Originally published in 1970, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, is the story of an eleven-year-old girl who moves from New York City to the suburbs while going through puberty and has to try to fit in at a new school. Written from the point of view of Margaret, the book is peppered with Margaret’s prayers for guidance as she weathers the storms of adolescence and navigates intricate middle-school social hierarchies. “Please help me God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible,” she pleads before the big move. “Have you thought about it God? About my growing, I mean,” she wonders after buying her first bra. In a famous scene, captured on film for the first time in a new film adaptation of the book, Margaret and her fellow flat-chested friends chant aloud, “We must—we must—we must increase our bust!”
A season of Judy Blume rediscovery is upon us. Leading up to and immediately following the film’s release in April, celebratory profiles of Blume came out in the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Atlantic. Written primarily by women who came of age in the Seventies and Eighties, at the height of Blume’s popularity, the profiles hailed Blume’s pioneering writing about and for adolescents and praised her for her uncanny empathy for her young readers. That she “made teens feel seen” was demonstrated by her lifelong fight against the censorship of her books (“still some of the most banned in the country,” one paean incorrectly asserts), and the thousands of letters of gratitude and requests for advice she has received from them, and even replied to, like a good octogenarian best friend would. “The letters started right after Margaret. … ‘Dear Judy,’ most began,” writes Amy Weiss-Meyer in the Atlantic. “Some kids praised her work while others dove right in, sharing their problems and asking for advice … They wanted to scream. They wanted to die. They knew Judy would understand.” Blume’s fans admire her own biographical tale of second-wave feminist awakening and liberation: to accompany the Margaret movie, Amazon released a documentary tribute in which celebrities like Molly Ringwald rave, “Everything I learned about sex or crushes, I learned from Judy.”
Judy Blume—where would American girls be without her?
From the outset, Blume’s career as a children’s writer was bound up with the culture wars of the 1960s. She came on the scene at a moment when a new genre was coalescing, the “young adult” novel. In a feature essay in the New York Times in 1969, George Woods, its children’s book editor, issued a call for a more authentic or realistic approach to adolescent books, one that reflected the “real rhythm of life” as he believed teenagers experienced it:
It comes to them hot and strong, uninhibited, expressing their moods and longings. It moves. Sometimes it’s tender, sad, a lamentation. Then it’s wild and irresponsible. Sometimes contemptuous of tradition; sometimes it goes nowhere, as if it were waiting, just as they themselves often wait, for what’s going to happen next. And what we need are books to match their music; books that handle life’s depths and despairs, its joys and exaltations, too. What’s needed is to pick up the beat and tempo of life as it’s known to them.
Until the 1930s, publishers did not distinguish between children’s and adolescent books. The idea of marketing books to a very specific audience nestled between childhood and adulthood only emerged with the rise of the “junior novels” during the Thirties and Forties. As I’ve written elsewhere, these earlier books for adolescents were also “realistic” in their focus on school, friendships, dating, and family life, but typically avoided “gloomy” or controversial topics.1 Although most of the junior authors who achieved commercial success in this pre-YA period, like Edward Stratemeyer and John Tunis, have been forgotten, some products of the early period of adolescent literature, like the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, remain familiar. Woods dismissed these earlier writers for their half-hearted efforts at realism—assigning teen pregnancies to minor characters, devoting only “a few brief pages” to a character’s menarche rather than weaving “a beautiful story, a harrowing story” about it, and always resolving crises with redemptive endings. The “new realism” should center the gloomy and controversial. Those “teen-age books” that “are still trying to indoctrinate their audience with the noble virtues, still sermonizing,” Woods concluded, “are carrying on a love affair with the past.”
