Why Women Never Stop Coming of Age

The movie adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret captures the cross-generational power of Judy Blume’s beloved novel.

Kathy Bates and Abby Ryder Fortson laughing in a bed
Dana Hawley / Lionsgate

When the writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret as a fourth grader, she felt an overwhelming sense of relief. The Judy Blume novel’s 11-year-old protagonist helped clarify her own confusing emotions. Like Craig, Margaret worried about her flat chest, felt her parents couldn’t solve every problem, and asked existential questions to try to make sense of her anxieties. Craig found comfort in Margaret’s tale of moving with her family to the New Jersey suburbs, questioning her faith, and, yes, preparing for her period to arrive—a coming-of-age story that has resonated with millions of other young women since Blume’s beloved book hit shelves in 1970.

A few decades later, Craig had a significantly different response to the novel as an adult. She’d been rereading Blume’s books with an eye toward potentially adapting her work; when she reached the end of Margaret, she bawled. In the final chapter, Margaret gets her first period and tells her mother; together, they laugh and cry, and Margaret, in her mind, thanks God “an awful lot.” Something about the scene devastated Craig, she told me over breakfast in Culver City, California, earlier this month. “I was like, What happened to me?” she recalled. “Why has this struck me so deeply? I swear, I walked around for three days trying to articulate it.” Finally, she had an epiphany: Margaret’s words reminded Craig more of her present-day reality than of her fourth-grade self. Her concerns—how she’s doing as a mother, whether she’s succeeding as a filmmaker—may be more grown-up now, but that same innocent need for guidance, spiritual or otherwise, persists. “I feel like that question mark,” Craig explained, “has never gone away.”

In other words, Margaret isn’t merely a book about the mortifying messiness of puberty; it’s also a subtle examination of how, for women, growing up can be a never-ending experience. Craig’s film adaptation, the first mainstream-studio take on Blume’s work, understands that intimately. In theaters Friday, the movie is faithful to the novel’s most memorable scenes—“We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”—while juxtaposing the story of Margaret Simon (played by Abby Ryder Fortson) with that of her mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), and her grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates). By imagining the interior lives of the adults, Craig allows their narratives to parallel Margaret’s.

The result is a film that feels nostalgic and fresh, a rare story of a tween that considers an often overlooked truth: Adults, too, continue to change all the time. Craig’s work exhibits the same sharpness that made her directorial debut, 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen, a modern young-adult classic. Margaret avoids cliché in favor of emotional truth, showing how simultaneously tender and confusing the experience of negotiating your identity can be at any age. “Anytime you’re on the precipice of something new,” Craig explained, “it just feels like, I don’t quite know how to be this new version of myself … In a lot of ways, we’re coming of age over and over and over again.”

Margaret the book often reads like the journal of an extremely precise, extremely observant 11-year-old. The “simple poetry” of Margaret’s voice, as Craig put it, can be illuminating, capturing the insecurities of the women around Margaret with the same childlike directness with which she details, say, the cute boys in class. She notices, for instance, how Barbara’s constant presence is both a comfort and somewhat of a burden. There she is, welcoming Margaret back from school, but there she is, too, going over the instructions “three dozen times” for Margaret’s solo visit to Sylvia in New York. “My mother’s always telling me about when she was a girl,” Margaret thinks. “It’s supposed to make me feel that she understands everything.”

In lines like these, Craig saw herself. In 2015, she had to leave her 2-year-old son for more than two months so she could shoot The Edge of Seventeen in Canada; upon returning, she felt so guilty that she vowed to be the most attentive mother ever—to be everything her son could possibly need. “I’m going to do all the things; I am going to be there; I’m going to do playdates; I’m going to cut up fruit, you know, and do nothing else,” she recalled thinking, with a sigh. “And then I got to the end of about three months of that, and I just felt so depressed, honestly, and miserable. I just felt like this other part of me was starving.”

