Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the feature where we give a sentimental look at the YA books we loved in our youth. This week, Lizzie Skurnick tackles Judy Blume's 'Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.'
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. We're moving today. I'm so scared God. I've never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everyone there hates me? Please help me God. Don't let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.
Don't let New Jersey be too horrible....was there ever a greater metaphor for the terror one feels at the onset of pubescence? (I'm from Bergen Country and live in Jersey City — so no haters, please.) But, in her merest, timid request, the person of Margaret Simon, the character who introduced young girls everywhere, and I do mean young girls everywhere, to the notion of getting their periods, puts her finger exactly on how it feels to start to grow up. It's not like an exciting trip to Radio City Music Hall with Grandma. It's a long, featureless ride in the other direction, culminating in an blank exit ramp off a highway into a town without anyone you know.
Before I continue, I must pre-apologize as I scrupulously never pre-apologize and say: It's difficult for a teen columnist to write about AYTGIMM. It's like being a writer for Rolling Stone and being seated next to Keith Richards on a six-hour flight, or an artisanal chef given access to a store of black-market ricotta. I feel awed and unworthy, and as if whatever I do will perforce not be enough — if I even knew what to do in the first place.
Now! Apologia in place. Let us move on to the person of Margaret Simon. I had not visited with Margaret for a while, and thus only remembered her late-hour duck into a church's confessional and the velvet hat that she wore to Rosh Hoshana services. (You girls stuck on two minutes in the closet: you are filthy, filthy!) But for those who can only call up the dim memory of a pink sanitary belt and some stray hairs held up with bobby pins, here's Margaret's deal: her parents, whether to have more garden space, put her in public school, or get her oh-so-gently get out from under the thumb of her father's doting Jewish mama, have moved to Farbrook, NJ. Margaret, an only child, is flat-chested and bra-less — though not aware that she should care about those things until instructed to by her new neighbor, Nancy. She is also church- and temple-less, and also not aware that this is strange until instructed so by her new neighbor, Nancy. Concerned about what God, bras and friends like Nancy mean to her present and future, she embarks on a quest to figure it all out — knowing that some form of benediction will come when she finally receives proof positive she IS growing up in the first place: viz, the arrival of her period.
Margaret's new life in Farbrook is a far cry from her old life in New York, filled with private schools, concerts with Grandma and the stimulation of the big city. But the static petri dish of suburbia is a far better medium for emotional growth. There is her first opportunity to compare her life to that of other girls her age — "The first thing I noticed about Nancy's room was the dressing table with the heart-shaped mirror over it.....When I was little I wanted a dressing table like that I never got one though, because my mother likes tailored things" — as well as more boys hanging around to ogle, like lawn-mower Moose Freed. There's the public school where she sees sex films and is asked by her nervous Columbia Teacher's College grad-teacher about her views on religion and male teachers, and a new group of girl friends, the PTS's (Pre-Teen Sensations!) who, together, do the important work of growing up, like getting bras, waiting for their periods, and writing lists of the boys they like — then saying nasty things about the one girl in their class who has her period, really needs a bra, and does not lack for male attention.
For the entire span of this column, there has never been a time when I could not return back to both the moment in time when I read the book as well as re-experience exactly what it was like to do so. But in re-reading AYTGIMM, I was deeply disturbed to find I couldn't do either. I remember well what happened AFTER I read it. (I went up to my mother, said, "What's a period?" and when, after she responded darkly, "Who told you about THAT?" learned all about ovaries, fallopian tubes and ovulation from her very fine illustration.) And I remember very well WHAT it was like to read it — to be firmly ensconced in Margaret's psyche and her life in Farbrook, to be competitive with Nancy, delighted by Moose, happy to see Grandma, annoyed to have my Florida vacation ruined by my awful Ohio grandparents — and desperate, desperate for an excuse to finally pull out the Teenage Softies I'd been hiding under my bed.
But on this return — the events of Margaret's life seemed thin to me, and her concerns so very distant. Rather than feeling like I could reexperience everything with her, I felt nothing so much as if I were spying.
And — do you know what? I think I was. Because there is nothing thin about the events of Margaret's life, and nothing small about her concerns. There is nothing more charged than the year we girls start to think about sex. (Margaret doesn't talk to God because she's religious — she talks to him because she can't figure out who else could safely hold all this powerful information.)
