the center) after seeing a strap peek out from the neckline of one of the more popular girls in my class. Margaret has a similar Lord & Taylor outing with her own mom, albeit at the start of sixth grade.
And this, I realize now, is the brilliance of Judy Blume: Margaret’s relatability isn’t necessarily in her search for a religious identity — but in her search for identity … period.
Thirty-ish years from that first bra experience, I am a 42-year-old mom rereading this book in anticipation of seeing Margaret’s story retold on the big screen. As I now turn the pages, I am able to see that the very details that I remembered most throughout the years are specific to both my own experiences as a child and to my upbringing. As a Jewish girl growing up in NJ (we moved from NYC way before Margaret did), I remembered Margaret’s dad’s family being Jewish and I remembered Margaret’s Jewish Grandma Sylvia, who had the same name as one of my own. I remembered Margaret’s conversations with God — similar to my own non-religious way of bartering with the universe for things I had little control of throughout the years — but not how central her quest for religious affiliation is to the storyline.
And this, I realize now, is the brilliance of Judy Blume: Margaret’s relatability isn’t necessarily in her search for a religious identity — but in her search for identity … period. Her quest to find religion runs alongside her questions about puberty, her desire to fit in, her fear that she won’t be, as she repeatedly begs, “normal.” This relatability is part of the magic that makes this book — set in a decade that might on the surface seem a world away to children today — timeless and universal.
Upon rereading Margaret’s story, I now clearly see how religion and God and a family’s connection to — or dissociation from — both are inextricably woven through Margaret’s experiences. I asked myself why I didn’t remember that this search became the topic for her year-long school project, or that Margaret’s Christian grandparents forfeited a relationship with their daughter and granddaughter because of their religious, and dare I say exclusionary, convictions — something that I now have a hard time glossing over as both a parent and a Jewish adult.
Perhaps as a child, the whole "ohmygod [pun intended], I too am one day going to go through puberty" simply stuck with me more than Margaret’s search for religion. And perhaps just as I remembered Margaret’s Jewish roots, other children might have found themselves mirrored in her interfaith family (more uncommon in Margaret’s time than now) and her struggle to define herself. In fact, Margaret’s questioning of it all is presumably one of the reasons, alongside the honest portrayal of a girl coming of age (blasphemous, huh?!), that it has been one of the most frequently challenged children’s books. That it is now, in this current environment of book bans and censored subjects, being portrayed on the big screen is gratifying.
In Margaret’s town (similar to that of a young Judy Blume, who grew up as a secular Jew with, she says, a relationship with God that had little to do with religion), you either joined the Y or the Jewish Community Center. But Margaret’s parents did not identify with either. Yes, Margaret struggles to find this physical place, trying to connect with God and lamenting that “12 is very late to learn” about religion. But as I reread the story through the eyes of a grown-up mom, I saw that Margaret is really searching for a way to find answers to questions she cannot answer herself. She is searching for a way to understand all the changes in her world — her environment, her body, her friendships, her family, her feelings — and doesn’t everyone fear, or at least grapple with, the concept of change?
To an 11- or 12-year-old (or anyone for that matter), “God” may simply be a way of addressing the universe, an ethereal — and often unanswering — recipient of the hopes she has for herself and her questions about her world. In the end, Margaret doesn’t choose a religion, but it seems as if she finds something more important — a greater sense of self. Unable to connect with God in any house of worship, she asks him, “Why do I only feel you when I am alone?” That realization in itself is one of great maturity — and it’s one that mirrors so many kids’ struggles to stay true to who they are while trying to balance that normal adolescent desire to find acceptance, both physically and emotionally.
As parents we can reread this book and be reminded that some of our children’s more literal wants and needs are actually deeper.
Margaret was given a safe space and a choice, but I think Margaret’s identity struggle can translate to many issues that children face today. Some of those issues aren’t about making a choice at all, but are more of a realization of — or struggle over — identity. Others might simply be a struggle with cliques, or finding true friends. Still others might be about finding an individual voice within a family or making that leap from childhood to adolescence and then to adulthood. That is what makes this story — despite Margaret's somewhat specific, yet personally familiar upper-middle class, suburban upbringing — universal.
Of course, I also now can’t help but see some of Margaret’s world through her mom, Barbara, and the relationship she has with her child. As I do with mostly everything these days, as I reread the book, I thought of my own 4-and-a-half-year-old son — how he already impresses me with insightful questions about the world, and how I hope he always sees me as a safe space through which to search for the answers, even if they are not readily found. (I selfishly also hope that when he is older he will still believe that moms are always right about certain things — cue Margaret’s ah-ha socks and loafers moment!)
More importantly, though, as parents we can reread this book and be reminded that some of our children’s more literal wants and needs are actually deeper. And that is the perennial beauty of this book, a coming-of-age novel that doesn’t dance around the honesty, wonder, depth, and inevitable mistakes made during the preteen experience. Kids today might marvel at a world untouched by the Internet and scoff at one beholden to outdated mores — but it is so recognizable at the same time. Why? Because aspects of growing up, finding one's place while staying true to who we are, these struggles, no matter how idyllic one’s world may seem on the surface, will always be universal. Period.