(Masterpieces of American Literature)

When Blume writes works of young adult fiction, she often aims for a target audience between the ages of eleven and fifteen. Her books operate as problem novels, works which are associated with hot-button issues keyed to that audience and the protagonist of the novel, such as Margaret’s speculations on her own religion in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Karen’s all-consuming focus on her parents’ pending divorce in It’s Not the End of the World. The limited perspective allotted to the first-person internal narrative voice of her protagonists allows Blume to construct their struggle through each novel’s issue seemingly in isolation. Each girl works through the problems of her world in her own mind, as only the reader is given access to her thoughts, fears, and, more often than not, self-deprecating humor and embarrassment at the situation.

This narrative contrivance is a masterstroke within Blume’s stories. It allows her young protagonists the opportunity to speak almost directly to the audience, drawing the reader into a conversation as both try to understand the world as a sociocultural phenomenon they share. In effect, Blume’s books operate as a surrogate for the parents whom Blume feels may be ill-equipped to discuss sensitive matters with their children. She has noted that in her younger years, she tried to discuss sensitive topics, such as menstruation, with her father and found it confounding and unhelpful.

Blume’s childhood experiences taught her that she did the best learning when she was among friends or simply being introspective; her characters follow suit. For example, in Just as Long as We’re Together, Stephanie’s narrative voice speaks directly to the audience when she considers why her new best friend, Alison, is so popular. That she takes the time to list all of Alison’s attributes as if she were compiling them as evidence for the reader adds to the realism of her dilemma by providing the audience with a working blueprint of her deepest anxieties.

It is the frankness of Blume’s characters which allows them to transgress from the novel into reality. As each of her protagonists must resolve a larger problem, they work through their worlds vis-à-vis interaction with other textual characters with similar problems. For example, Margaret discovers through her friend Nancy Wheeler’s reaching menarche in a New York steakhouse that menstruation is not the badge of honor their clique assumed it to be, particularly given that Nancy had earlier lied about getting her period, before she had actually done so. Margaret reasons that while menstruation is an important step in her development as a woman, she also must own the maturity to wait for it to occur naturally, without prevaricating for the social boost.

In her works, Blume does not skirt the issue or use euphemism to lessen its blow; she writes with the boldness and precociousness of the children she is describing. When Nancy’s period arrives, she is mortified, and she hides in the bathroom until her mother comes to help her. This very private event occurs before Margaret, who even must assist Mrs. Wheeler in aiding Nancy. Margaret feels the embarrassment for Nancy’s situation: her mother unmasking her lies, having difficulties with her period, and Nancy’s betrayal of the confidences of the other members of their group. Margaret also feels sympathy for her situation. All of this is told to the reader through Margaret’s internal narrative, to which only the audience is privileged. The resultant effect is therapeutic to the reader—while Margaret sympathizes with Nancy, the audience empathizes with Margaret and her responsibility with Nancy’s trust.

In effect, Blume’s works are Bildungsromane—novels whose principal subject matter deals with the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of the youthful hero who comes of age through the events of the novel. Blume’s novels complicate that tradition by going to great lengths not to be didactic or preach to the reader. Blume’s stories almost always arrive at open-ended conclusions, such as when Stephanie and Rachel possibly rediscover their best-friendship at the end of the novel, but Blume cuts the story short of establishing that conclusion, leaving the reader with an open interpretation of what to take from the story’s message.

In the end, the humor undercutting the harsh, controversial subject matter of her work is Blume’s forte. She breaks the tensions between these difficult trials and protects the reader from the garish realities of topics such as divorce, physical maturation, and even death with situational humor which often brings a little saccharine to the sour of her characters’ lives. Blume’s characters are wholly three-dimensional, complete with anxieties, absurdities, and the constructed naïveté similar to that of her reader; these attributes often humanize the characters and bring the hope out of their seeming hopelessness, even when a total resolution is deferred.

Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret

First published: 1970

Type of work: Novel

Having recently changed schools, a pre-teen girl must learn to navigate new social, physical, and religious spheres as she tries to determine who she is.

Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret was Blume’s first weighty novel attempting to tackle a major problem (or problems) she associated with her own childhood: moving to a new community, separating from family, and coming into physical maturity. Margaret, the story’s protagonist, relocates from New York City to a new town and school in suburban New Jersey. Though skeptical about her new surroundings, she quickly makes friends—an assemblage of girls who come to identify themselves as the Pre-Teen Sensations. It is among these girls that Margaret discovers the complex relations surrounding a variety of prepubescent issues including boys, menstruation, and petty jealousies surrounding girls who have had greater success with either of the former.

As the title indicates, the focus of the book centers around Margaret coming to terms with herself and her heritage as she tries to discover in what religious community she wishes to...

(The entire section is 2584 words.)