“We must, we must, we must increase our busts!”
Friends, from the ages of about 8 until 11, I probably read this book three to four times a year, but after not having read it for at least 20 years, I couldn’t have told you what it was about other than the girls had a club called “The Pre-Teen Sensations” (which I always thought was the perfect name for a punk band,) the above chant, and that getting your period for the first time was a big focus of the book.
Now that I have reread Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I believe it can be thusly summed up with the following sentence: Margaret is chasing God and her period, but not necessarily in that order.
For those of you who need a refresher, Are You There God? follows 11 (on the cusp of 12)-year old Margaret Simon as her parents move her from New York City to Fallbrook, New Jersey, and the ensuing 6th-grade year that happens after. Margaret quickly falls in with Nancy, Janie, and Gretchen, three girls in her class, and together they form a secret after-school club, where they talk about boys, look at pictures of naked women to compare their own bodies, and generally look forward to getting their periods (hold that thought.)
Margaret is in the in-between space of childhood and adulthood (the dreaded puberty.) She’s waiting for a lot; her period, her breasts to grow, and to generally grow up, and it’s all set against the backdrop of trying to figure out who she is, and what her literal identity is: Christian, Jewish, or other?
Nancy, the de-facto leader of the Pre-Teen Sensations is no help. She’s a pushy liar who basically strongarms the group into doing what she wants. Nancy lies about getting her first period, forces the other girls in the group to start wearing bras if they want to be a part of the club, and perhaps most sh*ttily, spreads a nasty rumor about the tallest (and most developed) girl in class, Laura Danker, saying she goes behind the local convenience store and lets boys feel her up. WTF? Nancy sucks.
Margaret is a go along to get along kind of gal and takes everything Nancy says at face value until she starts to see the cracks in Nancy’s persona—Nancy freaks the *uck out when she actually gets her first period, when out to dinner with her family and Margaret, causing a scene and needing her own mother to help her, only twist—Nancy had told Margaret that she had already gotten her period, basically to rub it in Margaret’s face and make her feel bad about her own development. Rather than reevaluate everything Nancy has said or done up until this point, Margaret continues to take what she’s said as gospel until she confronts Laura Danker about her supposed proclivities, and Laura flips out (rightfully so) and calls Margaret a pig. This storyline is never really resolved, since Margaret doesn’t make a real effort to mend fences with Laura, and honestly, Laura is the true hero of this book. This is most likely very true to actual life, and I kind of hate it. Justice for Laura!
Anyway, on top of all of this, Margaret frequently has one-sided conversations with God to fill him in on what she’s up to, pray for her period, and to try to find him in her everyday life. In her pursuit, she attends multiple church services of different faiths in an effort to define who she is—but none of them feel right. Both of her grandparents, her divine paternal grandmother, Sylvia, (who is amazing and honestly, I wish I knew in real life) and her s*itty maternal grandparents who disowned Margaret and her parents because her mom married a Jewish man instead of a Christian, try to push Margaret into their respective religions. All of this existential crisis is because dumb Nancy told Margaret that “everyone” either belongs to the Y (Christians) or the Jewish Community Center, so she’d have to pick a side. Ultimately, Margaret seems to come to the conclusion that God is whatever she wants it to be, which seems to coincide with the occasion of getting her first period. The End.
I am, most likely, the first, second-generation of readers for this book, because it originally came out in 1970 when my own mother was 12, so chances are pretty good she read it, too. Margaret Simon is an eternal figure for young girls, what can I say? Looking back, as an adult, on this book, a lot of things stand out to me. I first read it in about 1992, when I was 8, and talking about naked bodies, periods, and getting breasts seemed extremely scandalous, and reading it made me feel like I was getting a secret preview of what my life would be like.
The struggle of religion was not something I particularly identified with, because I was forced to be a Mormon and I couldn’t wait until I could stop going to church. Obviously now, as an adult, I see how mundane the topics were and genuinely hope girls have better access to educational materials that can take the stigma out of puberty, but that also they read this because it’s a pretty great book as long as you’re not Laura Danker.
It’s funny, because as much as I read (and reread) this damn book, my experiences could not have been more different than Margaret’s. I was always more of a “Laura” than a “Margaret” to begin with. The tallest girl in my class, my mom forced me to start wearing a bra in 5th grade because my chest couldn’t be hidden by baggy sweatshirts anymore, so there was definitely no peer pressure to begin wearing a bra, then (Side note: I laugh now, because the vast majority of women hate wearing bras, and it’s usually one of the first things you take off when you’re home. Stupid Nancy, insisting the girls wear them!) Unlike the Pre-Teen Sensations, I dreaded getting my period, and of course I started before my friends did (1 month before 6th grade) and wouldn’t admit to my lady friends that I had gotten it until it was very obvious that others had gotten it too, by that point.
Man, puberty is a real bitch, isn’t it?
So, does Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. hold up? Yes—and I’m so thankful that not only is it still in print, they update the references in the book to be more contemporary so that it can still connect with kids now. My version, which was the same cover I read as a child, still had the maxi-pads with belts in the text, which greatly confused me then, and I keep forgetting to Google it now to see how they worked. Thank god for self-adhesives. I think this book should still be required reading, for kids, and also for parents (looking right at you, dads!) because it does capture the “what the hell is going on in my life and in my body?!” vibe that I still remember very distinctly.
Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!
Next week, we’ll be going to a little place you might have heard of: Fear Street, with the requested Ski Weekend. Dust off your ski poles and prepare for murder, friends.
Header Image Source: Author's Collection/Dell Books