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Forever young

I DON’T know how old I was, or where I was, when I read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume but I do remember feeling understood. The novel’s protagonist, Margaret, moves to a new town and is keen to fit in; she joins a ‘secret club’ where the 12-year-old girls talk about things like crushes, their developing bodies and getting their first periods. But there’s also pressure for Margaret, an interfaith child, to choose which parent’s religion to follow. She’s too nervous to admit to her friends she talks to God about her fears and concerns, and her crushes. “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. I just did an exercise to help me grow. Have you thought about it, God? About my growing, I mean,” she asks.

While I did not speak to God, like many kids who grew up reading Blume, I could relate to Margaret, even though she was a white girl in suburban US. Margaret was grappling with a host of issues that adolescence brings — feelings of inadequacy, not feeling seen or heard, not knowing who to talk about puberty.

I was reminded of all these forgotten feelings in the documentary Forever Judy Blume available to stream in Pakistan. The beloved author, now 85, has written 29 books and sold 90 million copies in 39 languages. Her work is finding a resurgence of sorts as a few of her books are being adapted to the big and small screen.

Blume is “one of the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century”, writes The Guardian; her books have been targeted for removal since the 1980s, including earlier in March in a Florida school. And it’s easy to understand why because she talks about puberty and sex to the very people who had no one to turn to. This made conservatives and parents (not always the same) very uncomfortable. While it is normal for teens to be curious about sexuality, conservatives see it as the source of all evil and doom, irrespective of one’s nationality or religion. But Blume understood what young folks were going through and tried to help them through this awkward phase with stories wherein they saw themselves — and felt normal.

All parents can learn from Blume’s advocacy for children.

The power of any storytelling is its endurance. I don’t know how long a copy of Forever had been passed around in a paper bag at my school before I got it. It was like a rite of passage — in this case a story about first love and a first relationship. It helped youngsters find their place in the world. Blume says she wrote the book for her daughter who asked why she couldn’t read stories about young intimate relationships where no one dies. Compare this to romances in Pakistan where someone has to be beaten up or killed for honour or slut shamed.

Blume knew growing up was a serious matter but didn’t talk down to her readers. It is no wonder to learn that she became an unofficial agony aunt and confidante of sorts for the thousands of children who wrote to her and she often wrote back to some of them. At one point, Blume was getting 2,000 letters a month. She has kept them in her garage and reads through many in the documentary. It is the most poignant part of Judy Blume Forever because you see just how comfortable kids were to tell her their secrets, feelings of confusion, isolation and other serious problems they faced. Blume responded to many in a non-judgmental, caring manner.

All parents can learn from Blume’s advocacy for children; to see things from their perspective, to let them read books they want without fear of them turning wayward; to let them grow into their weird wonderful selves. And especially talk to them about adolescence and puberty in an honest manner that ensures they grow up to have healthy relationships.

My experience, based on conversations with university students, is that such topics are deemed too taboo to discuss openly, or worse, cloaked in shame. This leads to increased frustration, feelings of isolation, and a terrible understanding of intimacy. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Early Adolescence, many teens watch porn out of curiosity and a lack of understanding about sexuality. There’s plenty of research to show how watching porn can be disruptive to ‘normal’ activities like sports, even socialising, and worse, it can desensitise boys, who may seek more aggressive pornographic images.

Wouldn’t it be better to take the reins and hold healthy conversations about puberty with your older kids so they feel less alone and less insecure about fitting in? The Blume documentary offers some insight into how those conversations can be held in her usual candour style of storytelling.

Muna Khan, "Forever young," Dawn. 2023-05-28.
Keywords: Social issues , Social rights , Social reforms , Social change , Social aspects