Rachel McAdams as Barbara doing the hair of Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret
Dana Hawley / Lionsgate

The experience of being too involved as a mother drove Craig’s vision for the film, as well as her pitch to Blume. After exchanging emails with the author, Craig, along with her mentor and co-producer, James L. Brooks, visited Blume at her Key West, Florida, home and spoke of how rewarding the novel was to reread. Craig said Barbara, by way of Margaret’s observations, had unlocked a feeling she’d been trying to understand—about her approach to parenting, about why Margaret is considered timeless. To her, the story seemed to be “three women in life transitions running in tandem.” She wanted the film adaptation to be a true period piece, set in 1970, in which the emotional journeys of Margaret, Barbara, and Sylvia collapse the time between the past and the present.

Blume was on board immediately, and told Craig to imagine as much of Sylvia’s and Barbara’s backstories as she wished. Craig began theorizing, pulling from Blume's matter-of-fact prose. In Barbara, who’s described as an artist in the book, Craig infused much of her own unease about balancing a creative career with domestic duties; she came up with scenes of Barbara trying to devote herself to a life as a full-time, stay-at-home, PTA-assisting mom. As for Sylvia, Craig noted how Margaret seemed conflicted about her grandmother’s attachment to her. (“Grandma’s always reminding me of how nobody lives forever and everything she has is for me,” Margaret thinks in the novel. “I hate it when she talks like that.”) She imagined Sylvia living vicariously through Margaret, and feeling unmoored by the Simons leaving New York City. In one scene that Craig wrote, Sylvia sits at her desk looking at a to-do list on which she’s written only two tasks—dusting and doing the crossword—both of which have already been completed.

These glimpses into Barbara’s and Sylvia’s lives feel Blume-ian, mundane yet enlightening at the same time. Like Margaret, Barbara and Sylvia are trying to fit in—not with a clique of teenagers, of course, but with what’s expected of them. “Barbara goes to the extreme of quitting both painting and teaching art,” McAdams told me over email, “to be more like everyone else, because maybe they’ve figured out something she hasn’t.”

Bates, meanwhile, saw Margaret as a story about the importance of self-awareness. Because the novel was published when Bates was in her 20s, the 74-year-old actor didn’t read it until she signed on to the film. She saw herself and women she knew in Blume’s words. Margaret’s confusion about her body reminded Bates of her childhood spent in a girls’ school in Memphis, she told me over the phone, where she and her classmates learned how to be “proper young ladies” who wore garter belts to formal tea parties years before learning about sex. Sylvia reminded her of her sister, who set aside her acting ambitions to look after her family, and of her aunt, who always theatrically doted on Bates. Blume’s Margaret could see how every woman was still developing, Bates explained. “To me, Margaret was very, very deep,” she said. “This is a young girl who has the wisdom to think for herself … [She has] the intelligence to step back and look at the women around her.”

Craig did the same, examining how the figures around Margaret felt. “Everything I write, I put myself into the story and I have to start with ‘Where does it hurt?’” Craig explained, putting her hand on her heart. “Like, when I feel myself as that character, what aches? … With Barbara, it’s a real deep question of Am I a good enough mom? With Sylvia, it’s What is my life about now, if the center of it has suddenly been removed?

Each character finds that the answer requires tapping into a child’s mindset. “When we’re young,” Bates pointed out, “we have imagination”—the kind that can push past the belief that people must accomplish certain things, figure out certain ideas, by a certain age. She told me to read a poem by Billy Collins called “On Turning Ten” after our call to better understand what she meant. So I did. It includes these lines:

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.

Among the many lessons it teaches about growing up, Margaret the book shows the importance of that “beautiful complexity.” The youthful mix of self-consciousness and self-awareness—of vulnerability and curiosity—isn’t a phase, but an ongoing experience. Turning 12 can be as confounding as turning 43 can be as confounding as turning 75. “I don’t know when I don’t feel like Margaret,” Craig said, laughing. “It’s kind of always.”

Late in the movie, Barbara sits with her daughter and says, “It gets tiring, trying so hard all the time, doesn’t it?” The line, written for the film, distills the magic of Craig’s adaptation. The tension comes not from dramatic set pieces, but from the turbulence of negotiating one’s identity and place in the world. Margaret wrestles with choosing a religion, Barbara struggles to adapt to suburban parenthood, and Sylvia contends with the idea of fending for herself. Countless circumstances, the movie makes clear, can lead to feeling 11 again, small and worried and seeking assurance that life won’t always be so uncontrollable. Are you there, anyone at all? we might as well be asking all the time. If we’re lucky, we get to figure out an answer for ourselves.