Judy Blume was not the first writer to heed Woods’s call to depict without “sermonizing.” The honor of the first YA book probably goes to S.E. Hinton for The Outsiders, published in 1967, when Hinton, unlike her successors, was still an adolescent herself. The authors Paul Zindel and Robert Cormier became famous in the Seventies for writing books for teenagers that touched on “mature” themes like peer pressure, death and sex. But it was Blume who came to be one of the most prolific and recognizable writers to embody the ethos Woods described. What distinguished the new YA books was their anti-moralistic depiction of taboo topics. One by one, Blume’s books publicized such previously private experiences as menstruation, sexual awakening, divorce, masturbation and eating disorders. As she explained to a reporter in 1978:
I hate the idea that you should always protect children. They live in the same world we do. They see things and hear things. The worst is when there are secrets, because what they imagine, and have to deal with alone, is usually scarier than the truth. Sexuality and death—those are the two big secrets we try to keep from children…
She claimed to have written Are You There God?, whose heroine spends much of the book contemplating her prepubertal body and anticipating her first period, to provide girls with the information about puberty and sex that their parents withheld. “When I was nine, my father sat me on his knee and gave me this vague version of the facts of life, which left me with the impression that whenever the moon was full, women all over the world were menstruating,” Blume said.2 She positioned herself as an antidote to the misguided, neglectful and overly prudish parent, ready to satisfy interests that parents sought unfairly to redirect or outright suppress. “To kids of the age I write for,” she added, sexual topics and bodily changes are their “consuming interests.” In addition to access to forbidden information, Blume sought to provide her readers with a therapeutic outlet by affirming their feelings and fears and showing them that they were not abnormal or even unusual. “Realism is letting young people read about some feelings they have and coping with some problems they have,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1980. “There is a need to let them know that they’re not alone in the world.”
Unlike the overtly moralistic genres of the public service announcement, the school health class and the after-school special, all of which also sought to raise public awareness of some of the same social “issues” as Blume took up, YA argued that the best way to help kids was to avoid overt moral lessons. “Blume explores the feelings of children in a nonjudgmental way,” wrote Robert Lipsyte, a fellow YA author. “The immediate resolution of a problem is never as important as what the protagonist … will learn about herself by confronting her life.” Although parents sometimes objected to YA books’ depictions of immoral behavior, it was the amorality of Blume’s depictions that most raised parents’ ire. When parents in the DC suburbs complained in 1980 that it was inappropriate for their school libraries to include Blubber, a story about a fifth-grader who is taunted for being overweight, their objection was not to the subject matter but the fact that the bullying was never redressed or punished. Blume countered that “the fact that it’s not resolved is the most important part of the book. I don’t think you can change children’s behavior. You can make them aware.” As evidence that her approach was effective, Blume would often quote from the thousands of fan letters she received from kids every year at the peak of her career, in which they confessed their troubles to her and sought her advice. Moralism turned kids off, non-judgmentalism won their trust.
In his paean to Blume in 1997, the critic Mark Oppenheimer credited Blume with being the first to divulge these truths to him and his peers in the 1980s. “We had learned about puberty from ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ and ‘Then Again, Maybe I Won’t’; about sex from ‘Forever’; about divorce from ‘It’s Not the End of the World,’” he claimed. But by 1979, according to historian Jonathan Zimmerman, 90 percent of American schools taught sex education. The year before, a thirteen-year-old fan of Blume’s told a New York Times reporter that adults “get mad because we read Judy Blume, but we knew about that stuff before.” What, then, were the secrets that readers like Oppenheimer felt they had been initiated into?
Blume’s books do teach about sex, but not the mechanics of menstrual cycles or pregnancy or anything related to “the plumbing,” which is what sex ed classes have long covered. They instead instruct readers in the correct attitudes to take towards these things—not what a period is, but how to feel about getting one and how to expect other girls to feel about it, not what sexual desire is, but how to express it socially in the form of a “crush.” Blume’s books did not so much provide girls with new information about their sexual maturation or relieve their suffering over it as they heightened their sense of its importance in their lives, centering them as the sine qua non of coming of age.
As with many other YA novels, Blume’s books transformed the facts of life from peripheral eventualities into the defining social dramas of adolescence. Blume’s aversion to “moralizing” on the grounds that children’s self-destructive or cruel behavior is intractable and “you can only make them aware” reduced coming of age to a sequence of mechanistic facts, a series of social and familial “issues” to be “confronted” and bodily changes to be passively experienced on the inexorable path to reaching the legal age of majority. This is particularly true of her rendering of girlhood, which has been her most influential legacy. Coming of age is not a moral or intellectual transformation, but something that simply befalls you.
