Themes in Young Adult Literature: Puberty

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2703

Titles Discussed

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume

Unexpected Development by Marlene Perez

Thematic Overview

While the life of teens has been featured for decades in books and film and on television, the specifics of puberty have not....

(The entire section contains 2703 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume

Unexpected Development by Marlene Perez

Thematic Overview

While the life of teens has been featured for decades in books and film and on television, the specifics of puberty have not. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries were first in print in the late 1920s. These novels focused entirely on teenagers who had adventures while solving mysteries. There was no mention of a first bra or uncontrollable bodily reactions. By the time the first book in Beverly Cleary's Beezus and Ramona series was published in the mid-1950s, the focus of the teen story had switched to sibling troubles and social activities.

In film from the 1930s to the 1950s, a young Mickey Rooney with an equally young Judy Garland at his side were wholesomeness and innocent love personified. During the early to mid-1960s, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon continued the image of wholesome love in their summer beach movies such as Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). Sandra Dee starred in the movie version of Gidget in 1959, with a television series of the same name starring Sally Field in the 1960s. None of these treatments delved into the changing bodies of the protagonists.

In 1970 Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret changed everything. The book addressed the debate over interfaith marriage, and it explored puberty from the teen perspective, which was portrayed as a confusing time when changes in a body are too much, too little, too early, or too late. The following year, Blume published Then Again, Maybe I Won't, which is a book from an adolescent boy's perspective and described a boy's bodily changes in detail.

Blume's novels were a big switch from what had been presented to teens until that time. Many of her books have been banned from school and public libraries. In spite of any attempts to censor their content, they became enduring favorites among the intended audience—teen readers who were asking questions about themselves and the ways in which puberty was affecting them.

By discussing puberty in an open and unapologetic way, Blume and others who wrote the early young adult literature for adolescents and young teens, normalized a range of common behaviors that take place during puberty. As a result, the way was paved for authors such as Marlene Perez to write books for young adults that include the themes of incest, rape, teen pregnancy, and sexuality from a variety of perspectives.

Works

Puberty is a prominent theme in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (1970) by Judy Blume. Margaret is entering sixth grade, and she has also moved to a new town. She is faced with making new friends at the same time she is preparing for and experiencing the changes to her body that herald the start of womanhood.

Margaret and three other girls form a secret club. Part of the club is focused on which boy each girl likes. Because of this, each girl is required to keep a boy book and to bring it to each weekly meeting. The girls also vote to wear bras. Since none of them physically need a bra, not all of them have one. This leads to an amusing scene in which Margaret runs into another girl from the club at a department store where that girl is also purchasing her first bra. Each girl pledges to tell the others all about the experience of her first period, which they refer to as “menstroo-ation.”

Margaret worries that she will be last to truly need a bra. She also worries that she will be last to get her period. When one girl lies and claims to have started her period—announcing it with “I GOT IT!!!” on a postcard mailed from Washington, DC—Margaret is more convinced than ever that she will not only be last and that she will never be normal.

After going to the movies one afternoon, Margaret and another girl from the club decide it is time for to purchase sanitary napkins so they will be ready “for the big day” when they first get their periods. After facing her fear of embarrassment, Margaret purchases the pads and takes them home to practice wearing them. When she is getting dressed to go to a party at Norman Fishbein's house, Margaret examines herself in the mirror. She notices that her breasts are not showing any growth, but she is happy to discover new body hair has been growing. She decides to put cotton balls into her bra, and when the party games that evening call for some time alone with boys, she worries she and the cotton balls will be found out.

Margaret talks to God often and asks for breasts and her period, explaining that she will be happy to have either and will take it as a sign that she is normal after all. The novel ends with Margaret getting her period for the first time, right before she heads off to camp for the summer.

I locked the bathroom door and peeled the paper off the bottom of the pad. I pressed the sticky strip against my underpants. Then I got dressed and looked at myself in the mirror. Would anyone know my secret? Would it show? … I had to call Nancy and Gretchen and Janie right away. Poor Janie! She'd be the last … to get it. And I'd been so sure it would be me! How about that! Now I am growing for sure. Now I am almost a woman!

