As an adolescent I was keen to get my hands on the complete works of Judy Blume, but unfortunately only a select few were available to me. I’ve only just read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume’s first and perhaps greatest, and because this year is my year of studying John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, of course I was struck by how neatly this story fits the principles of good storytelling — whether Blume herself was analytic about this as she wrote, or intuitive.
First things first — what is the premise, and who is the main character? John Truby has a W-A-C of basic characterisation: weaknesses at the beginning, action and change:
BASIC CHARACTERISATION OF ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET
An 11-year-old girl moves to the suburbs where she must make new friends and face the challenges of puberty.
WEAKNESS AT BEGINNING
Naive, poor judgment of character, self-absorbed, a follower rather than a leader
Interacts with a number of different peers and attends a variety of churches
Realises she doesn’t have to have the world all figured out, that she’s still pretty young. Realizes also that she shouldn’t believe everything she hears.
MARGARET IS THE BEST MAIN CHARACTER BECAUSE…
- Like the reader she is new to the storyworld and is trying to work things out. This is why ‘moving house’ stories are so popular in middle grade and young adult literature.
- Margaret is flawed but not so flawed that she is borderline unlikeable (e.g. Nancy Wheeler). Not all characters must be likeable but in a story like this, Margaret really does have to be relatable/liked. As is common in children’s stories with female main characters, Margret also has physical imperfections — sticking out ears, kinky hair that’s growing out).
- Margaret learns the lesson that is the moral of the story: Think for yourself, don’t believe gossip. Probably the two most important lessons for middle graders to learn before going to high school.
OTHER REQUIREMENTS OF THE HERO
Requirements of your hero (or antihero):
- They must constantly fascinate the audience.
- They must face a moral choice.
- They should be surrounded by a combination of allies and opponents in ‘four corner opposition‘.
HOW MARGARET IS CONSTANTLY FASCINATING
She does funny things like:
- stuffs her bra with cottonwool
- uses a sanitary pad even though she isn’t yet menstruating
- visits the store to buy supplies and gets embarrassed when there’s a male clerk serving
HOW THE AUDIENCE IDENTIFIES WITH MARGARET
- Her embarrassment/shame/impatience/fear surrounding puberty
- Her unhappiness at family disharmony
- Her disappointment at losing the trip to Florida
BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Margaret goes above and beyond the normal preparations for puberty, nad does some wacky thing e.g. “I must, I must…” The audience laughs at her sometimes.
HOW THE READER EMPATHISES WITH MARGARET
We understand what Margaret’s exact worries are because:
- We have first person point of view insight into her thoughts
- We see her do wacky things due to insecurity.
In other words, we are always shown why Margaret acts as she does.
Psychological Need: To be accepted by peers and to develop physically in a way she considers ‘normal’, which is itself a symbol of her normality, and is the thing that she feels will lead to the peer acceptance.
Moral Needs: She must avoid judging others based on gossip, and stop listening to every wacky bit of advice from her ‘Queen Bee’ friend, focusing on friendships with nicer people like Laura and the other girls in Nancy’s posse.
To get her period and grow ‘a bust’. The story ends as she gets her period. This is the sustaining desire line, though it’s the surface level one. She really wants to be normal to fit in, as expressed by the psychological weakness.
MARGARET’S MORAL CHOICE
The main character/hero needs to make a moral decision at some point in the story.
In the best stories, one choice is only slightly better than the other. Sometimes they’re impossible (as in — famously — Sophie’s Choice.)
- Margaret can go along under the guidance of the controlling Nancy Wheeler and be part of Nancy’s gang.
- Or Margaret can be true to herself by permitting herself to like the people who are truly likeable, and generally thinking for herself.
This particular moral choice rings so true to my experience of going to a new school in Year 7. I vividly remember having to make that choice in a very public way. One group of girls sat on the far side of the classroom. The other sat apart. Someone challenged me to ‘pick a side’. “Don’t sit with those girls, they’re dicks,” said one girl from the prettier, more coiffed group. I had enough to make my decision — I wasn’t going to be part of the group who called the other group ‘dicks’.
Four Corner Opposition In Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
It’s almost surprising how closely Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret fits what Truby calls the ‘four corner opposition’:
However your main character changes, this will be set up in the beginning. Sure enough, here is the very first paragraph, in which we learn of Margaret’s psychological weakness (scared of change, anxious to be liked by others at whatever cost).
Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared, God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me, God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.
Margaret has several key battles in the story, and the first is an argument with her faux-opponent Laura. After this conversation, Margaret has learned that she shouldn’t judge other girls based on how they look; nor should she be jealous. Laura teaches Margaret a little empathy. Margaret apologises.
‘I don’t know, I said. ‘I never thought about it.’
‘Well, try thinking about it. Think about how you’d feel if you had to wear a bra in fourth grade and how everybody laughed and how you always had to cross your arms in front of you. And about how the boys called you dirty names just because of how you looked.’
I thought about it. ‘I’m sorry, Laura,’ I said.
But Margaret still has a few things to learn before her moral weakness has been corrected. Next she has the showdown with Moose, in which she learns that she shouldn’t listen to hearsay, even if it comes from her (ostensibly) best friend:
Nancy told me that Evan told her that you and Evan–‘ I stopped. I sounded like an idiot.
Moose shook his head at me. ‘You always believe everything you hear about other people?’ he asked.
I didn’t know what to say.
Moose kept talking. ‘Well, next time, don’t believe it unless you see it! Now if you’ll move out of my way, I’ve got things to do!’
I didn’t move. ‘You know what, Moose?’ I asked.
‘I’m sorry I thought you were a liar.’
Finally, Margaret experiences her first period. The wish to start menstruating (and fill out a bra) is the main desire line throughout the novel, so when she gets a clear marker that puberty has properly begun, we have the end of our story.