Compare this view of coming of age to the view promulgated by the kinds of “moralistic” girls’ books, like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, that YA set itself against. They took growing up to be a process of character formation—which depended on the protagonists’ choices, efforts and how they fared in their endeavors—rather than a series of encounters with uncontrollable bodily and social phenomena. Anne of Green Gables is the formation of the impetuous, irreligious and vain Anne into a capable, self-controlled, accomplished and lovable woman. Jo March’s arc in Little Women is similar. Both characters must fit their desires into a demanding world, and both are asked to sacrifice some of them—Anne gives up her secondary education to stay home and help her adoptive parents, Jo cuts off her prized hair to pay her mother’s visit to her father and puts her writing ambitions on hold to nurse her sister. These stories are about what characters do to become adults, not what befalls them. In these older, “moralistic” books, girls become women.
Getting a first period, being bullied by classmates, feeling the stirrings of sexual desire, developing an eating disorder along the way—this was how you knew you were doing adolescence right, because this was how the characters in YA books did it. The backlash to this cultural script followed soon after, in an early demonstration of the recurring dynamics of the culture wars. Once YA books had successfully popularized this new conception of adolescence, parents’ reluctance to discuss these topics could be derided as prudery, which risked transmitting shame or ignorance to their children. The genre’s critique of parental reticence provoked the opposition of culturally conservative families. Their outcry then drew new audiences to the books (especially educators and other professional defenders of free speech), thus fanning the genre’s popularity: what was often little more than bland children’s writing was now endowed with an urgent political purpose.
In order to take control of the cultural script of coming of age, however, YA authors had to claim to understand children better than their own parents understood them. In part they did this by trying to speak to their concerns more “authentically,” often as though they were children themselves. One of the most striking aspects of the early Blume coverage is how consistently reporters have emphasized her likeness to her adolescent readers. “She is emotional, impulsive, endearing, innocent. … She could fit right in as a guest at a seventh-grade slumber party,” one 1978 profile described the then-forty-year-old Blume. Another from the same year described her as having “something of the eternal teen in her bubbly enthusiasm.” Blume understood herself in similar terms, describing her midlife affair and divorce as a “‘late adolescent’ rebellion,” only after which she finally “started to grow up.”
It is a central irony of YA that by elevating adolescence to the apex of female experience, it then found adolescence hard to move past, and adulthood impossible to reach. This arrested development was precisely what Joan Didion warned about in her critique of second-wave feminism, which was unfolding in tandem with the creation of the YA genre. The high revolutionary theories of Beauvoir and Firestone were playing out in “the wishful voices of … perpetual adolescents, the voices of women scarred by resentment … at the failure of their childhood expectations and misapprehensions.” Consumed by “the astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life,” these women devoted themselves to vindicating those early expectations by trying to throw off the responsibilities (and dignity) of adulthood in favor of a frivolous and comfortable permanent adolescence of “eternal love, romance, fun. The Big Apple.”
YA staked itself on realistic depiction of childhood, especially childhood sexuality, but it was rarely a real account of any actual childhood. More often what it depicted was its authors’ imagined re-experience of childhood in a more liberated milieu. If only girls could grow up in the informed and understanding world pioneered by Margaret and Deenie, then perhaps they would not succumb to the oppressions of suburban housewifery from which Blume was fleeing with her writing. But what should they do with their liberation? Blume never bothered much with that question. Maybe “eternal love, romance, fun. The Big Apple.” Or, as one recent headline about Blume suggests, they could simply “never stop coming of age.”
Over the years, the few public critics of YA have primarily complained that it surreptitiously reinforced bourgeois norms while claiming to subvert them, or that it is simply poorly written. It should go without saying that Blume is no Henry James, but Blume’s prose is no worse than the average commercially successful children’s writer. And it is true that, precisely because YA was so successful in helping shift the definition of “normal” adolescent experience, Blume confined girls to a new set of norms and expectations that were no less stifling—now, instead of being self-sacrificing and self-controlled, they were required to be “boy crazy” and anxious over peer approval. But the fundamental trouble with YA lies elsewhere: for a genre designed for adolescents on the cusp of maturity, many of its readers rarely seem to mature beyond it.
