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Judy Blume on new film adaptation of her classic 'Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret'
Geoff Bennett: "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
Just say the title and many will respond with a knowing smile, a memory of what was a formative book for young people starting in the 1970s. Now the novel by Judy Blume, author of some 32 books that have sold more than 90 million copies, is about to premiere as a film.
In the first of two reports, Jeffrey Brown visited Blume and the filmmakers in Key West Florida, where Blume owns a bookstore, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: In the new film "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." an 11-year-old girl worries whether her breasts will grow, when she will get her period, if she, the daughter of an interfaith marriage, should embrace religion, and, if so, which one, familiar concerns of adolescence perhaps.
Actress: Do you think any of us who will click that when we're 19?
Actresses: We must, we must, we must increase our chests!
Jeffrey Brown: But subjects not often addressed in novels for young readers when Judy Blume took them on in the 1970 novel on which the film is based.
Judy Blume, Author, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret": And I remember saying, I have written two books. I had published two books.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Judy Blume: But they were what I call from the outside. They weren't from deep inside.
Jeffrey Brown: This was the first one inside?
Judy Blume: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Judy Blume: And I remember saying to myself, I want to go inside and be honest and truthful and what I remember of being that age.
Jeffrey Brown: "Margaret was the first of some 16 books Blume wrote that captured the real lives of tweens and teens and spoke frankly of such facts of life as puberty, masturbation and sex.
A specific focus for her, girls on what she calls the cusp.
Judy Blume: The cusp is everything, right? I mean, you're going from being a kid. You're still maybe playing jacks or jumping rope or doing something. Then, on the other hand, there were boys. That was becoming more interesting.
And so you're half and half.
Jeffrey Brown: The books had been devoured and loved by several generations of readers, including, in 1990, a then-11-year-old named Kelly Fremon.
Kelly Fremon Craig, Director: She was the first person who made me fall in love with reading. Prior to that, I really had a hard time connecting with anything. Everything felt sort of inaccessible to me.
And then I read Judy Blume. And I was like, oh, this is -- this is -- this is what reading can be like.
Jeffrey Brown: Thirty-three years later, after directing the critically acclaimed film "Edge of Seventeen" in 2016, Kelly Fremon Craig is now the director of the new "Margaret" film.
Actor: Oh, it was incredible.
Abby Ryder Fortson, Actress: What are those boxes for?
Actor: Don't worry about that. I want to hear more about camp. What else did you learn? What else...
Actress: You're moving.
Abby Ryder Fortson: What?
Actor: Really, mom?
Jeffrey Brown: Like the book, it's set in a New Jersey suburb in the late 60s. But, she believes, it's timeless.
Kelly Fremon Craig: It was really that she was writing about me. I mean, that's really what it was. I related. Prior to that, I really hadn't, you know?
I felt like this is my life reflected back at me. And I think, when you're going through a hard time, there's something really reassuring about that, knowing you're not alone.
Jeffrey Brown: It was a feeling shared by fans outside an early screening of the film in Key West, Florida, where Judy Blume and her husband, George Cooper, have long lived.
This group of friends was visiting from outside Dayton, Ohio.
Emily O'Leary, Fan: It's incredibly authentic in a way that you don't find. It's honest, and it's real, and it deals with real life themes.
Audrey Dexter, Fan: I just remember myself reading them. And I want to pass that along to my child. I want them to be able to read it as well. So, I have all of them, like I said, and the bindings are coming apart.
Cynthia Hummel, Fan: I did a book report on this book in third grade, so...
Jeffrey Brown: Blume had long been reluctant to approve a film version of her novel.
Judy Blume: I just felt Hollywood was like cutesy kid.
Jeffrey Brown: With Fremon Craig and her mentor, veteran producer James Brooks, convinced him. And now author, cast and crew gathered for a Key West version of a red carpet premiere.
Rachel McAdams, herself a mother to two young children, plays Margaret's mother.
Rachel McAdams, Actress: I think these stories are important to talk about something that's so normal, but we just don't talk about it. It's just such a weird contradiction.
There's days when I was crying more than the character really should have in the scene.
Jeffrey Brown: You were crying because what?
Rachel McAdams: Thinking about my daughter going through these things or thinking about her growing up and hoping it's a wonderful, beautiful experience, and that I can be everything she needs. And just there's a lot of emotion around.
Actress: Arms up, dear.
Jeffrey Brown: Fifteen-year-old Abby Ryder Fortson plays Margaret. And she thinks the story remains very relevant for her generation.
Rachel McAdams: How's that feel?
Abby Ryder FortsonN: I cannot wait to take it off.
I feel, like especially in this time of social media, where everything's kind of posed to make people look the best, and things are edited, I think it's a good going-off point, especially for this film, where you get to see all the awkward, funny, weird moments that make a person a person.
Rachel McAdams: I particularly think about the kids that went through puberty during the pandemic and how isolating that must have been, and just how freeing it can be tough to connect with someone who's had the same thing, and you can share your story of your first bra.
And it's always funny and horrible. And it just brings us all together.
Abby Ryder Fortson: I think that one of the reasons why the movies is such an important film is that it really can open up conversations that, as a parent, you might not want to sit down and: Hey, we're going to talk about sex and puberty and boobs and all that today.
Rachel McAdams: Right. Finish your cereal.
Abby Ryder Fortson: Yes, finish your cereal.
Rachel McAdams: And we will get started.
Jeffrey Brown: Says mom.
Jeffrey Brown: In fact, director Kelly Fremon Craig is reading the book to her 9-year-old son to prepare him for seeing the film when it opens.
Kelly Fremon Craig: He's a little young, but he was very curious. So it's been very interesting.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
Kelly Fremon Craig: He -- I got through about two chapters. And then he turned to me anyway, and he went: "You have made an entire movie about boobs?"
Jeffrey Brown: For Judy Blume, the real audience for this film is what she calls the nostalgia group.
Judy Blume: People now as old as my daughter, she was the first reader. And she's 60. So, it's the 60-, 50-, 40-, 30-, 20-somethings who remember it as being their childhoods.
And I know them because they come to the bookstore every day.
Woman: Hopefully meeting you.
Judy Blume: Well, here I am.
And it's a very emotional thing. Well, sometimes, they will burst into tears. And I know what it is. I represent in some way their childhood.
Jeffrey Brown: But Blume, whose books have faced bans going back to the 1980s and again now, also knows the film comes out at a contentious culture war moment, with Florida a major hot spot.
Judy Blume: It's hitting at the right time. We need it. We need it. I don't know what's going to happen when it opens. I don't know.
Jeffrey Brown: In terms of how it hits in the political culture, social culture?
Judy Blume: Yes, exactly.
Jeffrey Brown: We will look at that and much more in Judy Blume's life as an author in part two of our report on her and the new film "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
Abby Ryder Fortson: Just be normal and regular like everybody else, just please, please, please, please, please, please, please.
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Key West, Florida.
Amna Nawaz: One of my favorite books of all time.