Beyond the feat of punctuation in its title (Blume attempting–and succeeding–at alluding to her protagonist’s temperamental and hesitant constitution with interrogatory, interrupted, and declarative statements, all before the book has even begun,) Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is an important document both visually and culturally in the history of American sex ed.
With its first-person narrative and fictional characters, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. presents itself first and foremost as a novel. However, a few particularities to Blume’s work allow it to be viewed not only as pure fiction but also as a living, educational document.
The book’s heroine, Margaret, confronts among other challenges of puberty the arrival of her first period. In the original 1970 edition of the novel, readers (via Margaret’s intimate recounting) learned about belted sanitary napkins and the proper way to use and dispose of them. In 2006, the sections of the book that mentioned sanitary napkins were changed to refer instead to adhesive pads. Such updating is uncommon for fictional authors, who normally allow their works’ anachronistic moments to remain as they were originally written (imagine if Salinger had updated Holden Caulfield to reflect the iphone-toting rouge he would have been today.) Blume, however, in choosing to update her novel, betrays if not a proactive attempt to reach her readers on an educational level, at least an acknowledgment of the possibility that she already has.
Blume also published what were essentially male and female versions of the book, Margret being the female version, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t being the separate, but unavoidably parallel version aimed at young men. In fact, educational sex writing has a history of ‘his’ and ‘hers’ editions dating back to the separate volumes of Sylvanus Stall’s turn-of-the-century Sex and Self Series (What A Young Boy Ought to Know by Stall in 1897 and What a Young Girl Ought to Know by Mary Wood-Allen, also in 1897.)
Which leads (or will eventually lead) to a few conclusions about young adult literature in general:
The sex education movement precipitated the recognition of the ‘young adult.’ A desire to educate young men and women just entering adult society led to a collective realization that the pubescent years were a transitional stage during which not-yet-adults and no-longer-children experienced unique doubts and tendencies. In targeting this ‘young adult’ demographic, Victorian sex educators identified a unique, previously unrecognized community within society.
Early sex-ed literature functioned as proto- young adult literature. This newly-defined ‘young adult’ was necessarily addressed in a different tone than other members of society as educators and authors perceived the need to adjust their material to a younger, supposedly more naive and delicate, impressionable audience. The result was a series of handbooks directed first at “Young Men” (see: Handbook for Young Men, by Charles D. Scudder and Confidential Talks With Young Men by Lyman Beecher Sperry) and later “Young Women” that were written explicitly for post-adolescents. Certain among these books including Almost Fourteen by Mortimer A. Warren and Almost a Man by Mary Wood-Allen are particularly notable for their appeal to young readers through allegories which featured relatable, teenage protagonists and even attempts to incorporate younger speech patterns and popular jargon in their dialogue. Taking the form of heavily manipulated novels, these books (though intended first and foremost to inform) were perceived as both accessible and helpful to young people and can be considered as early archetypes for a style and a genre of writing that would later develop into the young adult novel as we know it today.
By nature of the fact that they were created as propaganda to inform readers about their own budding sexualities, early sex ed books, in the continuing tradition of young adult fiction, addressed sex either explicitly or obliquely. Such disproportionate attention and reference to sex and sexuality, whether through conspicuous omission or indulgent and forthright inclusion, is a characteristic of the young adult literature that remains visible throughout the history of the genre.
Primarily informational literature packaged in novel form was replaced with primarily fictional novels that included relevant sex information as the dominant literary vessels of sex knowledge. Almost immediately after the ‘young adult’ had been identified, a split grew between predominantly reactionary young adult authors whose prose sought to reflect the reality of their readers; and young adult educator-authors, who sought (usually in vain) to influence the direction of these readers’ choices.