Growing up in the ’90s, like thousands before us, my friends and I discovered Judy Blume.
Whilst many of his books were restricted in America after their publication, here in the UK, at least at our secondary school in Leicestershire, we have had the thrill of reading his words during library sessions and rainy breaks; the cracked spines and many dog-eared pages from those who had discovered the best (juiciest) bits before us.
Blume’s coming-of-age stories were some of the most popular reading for teenagers, mainly girls, who have gone through on their way to adulthood. Sex, masturbation, menstruation, sexuality, body image, puberty, disability, friendship, religion, even death; we laughed in parts, cried in others, and lapped up Blume’s books because they explored these issues in a real, relatable way.
While our sex ed classes sternly taught us how not to get pregnant, Blume’s stories helped us learn about the reality of early sexual encounters and navigate those awkward formative years. She understood the concerns and complexities of being a teenager, but she treated us like adults.
Published in 1970, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – the book that gave us the famous exercise “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” – is the best-selling novel by the American author. It’s a story that has united generations around the world for more than 50 years, but only now is it being adapted for the big screen for the first time.
Relative newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson, now 15, plays 11-year-old Margaret, a young girl who is uprooted from her life in New York City for the suburbs of New Jersey, grappling with the messy torments of puberty with new friends in a new school. Rachel McAdams, best known for films like The Notebook, Mean Girls, Spotlight and The Time Traveller’s Wife, plays her mother, Barbara.
From censorship to the removal of the mystique
When you look at the bigger issues in Margaret’s life — her period, her bra size, and confusion about religion, all typical and really quite innocent concerns for preteen girls — it’s hard enough to believe the censorship surrounding the book in America.
“These are such natural things, they happen to most people and why not share our experiences, they make things a little bit easier for everyone,” McAdams tells Sky News, discussing the importance of Blume’s seminal book in a first interview in the UK. “[Let’s] take the mystique away, you know, so you’re not wondering: Am I normal? Should it happen? Is everyone else going through this?”
Fortson says she related to Margaret “on so many levels, with her understanding herself,” and her story is helpful for today’s teenagers. “It’s something a lot of us go through. Especially with current taboos, I think it’s really important that we have these conversations.”
The film was widely praised by reviewers, which is no mean feat for an adaptation of a much loved text. And Blume herself is delighted, telling Variety, “I may be the only book writer who has ever said the movie is better than my book, and I mean it.”
“If someone doesn’t hurt someone else, everything is fine”
In addition to learning about sex, Are You There God?, as the title suggests, also addresses the question of faith; Margaret’s mother is Christian and her father is Jewish, and she was raised with no affiliation to either.
Fortson says it’s natural to be curious. “I think Margaret gets that too, and I think she has all these people in her life who tell her, you have to be this, you have to use this label. But I think it’s really her journey that she discovers that she can only believe what she believes.” , and she doesn’t really need to listen to other people telling her what to do.”
At an emotional point in the film, Barbara explains to Margaret that her own Christian parents disowned her because she married a Jewish man. Whether the reason is religion or something else, like sexuality, the difficulty of navigating a relationship with parents who think differently is something many will relate to.
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“I wish people didn’t have to choose between families and themselves, who they innately are,” says McAdams. “I wish these things had nothing to do with each other. Open-mindedness and tolerance are, for me, always the right path. If someone doesn’t hurt someone else, then I think it’s fine.” well anything.
“I think it’s really sad that Barb can’t be in a relationship with her family because of who she loves…but that happens out there, and hopefully gradually, with conversations and stories like this being put into the world, we’re getting into in a kinder, more compassionate time.”
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Let’s talk about sex…
McAdams, who has two young children, hopes Margaret’s story will be helpful not only to children and young adults, but to parents as well.
“Films, storytelling is kind of a safe buffer to inspire tough conversations,” she says. “I think it could be a great way for parents to talk about something that’s still uncomfortable. I mean, we can’t deny that there’s a reason why [talking about sex] it’s still uncomfortable and the kids just want to die when you lift it. But also…
“I can guarantee it,” Fortson interrupts. “It’s so uncomfortable.”
“But even so necessary,” McAdams continues. “And to be able to go to your parents with questions and know that you won’t be judged and you’ll be embraced for whoever you’re becoming and you are — I think that’s so cool. I’ve had that in my life and it’s served me very well.”
Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret is in cinemas from May 19 from Lionsgate UK