Are you there, God? Margaret is right on time amid Florida book bans.
The movie adaptation of Judy Blume’s famous coming-of-age novel sparks all the right questions.
Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." [ Lionsgate ]
Published April 14|Updated April 14

Spouting spoilers when it comes to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is a minor sin at most, given how many bedroom pillows the book has been wedged beneath for decades. All former adolescent readers, myself included, know the joy of slumping against a mall wall or tucking under a blanket, engrossed in a story that feels like a shot of truth serum, a mirror to your half-formed life.

Judy Blume gave that to so many of us. She published her iconic tale about the torture and awkward magic of puberty in 1970, and it has remained a staple read for tweens ever since. More than 50 years later, “Margaret” is now a movie starring big names like Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates, with Abby Ryder Fortson playing an endearing Margaret. It comes out April 28 in theaters, but I saw an early screening this week in New Tampa.

It wasn’t my bible of youth — those would be “Harriet the Spy” and “Matilda” — but “Margaret” was so ubiquitous that I read it along with many other girls. The movie adaptation is charming, faithful to the book and tweaked in the right places — stick-in maxi pads have long replaced those terrifying sanitary belts, for example, even in new editions of the book. It offers plenty of tender moments, plus the belly laughs and quotables one would want. (“We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”)

Float above the amusing bits, though, and you will see this slice of Americana as the cultural terrarium it truly is. Blume has given the world a gift by agreeing to let Kelly Fremon Craig adapt the book after declining offers for years. “Margaret” accompanies a wave of overdue Blume appreciation, including the documentary “Judy Blume Forever,” coming to Amazon Prime on April 21.

These projects feel like divine providence in 2023, in the midst of this nation’s loony, puritanical backslide into book-banning, white-washing and censorship. I’ve filled quite a few columns this spring with pleas for change and frustrations over leaders’ inaction. All of this brings me to “Margaret,” one of the most challenged and banned works in history, for years a regular entry on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most frequently challenged books.

Why? Because the text talks frankly about menstruation, breasts, new sexual urges, the competition between young girls to become women fastest. On top of that, its 11-year-old main character openly questions the existence of God, torn in different directions by her interfaith family and seeking something otherworldly to make her feel alive. What a revolutionary, vulnerable thing to read, “I’ve been looking for you God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. And today, I looked for you when I wanted to confess. But you weren’t there. I didn’t feel you at all.”

The character Margaret acts as a totem for so many kids, intellectual beings on the precipice of adulthood who are smarter and more capable of processing the world than their parents might believe. That’s not to say we all weren’t idiots, at least some of the time. I for sure was. Who doesn’t remember being a new teenager, living with utter disdain for adults who don’t understand literally anything? And who doesn’t remember seeking understanding in other places, in books, in movies, in magazines? This is why works like “Margaret” survive for generations. It’s because of that frankness about hard things, not in spite of it, they continue to survive on bedroom bookshelves.

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“Margaret” reminds us that when loving parents and skilled teachers engage in questions instead of denying conversations, worlds open up. But Florida is surely leading the way in shutting conversations down. Tampa Bay parents have challenged everything from “The Bluest Eye” to “This Book is Gay” to the movie “Ruby Bridges” in the span of months. Last month, a Vero Beach high school removed an Anne Frank graphic novel. Who can forget the laughable Tallahassee ruckus relating to the statue of David? Each example — and there are so many more — stems from a state leadership seeking to obscure a host of realities ranging from racial inequity to gender and sexuality spectrums.

This level of control is a losing proposition, which the movie gently reminds viewers. Periods and breasts come. So do those funny feelings. Kids will find those books in hiding, please believe. In the movie, Margaret and her friends cringe at a drawing of a penis and swipe her dad’s issue of “Playboy.” They play a closet kissing game at a sixth grade party. They fight amongst themselves, lie to each other, break up and make up. They become people.

Let’s go to that little spoiler. Our titular character finds herself miserable, surrounded by adults who believe they know what’s best. They shout at each other in a living room about Margaret but seem to forget she is even there.

Margaret reaches her breaking point. “Just stop fighting!” she shouts, because Margaret knows.

Adults, even when they mean well, are often the problem. They are the ones projecting issues on children who need guidance, of course, but also tenfold amounts of trust and room to figure out who they are.

Are you there?

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