Confessions of a Late (Judy) Blumer

Why did it take me until age 30 to read Judy Blume?

“I know; let’s play Never Have I Ever!”
We’re at our 10-year high school reunion, where the vibe has turned from nostalgic to something more confessional.
“Never have I ever shoplifted.”
“Never have I ever done hard drugs.”
At last, the group’s gaze falls on me. “Your turn, Emma.”
I take a long breath and a longer sip of merlot. “Never have I ever read Judy Blume.”
A collective gasp. “Not even Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.!?”
I shake my head. Wine sloshes perilously in my glass.
“Aren’t you Jewish?
“And don’t you work in children’s publishing?”
The jury of my peers closes ranks around me, pointing and shouting, “Fraud! Fraud!”

I awake from this nightmare to find that I have just gotten my period, the blood seeping into my bedsheets.

Not really, but wouldn’t that be perfect?

*

I’m 30 years old, and I still aspire to be a late bloomer.

I crossed all of the developmental milestones late in life. In kindergarten, I was two heads shorter than most of my classmates — a prime target for bullying. Cut to fifth grade. Still no sign of a growth spurt. Would I ever graduate from GapKids to just plain Gap? In the meantime, I did what any outsider does: I grew a tough skin and a funny bone.

If only being short were my sole physical shortcoming. Before long, puberty started making the rounds and I had new deficiencies to fret over. I was a bat mitzvah at 13, a woman in the eyes of my Jewish religion, but that felt like a stretch. I didn’t get my aforementioned period until I was 15 years old. And, to this day, I could probably get away with going bra-less. In fact, I have for most of the pandemic. (My adult self is not complaining.)

I entered the liminal hell of middle school looking like a prepubescent girl, but I identified more with post-menopausal women. It didn’t help my stunted social stature that I sported a pixie cut and often broke out in a Barbra Streisand impression. Thankfully, I made friends with other quirky souls. (People who need people!) And I read — a lot. I did not, however, read Judy Blume.

I can think of a few reasons the queen of tween never made my reading list:

  1. I didn’t have a mother, aunt or older sister pressing a copy of [insert Judy Blume title] in my hands, promising, “THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” That also went for other girlhood classics, such as “Little Women,” “Anne of Green Gables” and the more recent “Harriet the Spy.” (Please be assured, I’ve since read all of the above books and claimed Jo, Anne and Harriet as spiritual sisters.)
  2. My middle school English curriculum privileged male coming-of-age tales: think “Huckleberry Finn” and “Catcher in the Rye.” High school was the same story. From “Great Expectations” to “The Great Gatsby,” we were taught to revere these narratives for their universal inspiration and insight.
  3. When a teacher assigned a “Jewish” story, it was invariably related to the Holocaust: “Number the Stars,” “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Survival in Auschwitz.”
  4. As a millennial, I was surrounded by fantasy franchises like “Harry Potter” and “His Dark Materials.” Contemporary realism wasn’t the go-to choice for extracurricular reading. It was even discouraged, in some cases, by the gatekeepers. In sixth grade, my friend caused a stir when she took out Louise Rennison’s “Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging” during Silent Reading. Teachers were alerted. Parents were called. She went back to reading “Harry Potter.”
  5. And, perhaps the biggest factor: I had my own prejudiced notion that Judy Blume was a simple writer for simple girls.

I’ve been working in children’s book publishing for roughly a decade now. In career time, I’m a 10-year-old girl again: a middle grader, but hopefully wiser. I’m proud to say I’ve long outgrown my condescending and misguided notions about what constitutes capital L Literature and which stories are worthy of telling — especially when it comes to stories about girls. It’s my job and my joy to champion books for young people. So when I learned that Judy Blume’s groundbreaking and oft-banned novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is heading for the big screen after more than 50 years in print, I knew it was finally time to do the reading.

Well, Judy. I’m late to the party — I never was much of a social butterfly — but I’m here now. After approximately two decades of procrastination, I decided it’s time to pick up one of your novels and see what I’ve been missing. And yes, I’ve been missing out.

My reading of “Margaret” isn’t tinged with nostalgia. I didn’t grow up with the book, so I can’t compare my adult impressions to my childhood reactions. Instead, I’m coming to it fresh — as fresh as one can to a novel that was recently named one of the 100 Best YA Books of All Time by TIME Magazine and a “seminal text.” My newly purchased paperback, a 2014 edition from Atheneum Books for Young Readers, makes every effort to look relevant for Gen Z. The cover features Margaret’s titular question in purple text bubbles, opposite a light gray bubble with three ellipses, as if a divine response is pending.

For the uninitiated (who am I to judge?), we meet 11-year-old Margaret on the cusp of a two-fold transition. It’s the summer before sixth grade and she’s moving from her home in Manhattan to Farbrook, New Jersey. The daughter of an interfaith couple, Margaret has been raised without religion, yet she feels an intimate connection with God. Her prayers read like secret diary entries. “Please help me God,” she pleads in the opening paragraph. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.” This line made me, a New Jersey native and current resident of Brooklyn, laugh in a sort of reverse recognition.

By page seven, I fully identified with Margaret. This exchange while she’s putting on a bathing suit at her new neighbor and classmate’s house, trying to hide her undeveloped body, cemented our kinship:

“Oh, you’re still flat.” Nancy laughed.