Are you still there God? It's me, Margaret. I know you're there God. I know you wouldn't have missed this for anything! Thank you God. Thanks an awful lot. (171)

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret tells the story of a girl who wants the physical changes of puberty to hurry up. There is a girl in the story who is taller and more developed than the other girls. She is treated like a fallen woman because the rumor is that she has been behind the local grocery story with some boys. Margaret never thinks to question the rumors or give the girl the benefit of the doubt. When she and the girl have a confrontation, Margaret learns she has not only been wrong, she has also been hurtful.

The theme of puberty is equally prominent in Blume's Then Again, Maybe I Won't (1971). Tony Miglione is looking forward to starting seventh grade, the first year of middle school, when everything changes. His father's invention has made them rich overnight. As a result, they have a new house in an affluent community, two new cars, and a swimming pool is being built. Tony cannot get used to having a new friend who lives next door and a brand new red ten-speed bike. Life should be great, but Tony is not so sure. He has always been a worrier, and he is discovering that there is even more for a rich kid to worry about.

For one thing, everyone in his family is changing. His older brother has decided to quit his teaching job and take a position at the firm his father now runs. Since Tony's mother hired a bossy housekeeper who insists the kitchen is her domain, his grandmother never leaves her room, not even to attend church. Tony's father traded his truck for a brand new car and, now that his invention has the family set for life, he never tries out new ideas. Even though there are more than enough bathrooms in the new house, his father does not have a workroom.

The biggest change is in Tony's mother. She is suddenly worried about what other people think, especially a woman named Mrs. Hoober. Tony explains that his mother can only see things on the surface, and because of that she cannot understand that the Hoobers are not the best example to follow. Tony's mom is hoping to become one of the country club ladies, something else Tony had never remotely imagined.

On the day he moved to the new house, Tony gave his former best friend the school pennant that belonged to Tony's older brother who was killed in Vietnam. The new house has all new furniture. Tony's grandmother has her own color television set and Tony's mother insists that his grandmother loves her new television so much that she's content to spend all her time in her bedroom. Tony is furious that his mother has taken away the one thing his grandmother loved to do—cook for the family—for the shallow reason that it will look bad to the neighbors. When his mother further rationalizes it by saying his grandmother deserves a rest, Tony is so upset he finds it difficult to remain silent.

Tony doesn't speak up very much and is more the type of person who holds his emotions inside. This causes him to have such bad stomach pains that he winds up in the hospital. The doctors who examine him assure him he is not dying, but he does need to talk to someone about his feelings. This embarrasses his mother, but Tony is pleased for the opportunity. He tells his psychiatrist everything, including everything that is puberty-related, and he is relieved to discover that he is normal.

Things that Tony is pleased to learn that it is normal to get erections that are beyond his control. He was embarrassed once at the blackboard during class when he was called upon to explain an answer in detail. All he wanted was to get back to his desk before anyone noticed. After that, he took to carrying a raincoat so he always had a cover-up handy. His mother makes him switch it for a jacket, but he believes that a jacket is better than nothing.

Tony has also discovered that watching his friend's older sister undress can cause him to be aroused. That doesn't concern the psychiatrist, nor does the news that Tony has requested binoculars so that he can see more clearly. The psychiatrist also remains unconcerned when Tony shares the details of his wet dream, a term he learned from his friends. Blume describes it in detail so that the mystery of that experience is dispelled for the reader. By the end of the book, Tony is more at peace with his family's new wealth, and his stomach hurts less often. He has also decided to put the binoculars away, but then again, maybe he won't.

In Unexpected Development (2004) by Marlene Perez, Megan has had a very full and complicated summer vacation. She has romanced the boy of her dreams, been harassed by a boss, grappled with whether or not to have breast reduction surgery, and has had sex. It was not an easy summer for Megan, who has had a difficult time since her breasts developed early and abundantly. Rather than be sympathetic toward Megan and what she is going through, the kids around her have assumed she is sexually active and that she enjoys the attention she gets because of her large breasts. That is hard enough for Megan, but when the attention comes from older men who assume Megan is ready for sex with them, all she can do is wish she could make herself invisible and flat-chested.

