Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is the story of a sixth grader who grew up with no religion. Her father is Jewish, her mother Christian, and the novel explores her quest to define her religious identity through daily talks with God. Did you have a strong religious identity as a child?
Though my Judaism was part of me, like having brown eyes, my relationship with God had almost nothing to do with organized religion. My relationship with God was very much like Margaret’s. It had nothing to do with going to synagogue or hearing rabbis talk, it had everything to do with my imagination as a child. It was a very personal relationship.
What inspired you to write about a half-Jewish girl named Margaret?
I think the decision to make Margaret half-Jewish grew out of my own early experiences and my curiosity about my brother’s life—he had married a Gentile. He had two young sons by then, who, as far as I knew, didn’t even think about religion.
You’ve said that when you looked up “sex” in the encyclopedia as a child you found only information on how plants reproduce. How did you first learn about the birds and the bees?
Poor little me! I did look up “sex” in the encyclopedia. I didn’t know anything—just a lot of rumors—and I wanted information. My father told me about menstruation when I was nine but I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He was trying to explain a lunar cycle to me, but it came out that every time the moon was full, this [experience] was happening to women all over the world. I would look at the full moon and think, “Oh, boy, this is exciting!”
My mother was so shy, she never told me anything. She figured, “Your daddy went to dental school. He can tell you.” He was outgoing and lively, really the nurturing parent in my household. My father took our temperatures, clipped my toenails, washed my hair when I had impetigo. When I had to tell the doctor it was “down there,” my father told me to tell him “pubic hair.” He was a very important person in my life. Sadly, he died when I was 21 and we never got to know each other as adults.
Today if you Google “sex,” there are over a billion hits, including some moment/images that surely aren’t child friendly. How has your writing changed for a generation of children who have grown up in the “over-information” age?
There is universality about being a child. No matter what you know or think you know, you haven’t experienced it yet. And reading it in a book can be a way to satisfy your curiosity and experience it. I don’t think that will ever change. Otherwise, why are all these kids still reading my books and why am I still getting all these letters and e-mails?
Your 1975 book Forever was about a high school senior named Katherine who had premarital sex, enjoyed the experience and was never punished in any way. Did you come under fire for advocating premarital sex?
It wasn’t that people thought I was advocating premarital sex. They got upset because I allowed Katherine to take pleasure in her sexuality. Adult librarians said: “What right does she have to let that girl have an orgasm right away? It took me 15 years to have an orgasm!” I thought that was really funny. I knew how to have one by myself by the time I was 12. It was no big deal.
Why did you write Forever?
My daughter was reading books where if a girl actually “did it,” she had to be punished. And Forever was my answer to them—never the best reason to write a book I must say.
Five of your books are listed by the American Library Association as among the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: Forever (#8), Blubber (#32), Deenie (#46), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (#62) and Tiger Eyes (#78). Are books censored for the same reasons today as when you were getting banned?
It’s the same old thing: sexuality, language. Wanting to ban books is contagious. While it may have started with the extreme right, it went over to the left, too, to the Politically Correct. All the PCs said, “Oh no, you can’t teach Huckleberry Finn in schools any more because it uses the N-word.” People get themselves so worked up and fearful over nothing. Best to bring it up out in the open, to have a teacher who can bring it out and talk to the kids about anything. Then you can put away your fears.
Do you have any favorite characters from your books?
Do I have favorites? Of course, the most autobiographical ones. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is my most autobiographical book. It’s about growing up Jewish in 1947. I love Sally because she is the kind of weird kid I was, though I was very good at hiding it. I never told anybody about my stories, my imagination. It’s when I was Sally Freedman that I started making all these bargains with God that wound up in Margaret.