Adult readers of YA now outnumber children. In 2022, 55 percent of YA book buyers were over eighteen, with the largest share of adult readers in the thirty to 44 age bracket. Tanner Greer has suggested that this ongoing interest, particularly in dystopian YA like The Hunger Games, results from the underlying political experience of feeling “buffeted by forces beyond their control” that now extends beyond adolescence into many people’s adulthoods. But it seems to be just as much an outgrowth of Blume’s transformation of coming of age itself.
Once the taboos of puberty are exhausted, the logic of taboo-busting demands exposure of whatever is next most-controversial. One of the most popular YA books of 1997, Melvin Burgess’s Smack, for example, told the story of an abused boy of alcoholic parents and his girlfriend who run away, becomes homeless squatters, develop heroin addictions, watch their friends die, get arrested and get pregnant, at which point the girlfriend finally leaves the boy to his demons. Or consider the New York Times best-selling, frequently banned books by Ellen Hopkins. Each, starting with Crank, a 2004 novel about adolescent methamphetamine addiction, is written in free verse and centers on a particular social pathology: child abuse (Burned), suicide (Impulse), teen prostitution (Tricks). Blume is not solely to blame for YA’s descent into misery porn, but it was her vision for a more “realistic” children’s novel that set the stage for this devolution of adolescence first into pubertal banality and then unremitting trauma.
Blume, for her part, has always maintained that her goal was simply to convey reality, how girls experience their own lives rather than how adults want them to experience them. But girls have developed breasts and menstruated since the beginning of time, and only in societies that practiced child marriage was this a decisive mark of maturation. Puberty is only the beginning of development pointing to reproduction and family, but while her heroines obsess over their changing bodies and kissing their crushes, the only thought they entertain about where these changes and crushes lead is the short-term dread of teen pregnancy. They worry about fitting in with classmates, but not even the character Blume insists is an academic “genius,” Rachel Robinson, gives a thought to life after high school. Of course, most adolescents don’t have a step-by-step plan for adulthood at the ready, but there is nothing essentially more “real” about such a failure to imagine one’s future self. The time Anne from Anne of Green Gables spends contemplating (and changing her mind about) marriage with her friend Diana or that Little Women’s Jo spends writing in pursuit of her professional ambitions is not less realistic than the concentrated presentism of YA.
The older books depicted girlhood as a preparation for a future where happiness demands sacrifice and the suppression of unbecoming qualities that may very well be “who we are” as adolescents but will not suffice for who we aspire to be in adulthood. In these books, as in life, coming of age requires agency, a conscious and concerted formation toward an ideal of who one hopes to be. When adulthood is no longer a moral achievement but a hormonal eventuality, there is nothing to aspire to or prepare for—no higher education, no vocation, no marriage or motherhood (except as an undesired mistake). Despite their ignorance of second-wave feminism, Louisa May Alcott’s and L. M. Montgomery’s protagonists became, even in adolescence, significantly more intellectually and even professionally accomplished than Blume’s.
It would be unrealistic to deny the existence of young readers who wish for books to play back and amplify their struggles and anxieties, to wrap them in a hug of affirmation for who they are right now, rather than trouble them with the risks and possibilities of who they might one day become. It would be likewise unrealistic to deny that middle-aged women might wistfully recall their own experiences as such readers. As Blume has admitted, the Margaret movie is not for children so much as it is for the “nostalgia audience,” their parents who grew up with the book.
But what would be most unrealistic of all would be to believe that such books speak to the deepest or most universal desires of girlhood. In its quest for realism, YA has lost sight of the fact that young girls possess equally real aspirations for intellectual and ethical self-development that can’t be satisfied or replaced by literary sex ed. An adolescence that never even threatens to issue in adulthood is a distortion of experience, not its honest rendering.