How Judy Blume Redefined Girlhood
The first movie adaptation of “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” arrives in theaters today
When Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. hit bookshelves in 1970, its witty, compassionate musings on puberty, sexuality and girlhood attracted a broad fan base. Known for her frank approach to discussing childhood, Blume wrote stories that purposefully didn’t pander to or talk down to her young readers.
In Blume’s book, the 11-year-old Margaret Simon confronts the contradictions of her impending teenage years. She both prays for the arrival of her period and finds herself overwhelmed by crushes and first kisses. She wants to grow up but shies away from adulthood when it becomes too confusing. Throughout her journey, Margaret seeks to define and understand the markers of adolescence—and feels frustrated whenever adults underestimate her knowledge. After her teacher Miss Abbott informs the students that it’s time to learn about “certain very private subjects just for girls,” Margaret can only roll her eyes in frustration.
“[Blume] was really acknowledging the validity of a young teenage girl’s experience,” says Carol Tell Morse, a literary scholar at Yale University.
In the 1960s and ’70s, many children’s authors were reluctant to recognize the intricacies of adolescence, Morse says. “There was a sense of fear in being honest about what was happening to children,” she adds. “And so [children’s books] were written, in a way, to make adults feel comfortable and happy. And Judy Blume really blew that out of the water and was really writing for kids of this age and understood what their fears and desires really were.”
Significantly, Blume’s books acknowledged that children grappled with complex emotions and had rich internal worlds. They, too, had a wide-ranging capacity for emotional depth. Blume made it clear that it was normal for everyone—girls included—to think about sex. “Fiction has never really been the same since she opened that up,” says Morse.
Now, more than half a century after It’s Me, Margaret’s publication, the book is set to make its big screen debut. The new film adaptation, starring Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret and Rachel McAdams as her mother, Barbara, arrives in theaters Friday.
Revisiting Blume’s career
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1938, the young Judy Sussman was an avid reader who sought to make sense of the world around her. As she tells the New York Times, “By the time I was 12 or 13, I was choosing books from my parents’ bookshelves. No books were off limits. My mother, who had many fears, was not afraid of what books I chose to read. Reading was a good thing at our house.”
At the same time, Blume grew up feeling removed from her mother and father, who tended to avoid the uncomfortable or awkward conversations associated with growing up. “I just assumed that parents don’t understand their kids, ever. That there is a lot of pretending in family life,” Blume tells the Atlantic. At age 14, she went to the gynecologist for the first time and was traumatized by the experience, largely because her parents had failed to inform her what a standard exam would entail. Blume tearfully asked why her mother hadn’t warned her, only to be told, “I didn’t want to frighten you.” As she grew older, Blume discovered the importance of physical and emotional autonomy, of naming a body’s changes for what they are, without shame or fear.
Blume later attended New York University, where she majored in education. While still in school, she married her first husband, John Blume. After graduation, the couple moved to Scotch Plains, New Jersey. By 1963, Blume was staying at home with her two kids, Randy and Larry, and yearning for “creative work.” Eventually, she tapped into her artistic ambitions by pursuing writing. In 1969, after a series of rejections, Blume published an illustrated children’s book called The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo. Upon learning of the publication offer, she writes on her website, she ran downstairs and “whooped with joy.”
“Larry’s friend, Laurie Murphy, ran home crying, telling her mother that Larry’s mom had gone crazy. I suppose that’s how it seemed to her,” Blume recalls.
After releasing her second book, Iggie’s House, in 1970, Blume set her sights on the story of a girl named Margaret. The resulting book, which openly discussed menstruation, pornography and bra sizes, was an instant hit and made it onto the New York Times’ 1970 list of “Outstanding Books of the Year.”
“I’d published two books and several short stories before Margaret, but I hadn’t found my voice yet,” writes Blume in an essay published on her website. “I hadn’t written from deep inside. With Margaret, I found my voice and my audience.”