“Not exactly, I said, pretending to be very cool. “I’m small boned, is all.”

I wrote in the book’s margins, “THIS.” While I never chanted “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!” with a cabal of my closest friends, or surreptitiously stuffed cotton balls in my training bra, I can confirm I was as preoccupied with my lack of development as Margaret. When the other kids called me “flat as a board,” I tried to act all nonchalant, saying, “I’m just petite,” a feeble comeback my mom had taught me. Really, like Margaret, I was thinking, “Please let me be like everybody else. Please let my body be like everybody else’s.”

There’s a vital discussion in today’s children’s book community about “Mirrors and Windows,” a term first coined in a 1990 essay by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop that refers to stories as a reflection of young readers’ identities and experiences and/or as a portal into lives beyond their own. Both kinds of narratives have tremendous value in helping to foster self-worth and empathy through imagination. But the publishing industry still has a lot of growing up to do in terms of inclusive and authentic representation.

As a white girl from a suburban middle-class family, I didn’t exactly want for books about kids who looked like me. That said, I didn’t gravitate toward those books. When I was Margaret’s age, my self-image was fragile. I felt like I had too much personality smooshed into too small a frame. I was beginning to question and even dislike the girl in the mirror, to the point where I avoided looking at her. It makes sense, then, that when it came to reading, I sought escapist fare: mysteries and magical adventures set in faraway lands or bygone eras.

When the boys in my middle school passed around a list ranking the girls by “hotness,” the last thing I wanted to read were more school-centric stories. But perhaps I would’ve been comforted by a relatable heroine like Margaret. Blume captures the self-scrutiny girls subject themselves to on a daily basis, internalizing every negative comment they receive about their bodies either directly or via the culture at large. Take this scene when Margaret is getting ready for her first big co-ed party:

After my bath I was supposed to go to my room and rest so I’d be in good shape for the party. I went to my room and closed the door—only I didn’t feel like resting. What I did was move my desk chair in front of my dresser mirror. Then I stood on the chair and took off my robe. I stood naked in front of the mirror. I was starting to get some hairs. I turned around and studied myself sideways. Then I got off the chair and moved it closer to the mirror. I stood back up on it and looked again. My head looked funny with all these rollers. The rest of me looked the same.

Reading Blume brings it all back: the anxiety and the awkwardness of growing up in a female body. I remember consulting the mirror with that same desperation and disappointment before school or social events. My anxious teenage mind was at odds with the juvenile body reflected back at me. In Margaret’s words, “All I could think of was I’d be in seventh grade in September and I was growing up. My mind knew it—even if my body didn’t.”

The novel is finally punctuated by Margaret’s first period. “Thank you God,” she exclaims. “Thanks an awful lot….” Embedded in the slang, “an awful lot,” is the Biblical connotation: an awe-full lot — a fate full of awe. Now that Margaret is “almost a woman,” as she says, she embraces a future of wonder and excitement, terror and dread. This prayer of gratitude is just one of the ways Blume intertwines the sexual and spiritual development of her heroine. And it’s for this reason that the novel, with its reverent portrayal of female puberty and psychology, is still challenged and censored.

In Judaism, we recite the Shehechiyanu, the blessing for firsts: the first lighting of the menorah for Hanukkah, the first Passover seder and other joyous occasions and rituals. Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehechiyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season. Margaret, though she is not a practicing Jew, intuitively offers her own version of the Shehechiyanu.

I had to wait until sophomore year of high school for my first period and, even then, I didn’t feel like I’d leveled up. That milestone didn’t change how others perceived me. At the end of senior year, my classmates voted me “Most Likely to Be Carded at 30” in our final yearbook. Not how I was hoping to be immortalized.

In some ways, I’ve lived up to the superlative. I’m now 30 going on 13, undergoing a sort of protracted puberty. Maybe it’s the stress of the pandemic: Suddenly I’m plagued by zits, irregular periods, high-school flashback dreams (see above) and the familiar teen sensations of social anxiety and alienation, not to mention a school-girl discomfort around unrequited crushes. (COVID is the new cooties — fortunately there’s a vaccine for the former.) Plus I spent several months back at home in New Jersey, in close quarters with my parents. As Margaret would say, “Please help me, God.”

At the same time, I’ve matured. After 18+ months of staring at my reflection in Zoom, I’ve come to respect the woman I see. And I’m grateful to have belated growing pains. It means I’m surviving and even thriving.

Growth isn’t linear. It doesn’t follow a specified timeline. With each new year, each new season, we offer thanks for another chance at firsts.

I didn’t grow up with Judy Blume, but her books are growing on me. Or, maybe, I’m growing into them. Who’s to say this isn’t the exact right moment for me to be reading Blume for the first time? It feels like bashert, destiny. And it’s an occasion that calls for the Shehechiyanu.

After “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.,” I turned to the author’s YA canon, starting with “Forever” (also on TIME’s list of the top 100 YA and frequently banned, with a Netflix series in the works). It’s full of first love, first lust, first heartbreak and other firsts I didn’t experience as a teen — and am still exploring. One day I’ll work up to Blume’s novels for adults.

Because, luckily, life isn’t a library book; there’s no due date for discovery.

Amen.

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Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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