Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret at 50: author Judy Blume on the taboo-busting teen book
Because it tackles puberty and teen sexuality, the book is also one of the most challenged and banned
When Judy Blume was a young teen, she did many of the things her classic character Margaret would later do.
She hid in the closet and put cotton balls in her bra, she wondered about her period, and eventually she got "the talk" about puberty and sexuality from her parents. (Her dad did the honours because he was a dentist, so had medical cred.)
At the time, none of the books she read reflected her experience, so years later when she was a novelist raising her own kids, she decided to write one.
"It was my third published book, but the first real book, the book where I just let go. I didn't know what I was doing. I just did it — and this is what came out," says Blume in a q interview with Tom Power.
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"This" is Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, the bestselling 1970 novel that for 50 years has won readers for its frank and honest portrayal of a young person coming of age — and doesn't shy away from talking about first periods, buying first bras, early sexual impulses, pornography and other traditionally taboo topics in teen writing.
That year it was named an outstanding book of the year by the New York Times, and in the decades that followed, the book won heaps of accolades and fan choice awards. In 2010 it was included in Time's list of the 100 best novels published since 1923.
Blume has also been named a Library of Congress Living Legend, and in 2005 was awarded the National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters.
But the coming-of-age book also won a very different distinction: it remains one of the most challenged or banned children's books of the past five decades.
Blume says the characters are a combination of her and her friends at 12 years old, and when she sat down to write it, she didn't aim to stir controversy.
"I didn't really think about that. I just wanted to be real. I wanted to be honest," says Blume, now 82, in the 50th anniversary interview.
Blume says she was a late bloomer and for a year became obsessed with breast development and wanting to get her period.
"I was small and not developed, and everything came later to me. So this was what I wanted desperately — and so does Margaret," says the author.
"To me there was nothing wrong with thinking about getting your period and wanting your breasts to grow. It wasn't controversial in my mind. It was just true."
'We can't have these books in our library'
When the book was first published, Blume donated three signed copies to the local elementary school where her kids were students — but her excitement was soon tempered.
"The male principal was not a good guy for many, many reasons. But he removed them from the library and he said, 'You know, girls in sixth grade are too young to read about this. We can't have these books in our library,'" remembers Blume.
"Nevermind how many girls in in fifth and sixth grade already had their periods in those days."
Blume says many parents who aim to ban the books or have them removed from libraries are afraid their kids will ask them awkward questions.
"I used to have this great line: they think if their kids don't read about it, it's never going to happen to them — and then they'll never have to discuss it," says Blume. "So I think that was it."
At the same time, Blume was receiving heartfelt letters from readers saying the book helped them realize they weren't alone in their feelings, and that reading it was like talking to a friend. Those responses, in turn, fuelled Blume's later work.
"They said all these incredible things, and I thought, 'Maybe I can really do this thing. Maybe I can really write.' Because I didn't know until then," remembers Blume.
"It was so reinforcing and supportive, and that's what every writer needs to keep going."
'OMG it's really you'
The author says she never could have imagined still talking about the book 50 years after it was published — and even now, fans travel to her Key West, Fla. bookstore to meet her and pay tribute.
"Before the pandemic I worked four days a week, so I was there all the time, and my husband would call them the OMGs. It would be, 'OMG it's really you.' And it would get a little emotional and teary and terribly sweet. I miss all of that because I can't go to the bookstore right now."
Blume always resisted selling the film and TV rights to Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, but in recent years gave the go-ahead to Lionsgate. Edge of Seventeen filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig will adapt and also direct the film, which will be produced by James L. Brooks' Gracie Films.
So what is it about the novel that has endured for half a century?
"There's this young generation, say 10-year-olds, who are reading it now. And they either love it or they don't read it. And it speaks to them maybe the way that it spoke to their mothers or grandmothers," says Blume, who has penned more than 30 books, among them Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Deenie and Blubber.
Her books have sold over 82 million copies and have been translated into 32 languages.
I can't explain. What is it about a book that gets inside a person and stays there forever?- Judy Blume
"I can't explain. What is it about a book that gets inside a person and stays there forever? You touch some special place — and how lucky as a writer to have done that," she says.
"I think it's just as well that I don't understand. I'm not an analytical person and I don't want to analyze my own books. I'm just grateful, very grateful, that it happened."
— Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Chris Trowbridge