Leonard S. Marcus, a historian of American children’s literature, attributes Blume’s popularity to the fact that she “spoke up about things that the rest of the adult world was either unwilling or unable to deal with on their children’s behalf. I see her as kind of a rebel, but, even more than that, as a truth teller.”
Blume became “really popular” when her books were released in paperback, meaning “children could buy them with their own money,” says Marcus.
The 85-year-old author’s enduring influence on children’s literature is evident today. Blume’s books have sold more than 90 million copies and been translated into 32 languages. For readers both past and present, It’s Me, Margaret remains a quintessential portrait of girlhood—an indelible mirror of a fraught, funny moment in adolescence.
Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer and director of the new film adaptation, initially read the book in fourth grade, when she tried to emulate a crucial exercise outlined within its pages. Elbows out, she learned to say, “I must—I must—I must increase my bust!” (As Margaret’s friend Nancy advises, young girls should repeat the movement 35 times a day for best results.) Speaking with the Cut, Fremon Craig recalls thinking, “Oh my gosh, somebody gets me. And somebody’s saying all of the embarrassing bits, too. Somebody’s getting really specific about these experiences that we don’t talk about.”
Blume had long resisted offers to adapt It’s Me, Margaret for the screen. Previously, she had only allowed a few projects based on her dozens of books to move forward, including a made-for-TV movie version of Forever, which aired in 1978, and a sitcom take on the Fudge series, which premiered in 1995 and ran for two years. The author grew disillusioned by the process and was uninterested in pursuing other Hollywood adaptations. Then, in 2018, she received a heartfelt letter from Fremon Craig.
Serendipitously, Blume had loved Fremon Craig’s 2016 directorial debut, the coming-of-age story The Edge of Seventeen. As the author tells the Cut, “What I was wishing as I was watching [the movie] was that we could get one of my books to be adapted in such an intimate, real way.”
When Blume found out that Academy Award-winning producer James L. Brooks had signed on as an executive producer for a potential adaptation, she decided to come on board. She joined the film as a producer herself and offered feedback when necessary. (Specifically, Blume corrected Fremon Craig’s interpretation of the bust scene, explaining that the girls’ arms should be kept at their sides for best results.)
Appearing on the “Today” show in January, Blume shared her admiration for the final film. “It feels wonderful,” she said, “and the reason that it feels wonderful is because I love the movie. And how many authors of [books] can say, ‘I think that movie is better than the book’? I do.”
Deadline critic Pete Hammond echoes Blume’s praise, writing that the film is “as perfect an adaptation of a life-changing book as there will ever be. On top of all that, it is a rip-roaring, funny, human, wonderful studio movie comedy you might have forgotten Hollywood knew how to make anymore.”
With @AbbyFortson - our incredible Margaret pic.twitter.com/HbfMnHWQDj— Judy Blume (@judyblume) April 1, 2023
S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a decidedly darker take on the travails of youth, is often described as the first young adult (Y.A.) novel. While other books about teenagers predate Hinton’s 1967 classic, among them J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, these stories were mainly marketed to adults. In contrast, Hinton’s novel about a group of rebellious youth resonated with young adults, catalyzing the creation of a new genre geared toward teens.
“We have a world of adulthood, and we have a world of childhood. And the world of childhood, to a large degree, is a social construction that’s constructed by adults,” says Michael Bronski, a women’s studies scholar at Harvard University. “But when you get into teenage literature, Y.A. literature, that gap between adult and child is much smaller.”
Frequently heralded as a groundbreaking contributor to the Y.A. genre, Blume says her focus has always been on children, on “kids on the cusp.” In that liminal space, she normalized difficult emotions and experiences, giving voice to the everyday triumphs and humiliations of childhood.
In 1975, Blume dabbled in the world of Y.A. with her first teen novel, Forever. Describing the origins of the book, Blume writes that her daughter, Randy, requested a story about “two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die.”