The most complicated part of the summer for Megan is determining whether the boy she likes only likes her because of her large breasts, as her mother suggests, or whether he likes her for being Megan. Megan laments that everyone seems to start with only noticing her breasts before they get to know the rest of her. She thinks this boy may be different because they knew each other as friends first.

Unlike Margaret, Megan's puberty journey is not one of too little development too slowly. It is one of unexpected abundance too early and too quickly. Megan is scrambling to adjust to the changes in her body while also contemplating breast reduction surgery. This is a big decision for such a young girl, but in Megan's case, it is a reasonable consideration.

Conclusions

These three books sold very well and were hugely popular with teens and parents alike for their sympathetic portrayal of teenagers going through puberty. Unexpected Developments was published in 2004 to generally positive reviews. Blume's books, though popular, were targets of censorship.

In the decade following the publication of Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, it was banned from schools and libraries across the United States. In a 1993 interview with Index on Censorship, Judy Blume says of the experience, “It never occurred to me, when I started to write that what I was writing was controversial. Much of it grew out of my own feelings and concerns when I was young. … The censors crawled out of the woodwork, seemingly overnight, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read, but what all children could read. Challenges to books quadrupled within months, and we shall never know how many teachers, school librarians, and principals quietly removed books to avoid trouble.”

Then Again, Maybe I Won't was published in 1971, and it too was the subject of controversy and book banning in the 1980s. The frank description of Tony's difficulties when aroused, as well as his inability to control it, was too much for many parents. They objected to their younger children having access to this information, and they also did not want this information to be a topic of discussion for their older children.

In an interview with National Public Radio in 2011, Blume said of her role as champion for supporters of intellectual freedom for young people, “I'm saying to parents these days, ‘Be careful. You know, you all want them to read the books that you read when you were growing up—often my books—and I say you will turn them off.’ The best thing to do is leave the books around the house and from time to time say, ‘I really don't think you're ready for that book.’”

Blume has written several other books that touch on puberty. On her website, she discusses reactions to these books, such as a male principal who decided Are You There God? It's Me Margaret should not be on the shelves in a school that went through sixth grade because the book discusses menstruation; a mother who cut the wet dream pages out of Then Again, Maybe I Won't so that her nearly thirteen-year-old son would not read them; and a young librarian who was instructed by her male principal to keep another July Blume title off the shelves because the main character, who is a girl, masturbates, which the principal said is normal for a boy but not for a girl. While her books are often banned or criticized for being inappropriate, as long as she writes about the young adult experience in real terms, she will continue to attract both young adult readers.

Further Reading

  • Blasingame, Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. 9th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
  • Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: Amer. Lib. Assn., 2012. Print.
  • Chance, Rosemary. Young Adult Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014. Print.

Bibliography

  • Blume, Judy. “Places I Never Meant to Be.” Judy Blume on the Web. Judy Blume, n.d. Web. 14 May 2015. <http://judyblume.com/censorship/places2.php>.
  • Bucher, Katherine, and KaaVonia Hinton. “Exploring Contemporary Realistic Fiction.” Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson, 2014. 125–58. Print.
  • Cole, Pam B. Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw, 2009. Print.
  • Helms, Antje, Jan von Holleben, and Jen Metcalf. Does This Happen to Everyone? A Budding Adult's Guide to Puberty. Berlin: Little Gestalten, 2014. Print.
  • “Judy Blume: Often Banned, but Widely Beloved.” NPR. National Public Radio, 28 Nov. 2011. Web. 14 May 2015. <http://www.npr.org/2011/11/28/142859819/judy-blume-banned-often-but-widely-beloved>.
  • Lynch-Brown, Carol G, Kathy G. Short, and Carl M. Tomlinson. Essentials of Children's Literature. 7th ed. Harlow: Pearson, 2014. Print.
  • Strickland, Ashley. “A Brief History of Young Adult Literature.” CNN. Cable News Network/Turner Broadcasting System, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/15/living/young adult-fiction-evolution/>.
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