At age 85 author Judy Blume, it seems, is having a moment.
On April 28 a long-awaited film adaptation of her coming-of-age novel “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” is being released in theaters. And a documentary on Blume’s life and cultural impact, “Forever Judy Blume” is currently streaming on Prime Video.
For generations of American women, Judy Blume’s groundbreaking novel of adolescent anxiety “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” has been a coming-of-age lodestar.
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video
Published in 1970, the book centers on the awkward adolescence of 11-year-old Margaret Simon whose interfaith parents have just moved her from Manhattan to the New Jersey suburbs. There she finds her “squad” of fellow middle schoolers dealing with the shared anxieties of getting their first period, training bras, boys and, in Margaret’s case, being a child without a religious identity. Her many private conversations with God allow her to vocalize her fears and desires in an immediate way that has spoken to generations of readers.
Jamie Lackey, 45, the CEO of Norcross-based nonprofit Helping Mamas which provides baby supplies and period products to women in need, saw an advance screening of “Are You There God?” and says both men and women at the screening engaged with the universality of Margaret’s (played with great authenticity and angst by Abby Ryder Fortson) experience. “I felt like everybody felt connected to the story and they felt connected to each other.”
When she first read the book, “I think even as a young kid, I could relate to Margaret.”
“I remember thinking that it made it less frightening,” to experience the dramatic changes of adolescence Lackey says.
“I realized I must have read this book 10 times when I was a kid,” says Paideia School librarian Jill Hanson who had that epiphany when she recently reread “Are You There God?”
“I remembered so many different specific things from the book that really made an impact on me. And I’ve been very excited about the movie,” she says, which she plans to see alongside other Generation X friends who grew up reading Blume’s novel.
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of Seventeen”) the film is a heartfelt, nostalgic rendering of this iconic American heroine’s anxieties and triumphs that includes some contemporary updates. It feels as if Craig has attempted to make the world of suburban New Jersey (Blume grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey) more racially diverse than in Blume’s novel, for one. And Margaret’s mother (played by Rachel McAdams) has her own plotline in the film as she also struggles to adjust to suburban life. Her desires and insecurities give a poignant, multi-generational perspective to Blume’s original story.
Craig’s emotionally resonant film adaptation, which includes a saucy Auntie Mame turn from Kathy Bates as Margaret’s beloved and glamorous grandmother Sylvia, might simply be a charming piece of ‘70s nostalgia if it weren’t for the sense that a young girl’s coming-of-age has been less often depicted in film and still has a taboo-breaking power. And a power to inflame. During a preview screening of the film, the scene where Margaret transitions from childhood to womanhood with her first period elicited some tears in the audience — perhaps because this universal female experience is all but absent from the history of filmmaking.
And then there is that same rite of passage’s ability to inspire outrage. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s Bill 1069 bans discussions of menstruation in schools before sixth grade.
And according to the American Library Association, “Are You There God?” is one of the most often challenged and banned books, even if, says Hanson, the young readers she works with every day have moved on to more contemporary graphic novels by authors like Kayla Miller, Svetlana Chmakova, Claribel Ortega and Jerry Craft. Today Hanson says it’s books dealing with race and LGBTQ issues that may feel more transgressive and vanguard to her students than Blume’s.
But for many, “Are You There God” feels just as relevant today.
“Blume’s honesty and candor lend emotional support when some girls may feel reluctant or embarrassed to talk about what they are experiencing,” says Woodward Academy head librarian Ann Haber.
Credit: Dana Hawley/Lionsgate
Credit: Dana Hawley/Lionsgate
Anna Kathryn Hodges, 22, a sociology student at Clark University who grew up in College Park and attended Woodward Academy, read the book at age 12.
“I was in the early stages of puberty and wrestling with many of the same anxieties and questions as Margaret was about her body. Knowing that people had been struggling with the same issues across generations made me feel connected to a larger community of women.”
“I still fondly remember the validation and warmth I felt reading the novel.”
In many ways the release of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” comes at a moment with echoes of the pre-Roe v. Wade era of 1970, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
And just as Blume’s novels directly confronted taboo issues, today there is a similar movement to address previously hidden dimensions of women’s sexuality and identity. The film release feels part and parcel of a larger cultural shift to push previously ignored women’s “issues” to the fore, from Naomi Watts’ postmenopausal skincare line Stripes; to the cheeky Gillette ads for the Venus line of “down there” shaving products; and celebrities like Brooke Shields offering commentary on a sexual identity shaped by Hollywood and the media in the Netflix documentary “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”
For Atlanta author Jessica Handler, 63, the film release is a chance “to go back and hold hands with my 10 year-old self.”
The book was formative for Handler and its impact has been felt in her own books. Both “Invisible Sisters: A Memoir” and “The Magnetic Girl” depict characters’ menstruation, something she says she hadn’t really reflected on until talking about the film release of “Are You There God?”
“Thanks Judy Blume!” she laughs.
Atlanta author Laurel Snyder, 49, first read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in elementary school and remembers feeling an immediate kinship to Margaret.
“Margaret for me was was a sort of companion in going through those things.”
With parents of two different faiths, she identified with Margaret’s religious angst. In fact, her next book for middle-grade readers set in Atlanta “The Witch of Woodland” debuting this May, will deal with her young character’s existential religious crisis.
And like Blume, Snyder has had to tangle with censors who often object when a coming-of-age story centers on young girls and their unique experience of adolescence. Her 2017 middle-grade novel “Orphan Island” has been kept out of some libraries, she says, because parents have objected to one of her characters having her period.
“We’re just uncomfortable with kids at this age,” says Snyder.
It’s why she is so drawn to writing books about pre-adolescent children who exist in a liminal state between childhood and nascent adulthood. It’s a universal crossroads that children respond instantly to and that adults can either bury, or — thanks to the ongoing influence of Judy Blume — relive and celebrate again in the film version of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”
Starring Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams. Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual education and some suggestive material. Opening April 28. 1 hour, 46 minutes.