Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2584
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 participate: Judaism or Christianity. Margaret’s mother, recovering from trauma at the hands of her proselytizing Christian parents, and Margaret’s father, shunned by his in-laws because he is Jewish, have decided that Margaret could choose her own religion when she is old enough to decide for herself.
Unfortunately for Margaret, “old enough” comes about through an assignment from her new teacher, Mr. Benedict, who assigns the individual class members a year-long study of something meaningful to them. Torn between two faiths and two sets of grandparents hoping she will choose their religion, Margaret decides that she will investigate the possibilities available to her.
It is therein, that Margaret’s repeated canto of “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret” gains multiple valences of possible meaning. Often used as a diary of her daily travail, Margaret prays to God for a variety of reasons, ranging from invoking him as a confidant to whom she can tell her secrets to calling out to him as a higher power with whom she can bargain (as when she asks him for larger breasts in exchange for cleaning her plate at supper every night for a month). When God apparently does not respond to her immediate need for divine intervention as an unexpected visit from her mother’s parents derails her trip to Florida to see her other grandmother, Margaret forsakes God as unreliable and threatens never to speak to him again.
Margaret’s notions of God operate on a personal level. She is still divided at the novel’s end as to her religious inclinations, and she addresses God not with the reverence due a deity but more with an interest toward personal survival and naïve inquiry. At the story’s end, when she reaches the menarche that she has been so desperate for, she feels that God has heard her. Only then does she address him with reverent thanks for making her feel as if she has arrived into physical maturity and closer connection to members of her social group.
It’s Not the End of the World
First published: 1972
Type of work: Novel
Faced with the impending divorce of her parents, young Karen Newman desperately tries to save her family from dissolution.
It’s Not the End of the World might be characterized as Blume’s most personal, almost autobiographical, early novel, given the events of her first marriage. Though she was yet to divorce her husband John Blume, the author found herself consumed with anxiety as she researched families going through divorce. In later years, she admitted that she had not been honest with herself concerning her own failing marriage. She came to find that this novel is as much, if not more, about the feelings a child must experience as her parents go through divorce as the topic of divorce itself.
The plot, though much more singular in scope than Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, covers the complex emotions sixth-grader Karen Newman explores while watching her parents’ marriage disintegrate day by day. In an effort to catalog the experience, she keeps a brief journal in which she grades each day by how its events affect her. When a boy she is attracted to in class chooses her as a spelling partner, the day rates an A+; when her brooding brother, Jeff, returns home after running away, C-.
Karen’s confessional narrative in her journal expands upon a running commentary she keeps with the reader, who becomes a passive participant in the conversation. Although Karen has been best friends with Debbie since kindergarten, she forms an apprentice-like relationship with Val, whose mother is a recent divorcée.
Karen’s narrative speaks of her constant feelings of loneliness and exile from anyone who can help her handle the conflicting emotions and responsibilities arising from the divorce. Much of this behavior is self-inflicted, as Karen intentionally tries to withhold this information from her schoolmates. What becomes interesting is that she compensates for this by directly addressing the reader as a confidant to her most sensitive secrets: her resentment of her mother’s shaky attitude and lack of strong parental mores during the divorce, her desire for support from Jeff, and her desperate need for substantive, tangible advice from anyone concerning divorce.
It is in Karen’s journal, revealing her unmitigated feelings and anxieties concerning her role within the marriage, where the divorce manifests itself as both a character and an adversary to be defeated in the novel. Karen tries anything she can think of to undermine the inevitable. As all attempts fail, Karen notices her mother and father’s growing independence of each other (her mother takes on a new job at Global Insurance, and her father seeks a quicker divorce in Nevada). Karen’s desperation increases, and her romantic delusions concerning reunification between more intense.
Tensions escalate to a climax, though, in the novel’s penultimate event: Jeff’s running away. To this point in the story, as the divorce becomes more and more of a reality, Jeff’s relationship with his mother becomes increasingly strained. He begins to ignore her more simple requests, reinterpreting them as assaults against him. He threatens to move out with his father, and he becomes increasingly reclusive from the family, retreating to his private space, Jeff’s Hideaway. When his mother questions his expensive choice of a meal at a dinner out one evening, he strongly resists and orders the shrimp anyway. When it turns out that he does not enjoy the shrimp, a public argument between the two arises, resulting in Jeff leaving the table and running away—without any intervention from his mother, who thinks he is merely sulking.
When Jeff does not return later in the evening, mother and father are forced into each other’s company. As Karen witnesses her parents’ reaction to the situation, where concern for Jeff falls to the wayside in lieu of vitriol and blame for his actions, she finally comes to the realization that her parents sincerely dislike each other and reconciliation will be impossible.
Just as Long as We’re Together
First published: 1987
Type of work: Novel
Tensions mount between two friends when a popular third girl joins their group and threatens their long-held friendship.
Tensions within Just as Long as We’re Together come from two sources: the separation between Stephanie Hirsch’s parents and that between Stephanie and her best friend, Rachel Robinson. The main theme of the novel revolves around the awkwardness of identifying oneself with and within relationships, both marital and sororal.
Though the story is told dominantly from Stephanie’s perspective, she often plays a supporting role within the story’s subplots: the surprise and awkwardness surrounding her parents’ separation; the welcome intrusion of Alison, a Vietnamese adoptee to a famous Hollywood couple who have just moved into the neighborhood and into Stephanie’s group of friends; and the resultant strain upon Stephanie’s friendship with Rachel, a self-professed perfectionist who is the toast of the seventh grade.
As might be expected in the narrative of a young girl entering her teen years, Stephanie experiences a mix of burgeoning traumas. She has discovered boys as sexual objects worthy of her attention, she has discovered her own inadequacies in juxtaposition to the instantly popular Alison and irrepressible overachiever Rachel, and she even must deal with acting as a surrogate parent to her younger brother, Bruce, himself an overachiever yet slightly neurotic concerning global issues such as nuclear devastation.
Such pressures begin to take a physical toll upon Stephanie. She compensates for her inability to rectify her parents’ relationship (her father is perpetually on business in California, and her mother approaches the trial separation with a calm that unnerves her further) by overeating, to the extent that both friends and family notice. This only compounds her self-criticism. Worse, she cannot confide in her friends because of the shame she feels and becomes mortified when word of the separation begins to spread. When the news finally reaches Rachel, who sees that Stephanie did not tell her about her parents’ separation, Rachel overreact and disavows her friendship with Stephanie, on the basis that best friends do not keep secrets from each other.
The long-simmering pressure between Rachel and Stephanie reaches a boil only when Rachel’s personal stresses become more than she can withstand. The arrival of Alison, someone whom Rachel and Stephanie view as so well-adjusted and popular that she threatens their own self-esteem, and the fact that Stephanie’s life has become so convoluted that she unconsciously becomes distant to her, Rachel feels threatened and becomes defensive at what appears to her from her limited perspective as abandonment. Only at novel’s end do both Stephanie and Rachel discover that they have had similar situations arise when they are forced to consider whether their friendship is salvageable or not.
As is customary within Blume’s work, she denies the reader conclusion. Whether the girls’ friendship can survive being a trio remains a mystery at the book’s close. Likewise, though Stephanie’s father returns from California to live in New York, the trial separation remains in place. The only real conclusion at which Stephanie arrives involves the transitory nature of romantic relationships, as she watches her parents consider other partners and her girlfriends, including herself, experience loves found and lost with boys who are as socially maladroit as are they themselves.
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