It was predicted it would take me longer to write a review of this book than it did to read it. I'm guessing that'll be true as the book only took a little over an hour. Mind you those last two sentences only took ten seconds to write, so we'll see. My 72nd book from the Time list was Are You There God? It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume, and I'm hoping this quick read was just what I needed to get back on track.
This was definitely one of the strangest books on the list; not because the book itself was strange, but that it's strange to find it on a list such as this. Much the same way it is still strange to me that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, would be on the list; children's books simply don't have the complexity and the artistic flare of adult books. Of course they don't strive for those things either, because then they wouldn't be children's books.
Margaret Simon is soon to be twelve years old, and has just recently moved from New York City to rural New Jersey. Like most girls her age, she's going through a few changes, and isn't sure what to expect. (I'm assuming this is the case, but to be honest this is really outside my area of expertise.)
Margaret, along with her three closest friends, spends her days pondering the future. They wonder who will get their period first and what it will be like. They gossip about boys, spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance, and talk about people behind their backs. Basically, they're like a group of women in a chic lit book, except for wondering about their first period.
But Maragret's concerns go beyond the wonders of reaching puberty. She also wonders about religion, being born of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and not being raised in any organized religion. Unsure of where she fits in within the community, Margaret talks to God without need or want of a religion, while her grandparents try to push her toward their respective faiths.
When I started reading this one, I was vaguely familiar with the story, but was more interested to see why it would have made a list of 100 great novels. A children's book needs to have something quite extraordinary to make a list like this. I assume The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe made the list because of it's immense popularity and iconic status in children's literature; despite not being particularly well written, and really quite formulaic. Its enduring popularity was what made it extraordinary.
Now having read Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, I think I understand why it made the list. In fact I would venture to say it's more deserving of it's spot than that Narnia tale.
First off, Judy Blume tackles topics that are taboo even today, never mind what they would have been in 1970, in children's literature. Frank descriptions and discussions of puberty and sexuality, written from a child's perspective, for children. Too often authors shy away from these subjects for fear of alienating a portion of their readership. With good reason too (from a sales perspective) as this is one of the most oft-banned books in the United States.
For kids in 1970, (and today, but less so) this story must have been such a departure from the standard teen books of the time, when characters like Frank and Joe Hardy were more the norm; asexual Stepford sons who never once encountered the problems everybody else did growing up. It's no wonder this book has been so popular with kids for so long, as it talks about the things they're interested in, and allows them to relate to a fictional character on a personal level.
Secondly, this book tackles religion, in fact I would argue that this is a more important theme in the book than sexuality. Too often, meaning almost 100% of the time, religion is a topic nobody discusses for fear of offending anybody who's beliefs might be different. I really appreciated the actual discussion of religion in a children's book.
Since Margaret's parents both eschewed their religion to marry, and alienated their parents in the process, Margaret has grown up without religion. While she talks to God every night, she doesn't worship him in the same way one does in an organized religion. For Margaret, talking to God is her way of discussing private matters with herself in the hopes of figuring out what to do, not as a way to worship, or a result of even believing, in a deity.
When Margaret becomes stuck in the middle of a power struggle between her maternal grandparents and her paternal grandmother, over whether she will be Jewish or Christian, she decides then and there she wouldn't be either religion, proclaiming she hates religion.
To me, this take on religion is even more surprising than any of the sexuality discussed in the book. Even today it's rare to find a novel that even discusses religion, never mind one that criticizes it. Add to that, that it's a child protagonist, in the United States, who makes the decision to not follow a religion; it's really quite shocking. And refreshing.
Think of the attacks The Da Vinci Code received for being about religion. Or what Salman Rushdie endured because of his writing. Really, it's no surprise people avoid writing about religion. But in all the many reviews and discussions I read about this book, very few of them talked about the book's take on religion. Most didn't even mention it. It would seem that not only do people fear writing a novel about religion, they fear even mentioning it in a book review.
In the end, this was a well written children's book, with a sympathetic and interesting main character. I doubt I would ever classify it as a great read, and I'll probably rank it closer to the bottom than the top, but I really did appreciate its almost revolutionary nature. That alone earned the book its spot in the top 100 in my opinion.
Of a side note, I also found it very interesting how much things have changed in the culture of fear we now live in. Margaret, at age 11, takes a bus to New York City to visit her grandmother, by herself. The idea of an 11 year old doing so today is beyond comprehension, even though, in reality, New York City is a much safer place today than it was in 1970. I mean, Margaret was taking a bus into Midnight Cowboy-era New York, not the Disney-esque New York of today. Most of the 11 year olds I know, have probably never been on a bus, let alone taken inter-city journeys on them.
Of course this isn't the fault of the 11 year olds, but their over-protective parents. Margaret also walks to school most days, and judging by the number of SUV's parked outside the school near my house at 3:00PM, there aren't many kids walking or taking the bus. But that's a rant/discussion for another time.
In keeping up with the God-in-the-title theme, my next book is Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Yet another book, I know nothing about.
And for the record, it took much longer to write this than it did to read the book.