Are You There, God? It's Me, the Miscreant Little Brother 
Judy Blume's harrowing bestseller of adolescent sexuality turns 30
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000


Nancy and her family went to Washington over Lincoln's birthday weekend. I got a postcard from her before she got back, which means that she must have mailed it the second she got there. It only had three words on it:


I ripped the card into tiny shreds and ran to my room. There was something wrong with me. I just knew it. And there wasn't a thing I could do about it. I flopped onto my bed and cried. Next week Nancy would want to tell me all about her period and about how grown up she was. Well, I didn't want to hear her good news!
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume (1970)

Growing up, most of my buddies learned about women through their older brothers' sexual foibles or from the issues of Juggs and Hustler crammed beneath their dad's workbench. Me, I didn't have a brother. And Dad had all his porn transferred to microfiche years earlier, just in case of dry rot or sudden thermonuclear war.

So I was forced to learn about sex from books—but not the standard "this is your glans and this is her labia"-style books. Oh, no, something much more cryptic, much more enigmatic. Something much more...well, sexy.

One day when I was seven, as I was about to mark "2:30 Snooping Through Sister's Room" off my afternoon checklist—I had a full day of rifling through my parents' closet to get to, after all—I stumbled across her collection of Judy Blume novels and picked one up called Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. It fell right open to a certain page, with a certain passage underlined.

It was like biting into the Forbidden Fruit. My brain squirmed. My eyeballs wobbled. My loins did something else all together. And just like that, it was all over for me. I was officially going to Hell.

Blume has sold over 70 million kids' books and has guided three generations of girls through the pains of puberty—mostly 8 to 11-year-olds huddled over her paperbacks in clubhouses and in the backs of school buses. The titles are legendary, and many are over three decades old: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Tiger Eyes, Here's To You, Rachel Robinson.

"Her books have endured for as long as they have because they appeal to the universal themes of children needing to fit in and be validated in their experiences," explains Clinical Psychologist Mark N. Gaskill, Ph.D. "Adolescents live in a very private world of uncertainty. They want to be understood; they want to feel 'normal'; they want to be accepted and taken quite seriously in their concerns, hopes, and fears. It is in this context...that Judy Blume becomes a significant voice in children's literature."

To me, though, Blume was more than a voice—she was an oracle, a professor and a demented carnal navigator, leading me through a dark, pre-teen labyrinth of budding breasts, blossoming womanhood and—as the novel Forever, the obscene pinnacle of my sordid search, showed me—actual glans/labia contact.

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret (or Estas Ahi Dios Soy Yo Margaret, as my horny little hermanos in Mexico called it) was first published in 1970 but still packs a potent pubescent punch. It details the growing pains of 12-year-old Margaret Simon, who is just starting 6th grade in a new town. (All Blume protagonists, I soon discovered, had just moved to a new town and were under- [or over-] developed middle school females named Corkey or Davey or Wilmadeene; who were either too fat, too thin, bit their nails, had braces or zits or bad hair or big feet; who were dealing with an overprotective [or kindly or dying or dead] grandma and an alcoholic [or kindly or dying or dead] dad. Ad infinitum.)

On page 6 of Margaret, Margaret and her pal Nancy engage in a profound meditative discourse on "being flat" and wanting to look like the girls in Playboy. Now, I had seen a Playboy once before—my friend Chris' dad actually HAD that proverbial workbench stash, and it had housed literally hundreds of Playboys (and, distressingly enough for poor Chris, one Playgirl). But I had never seen the libidinous publication seriously discussed in pre-teen literature before! My heart leapt—at last, a scholar I could relate to!

In fact, a healthy chunk of Margaret was devoted to what up until now I had only lingered over in Sears catalogues—brassieres. Gro-Bras, Double A's, dacron, nylon, lace; how to buy one, how to stuff one and the humiliation at not having the correct one. In a moment of almost unbearable homoeroticism, Margaret and her friends felt each other up to make sure they were all wearing bras, as they chanted, "I must, I must, I must increase my bust!"

My brain threatened to explode from the pressure.

It got better. Page 7, they practice kissing on pillows. Page 8, they trade beauty secrets.  Page 25, more stuff concerning boobies. Then, on page 30, the mother lode—"Did you get it?"

Get WHAT, I thought?

"Your period," one of the characters clarified.

