Catholics: There’s no reason to fear (or ban) Judy Blume’s ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’
“I wasn’t allowed to read that book” or “I had to sneak and read it” are the most common comments I hear from my adult friends when discussing the 1970 Judy Blume book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I remember reading the novel in the fifth grade, somewhat furtively in my household. While I never asked if I could read it, I felt as if I was doing something a little wrong while doing so, knowing perhaps the answer I would receive. I never talked about the book with my parents, nor with my teachers or friends.
As I watched the new film based on the book and relived Margaret’s coming-of-age story—including her emerging sexuality—I considered why a book I remembered so vividly is one I never discussed with others. I wondered if I was really worried about whether my parents would assent to me reading the novel or whether I was instead anxious about the conversation that might ensue. Blume’s middle-grade novels, which have surpassed the 90 million mark in sales and been translated into over 32 languages, are some of the most widely banned books in the United States. Their frank discussions about sexuality are often cited as the reason, yet this book—and the 2023 movie—is as much about Margaret’s spirituality as it is about her sexuality.
I may not have wanted to talk to my family or friends about Judy Blume’s book, ‘Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.’ But I did talk to God.
In our single-issue world, acknowledging this fact is difficult: We want to conquer one idea and then another, besting each other in arguments, especially regarding children’s sexual and spiritual development. In reality, children—adolescents in particular—exist in liminal spaces. They are constantly growing, constantly changing, their brains and their bodies. To quote Stevie Nicks’ iconic song “Landslide,” “children get older,” doing so without us noticing. Adolescence is fast—a few years marked by an onslaught of hormones, brain development, childhood imagination and spiritual exploration. As fast as it is, it is likewise jumbled.
Margaret’s story isn’t about purity culture, a faith conversion, puberty, interfaith politics or a girl’s first crush: It is about how all of these converge once Margaret reaches a certain age. There is no argument; there is simply life happening. It is up to Margaret to figure out how to navigate her changing life—this landslide, if you will. Part of becoming an adult woman is getting a period, putting on a bra, and contemplating for the first time what it is you think about faith, not simply what your parents or your culture dictate to you. This time is a blur, for those watching on the sidelines, and, most distinctly, for those experiencing it.
In the book and movie, 11-year-old Margaret is in a “secret friendship club” where her peers pressure her to purchase a bra and exercise her chest to promote its growth. At the same time, those girls love running into the sprinklers outside to play and they laugh at the mere thought of kissing: They are children as much as young women. Moreover, Margaret has recently moved from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs: She is a character at home nowhere, in her location, body, age or religion.
Margaret is a character at home nowhere, in her location, body, age or religion.
Whereas her school friends pressure her about her sexuality, at home, Margaret’s family pressures her about her faith. Her father’s family is Jewish, and her mother’s is Evangelical. While both sets of grandparents want her to follow their traditions, Margaret’s parents have turned away from religion because of the pressure they felt from their own parents while growing up. Margaret believes that to navigate these difficult waters, she ought to turn to God. Like Margaret’s changing body, her changing spirituality can’t be denied—and these are both points of contention with her mother.
“I want to get a bra,” Margaret tells her mother in the movie, who automatically responds: “Oh. Do you think you need one?” Likewise, when Margaret decides to do a school report on investigating a religion that’s right for her, Barbara balks. “You said that I can choose my religion when I grow up,” Margaret exclaims, to which her mother says: “Yeah, when you grow up, when you’re an adult.” Margaret’s mother believes her daughter will eventually face adult issues. Margaret is changing so quickly that it is difficult for Barbara to see the emerging woman within the child before her. It is hard for her to recognize her daughter’s liminal identity.
Though set in the 1970s, the movie reflects universal human trends about parenting adolescents and specific ones regarding religion. In 2020, Pew released data marking the incongruency of how children and their parents view their faith. While 48 percent of adolescents shared their parent’s religious beliefs, almost as many diverged from them. During a time when young people are figuring out their sexual and emotional selves, their souls are in transition. Like their bodies, they are learning that their spiritual selves are distinct from their parents. A 2022 Stanford study found that teenage brains are more receptive to external social voices than they are to their mothers, a transition that corresponds with adolescents’ identity exploration.
As Catholics, “fruitful dialogue” is one way we handle the changing seasons of our lives.
It feels important at this juncture to note that the narrative’s title focuses on God, an obvious fact we can forget because culturally we are fixated on sexuality. Significantly, the movie’s climax, pun intended, occurs in a Catholic Church.
Margaret has been questioning God’s existence, and she is chastised by a Catholic friend, Laura, for being a bully. Laura developed breasts before the other girls in the class. The girls in Margaret’s club tease Laura for her changing body and assume Laura lets boys touch her breasts for fun. Laura reveals how hurt she has been by Margaret’s bullying, snapping at her angrily and running away from the conversation. Margaret chases Laura into a Catholic church and realizes her friend has gone to confession. Margaret’s spiritual awakening occurs when she enters the confessional, pauses and realizes that it is she who should be confessing her sins. Margaret needs reconciliation with God, not Laura.
While Margaret does not become Catholic, she stops questioning God’s existence and becomes sure in her own spirituality. Likewise, she accepts that young women’s puberty experiences vary and deserve sensitivity attendant to each person. It is notable that it is Laura living out her Catholic faith that instigates change in Margaret. Through Laura, Margaret sees religion not as oppressive or combative as it is in her home, but something her friend relies on when feeling troubled. Margaret accepts her physical self, and God’s unbounded love for her, in one epiphanic moment in Laura’s church.
When the movie ends, Margaret thanks God for listening to her.
I may not have wanted to talk to my family or friends about Blume’s book, but I did talk to God about it. I was grateful there was another girl who, like me, was seeking truth amid the chaos of her changing adolescent self, however different we were in other ways.
As a mother of a prepubescent daughter in 2023, I relate more to Barbara than Margaret, realizing how difficult it is to recognize change in one’s children. I aspire to create a home environment where my daughter doesn’t feel she must silence questions she will inevitably have about her developing body or spiritual identity. In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis discusses the importance of “fruitful exchange and dialogue” to seek truth amidst a chaotic world. Rather than pretend change doesn’t happen, we should understand that it will always be a part of our lives. As Catholics, we ought to prepare to talk about these changes.
In the movie, Margaret asks God a question I remember having as an adolescent and one I admit sometimes resonates now. “Why God?” she asks. “Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?”
Banning this book, like banning discussions about periods, sex and the soul, can make one feel as if faith is a separate part of life, a single issue to be dealt with and resolved rather than an animating force that shapes our identities. Getting a period is a spiritual experience. So is talking about it and seeking the jumbled truth behind what it means. As Catholics, “fruitful dialogue” is one way we handle the changing seasons of our lives.