Forever, which Blume dedicated to Randy, centers on a high school senior named Katherine who decides to have sex with her boyfriend, Michael. Neither is punished for their sexual feelings. Instead, Katherine receives a prescription for birth control. The duo date, and eventually, they break up.
“When I was in sixth grade, that book went around our classroom,” says Morse. While some parents were worried about the novel’s sexual content, she feels this was an unnecessary fear. “It was more like, ‘Nobody is explaining to me what this process actually feels like and looks like and how people negotiate relationships.’” As Morse notes, Forever did just that.
At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” exhibition explored the manifold—and, at times, conflicting—definitions of girlhood. Curator Kathleen Franz says many people recommended including Blume in the show, which ran from October 2020 to January 2023. But while Blume and It’s Me, Margaret are referenced elsewhere in the museum, Franz and her colleagues wanted “Girlhood” to “decenter whiteness” and explicitly make space for girls of color.
While preparing for the exhibition, Franz spoke to young girls to gauge their current literary interests. The museum’s team collected approximately 25,000 “talkback cards,” which gave visitors the opportunity to engage with questions from the curators. Franz found that many girls of color hadn’t read Blume, instead seeking out books that featured characters who looked like them. “They read, by and large, Maya Angelou’s works,” says Franz.
The curator argues that girlhood is “something we make up.” She adds, “Not everybody has a girlhood in American history. … If you were poor, if you weren’t white, if you were [gender fluid] but you couldn’t name it, you just didn’t get that girlhood.” In the United States, girlhood “is, in some ways, super restrictive over time. In other ways, it’s very privileged.”
Blume and book banning, then and now
Over the years, Blume has received pushback for her frank, honest depictions of puberty and sexuality. In the 1980s, school boards around the country petitioned to ban many of her books, including Deenie, Blubber and Forever. Speaking with Datebook, Blume calls the 1980s the “censorship years,” a tumultuous period that inspired her activism against literary suppression. Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who launched a campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, even published a pamphlet advising audiences how to rid their schools and libraries of Blume’s books.
The book banning push “was organized, it was frightening, and the publishers were not prepared for it,” Blume once said. “The school librarians were not prepared for it.” Though she “felt alone” at first, she soon discovered an ally in the National Coalition Against Censorship.
As she fought back against these restrictions, Blume sought solace in the 2,000 letters she received each month from young readers. Many of these messages shared hidden fears, secrets and dreams. One fan wrote:
I don’t know where I stand in the world. I don’t know who I am.
That’s why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13
According to the American Library Association, Blume is one of the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century; five of her books appeared on the organization’s list of the 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990 and 1999.
Today, book banning is on the rise once again—and censorship has become “much worse,” Blume tells BBC News. Citing an “intolerance about everything, gender, sexuality, racism,” she says that “it’s just reaching a point where again we have to fight back, we have to stand up and fight.”
Blume adds, “Even if [censors] don’t let [young girls] read books, their bodies are still going to change, and their feelings about their bodies are going to change. And you can’t control that. They have to be able to read, to question.”
At Variety’s recent Power of Women: New York event, Blume criticized Florida’s proposed legislation against discussing periods in school—part of a new bill designed to overhaul the state’s sex education curriculum. During a March committee meeting, Florida Representative Ashley Gantt, a former public school teacher, asked, “So if little girls experience their menstrual cycle in fifth grade or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations from them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?”
Representative Stan McClain, the bill’s sponsor, replied, “It would.”
An echo of a similar conversation happened in 1970, when Blume donated three signed copies of It’s Me, Margaret to her children’s elementary school. At the time, the principal removed them from the library, insisting that sixth grade girls were “too young to read about this.” If he’d taken a closer look, he might have seen Margaret’s indignant response. Reacting to her teacher’s mention of “certain very private subjects just for girls,” she wonders, “Why do they wait until sixth grade when you already know everything!”