Period of WHAT, dammit? Stop these infernal word games!

Very slowly, a puzzle began to unlock. Beneath the permed bangs, charm bracelets and pastel skirts of 5th grade chicks, something foul and sinister was churning. Margaret and her mother spoke candidly to each other about (shudder) "menstruation" and the (shudder shudder) "internal protection" she should use, including pads that were called (shudder shudder shudder)... "TEENAGE SOFTIES."

Did this mean that conversations like Margaret's were going on IN MY OWN HOUSE

as I sat before the TV, ignorant, chuckling at re-runs of He-Man while age-old secrets of sex and blood were exchanged right behind my back? Blume's writing was indeed terrifyingly casual, making this delinquent physiology seem almost—ick!—NORMAL. More normal, anyway, than my future ordeals involving Mr. Carr the Health teacher stiffly lecturing me on the cervix or mom and dad cornering me in the hallway, waving picture books, uttering threats like "sperm" and "zygote" through their toothy, manic grins.

"Children need to know that they are not alone going through these changes," remarks Gaskill, "and that is exactly why these books are so validating to read. I would wholeheartedly recommend Blume's books for any young woman approaching maturity, [and] while her works are written for females, her characters deal with universal childhood dramas that could appeal to both boys and girls alike."

And appeal to me they most assuredly did. Although we boys were definitely interested in girls, our literature certainly didn't spend expansive passages DWELLING upon them—we had gooey aliens and mystery-solving siblings to worry about; we had crusades and conflicts and PLOTS. Blume's stories were essentially plot-less; almost, in fact, stream-of-consciousness.  Blume's protagonists had not a single superpower or magical crystal or even high-powered firearm among them. They weren't exceptional at all. Instead, those lusty little narcissists spent most of their time in front of a mirror, trying to FIT IN rather than be exceptional.

If there WAS literature out there about schoolboys gathering 'round to probe each other's jimmies and sing little songs to implore their pubes to sprout, it certainly wasn't being offered in MY book club. Thus, I was riveted.

Perhaps sensing the ever-growing "pervert-brother" contingent of her readership, Blume attempted to write from an adolescent boy's point-of-view in Then Again, Maybe I Won't:

Grandma smiled and offered me an olive.... I wonder if I'll ever have a wet dream. "What's for supper?" I asked Grandma.

You had to hand it to her, Blume was crafty—you almost had to read it twice to catch it. By deftly hiding all the juicy parts in between the olives and the grandmas, Blume suckered me into reading entire novels. As a result, I quite inadvertently began to enjoy her stories, which occasionally included a startling revelation or two—like, girls were just as confused and unhappy as we were, as well as things I saw and heard every day but thought I'd never see in print—a girl with a back brace discovers her "special spot" (Deenie); a fat 4th grader gang-stripped by fellow female classmates (Blubber); and boys who named their penises "Ralph" (Forever). (And although I felt it was a little premature to officially christen my own little lieutenant, Mr. Shempy and I were on our merry little way in no time at all.)

"Blume doesn't tend to include the moralizing 'last chapter,'" praises Karen Farver, head of the Barnes & Noble children's department in Wilmington, North Carolina. "The chapter that says, 'This is what you've learned from reading this book, who's bad, and who's good....' She just tends to ease questions some girls may have while reading the book."

Indeed, in Blume's world there are no good or evil characters, parents are often of little help and the ugly girl is still unpopular at the end. In the minds of many adults, this made Blume a very dangerous character. Top among Blume's offenses was the daring supposition that sex is NOT always met with punishment and disaster—which, to many decency crusaders, made Blume's works no better than the infamous "Playboy Forum" fantasies. Worst of all, Blume was talking to their kids about things they had chosen not to, and she was taking a morally neutral stance.

This "neutral" stance, of course, EMPOWERS adolescents by waking them up and making them ask questions of the text in order to draw their own conclusions. Nonetheless, Blume is one of America's most-banned authors—Blubber alone was removed from library shelves more than 13 times between 1982 and 1992, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.

To this day, Blume stands as the only author unafraid to tell childhood like it is—masturbation, bullies, bathroom rape, bad hair, big feet, small tits and all. She was that rarest of things—an adult who UNDERSTOOD. No writer disturbed me so habitually or affected me so deeply.

So, here's to you, Judy Blume.