Everyone remembers where they were when they first got their period.
I was doing gymnastics in the hallway of my family home, aged 11. Skinny, athletic and resolutely opposed to anything feminine, it changed me instantly from a freewheeling pre-teen to a more grown-up girl with an unwelcome monthly responsibility that would last for the next 40-odd years. As a competition swimmer who spent much of my free time in chlorinated water, it was a ghastly addition to my schedule.
My mum attended to this life-changing event with pads roughly the size and width of my forearm and a copy of the seminal coming of age text Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? by the great Judy Blume. She read it in her 20s when it was originally released – in 1970, to wide library bans and public outrage. There had been no other novel that dealt so frankly and forwardly with puberty for girls. It was, and still is, a groundbreaking book. I inhaled it in one sitting and then started practising using tampons.
For a book in its 50s, Margaret is still going strong. It’s been green-lit for a movie adaptation, with newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson taking on the role of Margaret Simon – a sixth-grader going through puberty and looking to religion for answers. Surprisingly, there are still very few young adult books that tackle puberty in the way Blume did.
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In my own career I’ve written four novels for eight- to 18-year-olds – and in those few hundred thousand words, I only mentioned periods a total of three times. This, despite evidence that girls are entering puberty a year earlier than they did in 1970, and despite the fact that there is thankfully more acceptance for honest and upfront writing about puberty in our children’s books.
So in my latest middle grade novel, Are You There, Buddha? – which namechecks Blume’s classic – the word period is mentioned 70 times. I was determined to make puberty and menstruation a major theme for my 12-year-old protagonist Bee, and not an afterthought.
In preparation for its release, and inevitable comparisons with Blume, I recently did a reread of her iconic novel, alongside my daughter. It’s the first time I’ve read it since the 1980s, and I was anxious it wouldn’t have the same impact as when I was a gawky tween.
From the opening pages, it’s hard to believe this gentle, sweet and humorous story is one of the most challenged and banned books in history. By today’s standards, the content is relatively tame. Margaret crushes on her next door neighbour Moose; keeps a list of cute boys with her friends, the PTS’s (Pre-Teen Sensations); and browses religions to find the right spiritual fit.
Pip Harry’s new middle grade novel mentions the word ‘period’ 70 times. Photograph: Hachette
Although Margaret’s strong, engaging voice holds up beautifully, my 11-year-old – Generation Alpha – had an interesting reaction to Blume’s depiction of gender roles. Margaret thinks it’s unusual that her new teacher Mr Benedict is male, which my daughter found perplexing. Her last three teachers have been men. My daughter was also horrified by the way the boys in Margaret’s class casually objectify the girls, and make crude comments about their bodies.
One boy pinches Margaret so hard that tears spring to her eyes, and says, “That’s a pinch to grow an inch. And you know where you need that inch!” My daughter shook her head in disbelief as she read the quote aloud to me. “Mum, if a boy said that in my class, he’d be sent straight to the counsellor’s office,” she declared. “It’s so inappropriate.”
There are several references to pornographic material that wouldn’t get past most children’s book publishers today, including “dirty” books and magazines stashed under fathers’ beds. “What’s Playboy?” my daughter asked me, on page 10. When I filled her in on the Hugh Hefner media empire, she made a face, muttered “disgusting”, and continued reading.
The PTS’s infamous “we must increase our bust” chest exercises also gave my daughter pause. “But why would they do that?” she asked, speaking from a grounded education in body positivity and acceptance. It will be interesting to see if any of these details are modernised in the movie adaptation, as we’ve seen in the woke Netflix version of The Babysitter’s Club.
Rereading Blume made me curious – how have representations of puberty changed since the 1970s? Have our coming-of-age books grown up?
Instead of coveting “teenage softies” pads like Margaret, my main character Bee investigates period undies and diva cups, as they’re more environmentally friendly. Rather than worrying about which religion to follow, she stresses about climate change bushfires and floods. She prays to Buddha that her period won’t arrive, and she’s not sure she wants to have children in a world that’s so environmentally unstable.
The US graphic novel Go With The Flow, by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann, highlights female empowerment and women’s health issues as a group of high school students demand that funding from the football team flow to sanitary pads and tampons. Activism and feminism are at the heart of the story – with the conversation centred on demystifying periods and levelling the playing field between the sexes.
Blood Moon by UK writer Lucy Cuthew is a timely, powerful YA verse novel which sees a British teenager go viral when she gets her period during an intimate moment with her new boyfriend. It’s a scary depiction of the power and reach of social media, but it also exposes and dismantles the long-held view that menstruation is shameful.
Acid wash wearing tween me will always be grateful to Judy Blume for trailblazing with Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?. For daring to smear blood on the pages of a children’s book, in a time when puberty and periods were largely taboo. But as a parent, I’m looking to fill my tween’s bookshelf with novels featuring more diverse characters and inclusive themes, like Alice Oseman’s wonderfully queer Heartstopper series, the warm and funny The Edge of Thirteen by Nova Weetman, and the frank and informative non-fiction book Welcome to Your Period! by Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang.
Margaret will forever hold her place in the literary canon, but I’m glad my daughter can also reach for books where girls are too busy changing the world to worry about changing their bust size.