I know one thing — I'm not sure I can. Because, like any club, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" might be an institution made for a certain kind of member during a certain kind of time, and this old lady has no more business being there than Moose Freed does listening at the door. (After all, now I'm closer to grandma Sylvia Simon's age — ACK! — than Margaret's.) So, I look forward to hearing from you all in the comments about your memories, but I'm going to let my memories stay safely they belong — with me, at age 7, about to run up and ask my mother about this whole "period" thing.
Goodbye, Margaret! Goodbye, girlhood! And — saddest — goodbye, PTS's.
• • • • •
Okay, first of all, Hi. I mean, Hi! Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Hello my beauties! I am so sorry I left you behind for so long and I missed you so! I have no excuse for my absence at all but to say, I can't do anything in February, but this year, February lasted from October until now. (Thank God it's finally March!) But Fine Lines has returned and now will appear biweekly, alternating with Shelf Pleasuring, which is to say, I will be here twice a month and all about you and your YA.
Some minor housekeeping thingies:
I have a profile on Facebook! Friend me there! You can see a) Shelf Discovery's new cover, b) many OLD covers, and c) one vast desert of non-postings. I will post more now, promise.
I have a mailing list! Join It! When you do, I think it sends you all the old messages too. Do not be confused by this. I will add some new ones.
I have a book! You might want to purchase it! You can buy it here, or, if you do like that, here.
I have a blog. Do not visit my blog. It is hacked and infested with spyware and a brilliant Roumanian developer is fixing it, but he is not done yet. Don't go to my blog.
Now! Onto Plotfinders.
I know I am so backlogged on Plotfinders that a) I can't remember which ones I ran and b) I can't remember who is up next. In honor of the title of same, I have simply decided to put here an abundance of Katherines. Since the column is now only running twice a month, I am switching the prize from a column choice to either a galley or a young adult novel of my collection, depending on my publisher's generosity. Let's hope a galley! I want to KEEPS my books, pretties!
From Catie C.:
I have a book in mind but cannot for the life of me remember the title of it. The plot revolves around two sisters - possibly twins - one of whom dies from a brain aneurysm on the first day of school after complaining of a headache. She had asked for pop-tarts for breakfast that morning, and the mother feels guilty later for having denied her daughter's pop tart wishes. The story may have taken place in Florida, and I seem to recall the surviving sister wearing a stuffy black velvet dress to the funeral. This book also had a sequel, the title of which was an address, such as "9 Adelaide". I think the street name started with an "A", although I could be making that up, and I remember the house having a stained glass window in the living room, although I may have invented that too. In the sequel, the protagonist (who is the surviving twin from the first book) goes on a fishing trip with two men (possibly her Dad and her Uncle?) and drinks beer, then drinks swamp water to quench her thirst. I also remember her spending time with her grandmother, although that could have happened in the first book. It's a long shot, but any ideas?
From Katie M.:
I think the title might have been something along the lines of "Why Me?", but that's not showing up in Google searches. It was about a normal girl whose kidneys suddenly failed. She had to go through the whole dialysis thing, strictly regulating liquids, etc. I remember her quitting ballet lessons because the dialysis tube showed through her leotard. Of course, she was looking for a kidney transplant, but the catch is she was adopted. So she had to hunt down her birth mother. I remember her being successful in finding her, but then I either lost the book or had to return it to the library or something, and I never found out what happened. Any idea what it might be? Thank you!
From Katherine S.:
OK, I read this book again and again, probably in the late 80s. There are 4 teenagers, 2 guys and 2 girls (I think one of the guys is black and the other is an angry, angry racist redneck-type, but I'm not positive), coming back from some sort of acting competition/performance, when for some reason they have to stop (their car beaks down?), and they go to this creepy old house for help. Creepiness ensues, and they're trapped in the house. I think the house belongs to an old guy who is into magic tricks. The main character is a girl who is into magic tricks. They all have black tights and turtlenecks, because that is what they wore at the competition, and in order to escape or outwit the creepy guy, they wear all black and cut off parts of extra tights to put over their hands and faces so that they can hide in the shadows, and the main character girl does something where she figures out how to hide in the false bottom (or escape out of the false bottom) of a trunk that a magician would use for a disappearing act. And I'm pretty sure the two girls and the two guys end up in couples by the end. That's all I got. Help, please!
You know the rules — or, if you don't, here are the rules! First reader to call the correct answer either in the comments or in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org wins whatever I can devise as a prize. Three books, three winners this week.
You can also send me your Plotfinders to email@example.com, as you can any other information you feel you need to impart.
Again: I MISSED YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!