Blume’s miraculous novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” appeared in 1970. I was too young to read it then, but as I entered adolescence a few years later, this realistic story of 11-year-old Margaret as she approaches puberty beckoned from the library shelf like a mentor and friend. When Blume’s “Forever …” was published, in 1975, I was almost 13, and here, like a gift, was the explicit, un-idealized story of two suburban high school seniors who fall in love and have sex, complete with responsible birth control. In between came “Deenie,” about a girl who gets scoliosis and has to wear a Milwaukee brace — just as my own sister did. Blume’s books also happened to be about culturally Jewish girls in New Jersey, often surrounded by non-Jewish friends. (Was Blume actually stalking me?)
Over 50-plus years, Blume produced more than 28 books. They’ve been translated into 32 languages and sold more than 90 million copies. “Margaret” is being made into a movie, with Rachel McAdams as Margaret’s mother. Now 83, Blume no longer writes books, instead working to fight book censorship, for libraries and in the nonprofit bookstore in Key West she co-founded with her husband. While in her shop recently, I approached a shelf of her books and wondered: What would I think of them now — and how would they fare if they were just coming out today? I decided to reread a few favorites and see.
I started with “Margaret.” Having just slogged through three literary novels, I found this like the rainbow-sprinkled layer cake after the kale — delicious and fun. Blume instantly drew me in with clear, easy prose, a fast-moving plot, a compelling first-person voice, perfect era details and subtle, realistic humor. I raced through the book, filled with happy empathy at the end when (spoiler alert!) Margaret gets her period.
“Deenie” was next. Again, immediately captivating, with Blume’s trademark ingredients: adolescent girl and her family and friends; suburbs in the ’70s (hot rollers, encyclopedias, veal marsala! cooking and sewing classes — required only for girls!) Right away, there’s tension — the protagonist has some unknown physical issue; a naïve mother (appallingly) typecasts her daughters — and action. No unreliable narrators, flowery prose, ambiguity. Blume keeps things breezy, even when sad or difficult things happen. Characters break up, or die, and narrators move on. Dialogue is fast, light and often fun, if sometimes shallow or clichéd. (“ ‘Just be yourself, Deenie,’ Daddy told me. ‘No matter what happens.’ ‘I’ll try,’ I said.”). But it keeps the plot advancing — and the information coming.
By information, I mean straightforward talk about bodies, sexuality and sex — even in books not explicitly about sex (like “Deenie” and “Margaret”). This has irked conservatives and gotten Blume’s books widely banned. Five of her novels made the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books in the ’90s, with “Forever …” the seventh most challenged of the decade — even as they’ve reassured millions of adolescent girls that worrying about developing breasts, feeling sexual desire and even having sex are normal and natural.
As I moved on to “Forever …” and “Blubber,” I noted that while the dilemmas are seen through the eyes of young narrators, neither the main characters nor the books themselves feel insignificant or fluffy. There are questions of religion and God, of place and alienation, of social acceptance and rejection — the stuff of great literature. Blume gets precisely and amusingly inside the mind-set of protagonists who are neither saints nor villains (arguably, in the case of Jill Brenner in “Blubber”) but simply realistic ’70s girls (granted, of a certain background), who are simultaneously originals and types. Her narrators tend to be quiet-ish, with best friends who are faster or bolder, smarter or prettier and, sometimes, less moral. There’s often a girl who gets picked on and a popular boy who’s ultimately not as awesome as advertised — though sometimes the cool guy is okay, too. Buddy Brader still wants to kiss Deenie even in her brace. And she won’t remove it for him, in an ending that’s upbeat, heartwarming and as empowering in 2021 as it was in 1974.
This is not to say these beloved books from my childhood wouldn’t hit roadblocks today when it came to publication, not to mention on Twitter. With publishers increasingly hiring sensitivity readers to remove stereotypes or “problematic” language, I would worry about these vintage middle-grade and YA classics getting through the publishing gates now.
In “Deenie,” for instance, the narrator buys gum from “Old Lady Murray,” a woman with kyphosis, or what we then called a hunchback. “She’s so ugly she makes me want to vomit,” 13-year-old Deenie tells us in, unfortunately, the way many able-bodied kids talked about disability in those times. There’s disparagement of a girl with eczema and of the special needs class. In “Margaret,” as in others, there’s meanness about girls who are overweight or develop early; “Blubber” is a brutal, if completely era-realistic, tale of fifth-grade bullying, with the narrator one of the (lesser) bullies. “The Lottery” meets “Lord of the Flies,” I thought, even with (minor) empathy gained and lessons learned. The one poor gay teen in “Forever …” is closeted and lands in a psychiatric hospital. Blume’s ubiquitous male doctors examining young female patients — typical back then — now reads as creepy and paternalistic. And the dismissiveness with which adults treat kids and teens — which, of course, was part of Blume’s point — now feels dated and disturbing.
Then there’s “Forever …” — compelling and a veritable information manual. This was once the quintessential romantic first-sex book, but today — after #MeToo — the boyfriend, Michael, would never pass muster. He makes moves on Katherine without her verbal consent, cajoles her to undress in front of him even after she says no, touches her breasts after promising not to, calls her a tease. He’s never mean, clearly adores her and is often respectful of real ambivalence on her part. But he’s assertive and persuasive, as boys were socialized to be then. (Cue Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night.”) And she’s not only not offended, but excited — if nervous — about submitting next time, even if (happily!) she also says a firm “No!” to things she really doesn’t want, telling him point-blank, “I’m not ready.”
At the end of “Forever …”— as Katherine unloads Michael for a new love (Theo, a 21-year-old tennis instructor who also would never fly in the #MeToo era) — I concluded that Blume’s books absolutely still should be read, despite some ingredients that aren’t wholly comfortable in 2021. Not just for the handy intel about bodies and sex, or the sometimes admirable depictions of girls telling boys to un-paw them and learning empathy, but also so today’s teens can see how yesterday’s teens grew up — and to open conversations about what’s improved, what hasn’t and what we might do about it.
Cathi Hanauer is the author of the novels “Gone,” “ Sweet Ruin” and “My Sister’s Bones” and editor of the essay anthologies “The Bitch in the House” and “The Bitch is Back.”