A while back Marshmallow reviewed Blubber by Judy Blume. Today she reviews another classic by Blume: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, first published in 1970. Sprinkles is asking questions and taking notes.
Sprinkles: So Marshmallow, let us start at the beginning. Who do you think would appreciate this book?
Marshmallow: I think girls who are approaching adolescence and may have some concerns about growing up might find this book relatable. Also if you liked other books by Judy Blume, I think you would definitely like this too.
S: That is a good start. Okay, more specifically, tell us now about the plot.
M: Margaret is this girl who just moved to New Jersey. And she is starting a new school and she makes a new friend named Nancy Wheeler —
M: Yeah, no. Not the Nancy from Stranger Things. Though she is also a girl who is living in a suburb with her family and wants to fit in and so on.
S: Okay, so let us get back to Margaret.
M: Yes, so Margaret’s dad was raised Jewish and her mom was raised Christian, but their families did not approve so they eloped and did not dictate a religion on their daughter. And when she lived in New York, nobody seemed to be perplexed by this, but here in her new school, her friends seem to want her to choose to belong to one or the other community.
S: And she is talking to God all through the book, right? Which God is this one?
M: Well, it is definitely a personal God, and Margaret shares her concerns, fears, hopes, and desires with Him. but through the book, we see her not making a specific choice. Her new teacher, Mr. Benedict, wants each student in her sixth grade class to pick a topic that is personally important to them and spend time that whole year to research it. Margaret chooses religion, hoping that through the year, she will try to figure out whether she should be Christian or Jewish. Remember both her grandparents are religious, but the Christian ones, her maternal grandparents cut off their relationship with them. Margaret does have a close relationship with her father’s mother, Sylvia, who encourages her to explore her Jewish heritage.
S: So the book is partially about Margaret exploring religion. But it is also a lot about growing up, right?
M: Right. Margaret’s new friends are obsessed with their growing bodies, and wearing bras, and boys, and so on, and Margaret does not yet feel like she is that interested in any of these things, but she wants to fit in, and so she ends up sharing their obsessions. Which was kind of weird to me, actually, because this is not quite how the girls in my school have been acting.
S: But maybe some of the girls in your school, too, might be interested in these kinds of things. Not all bunnies are like you and your friends, Marshmallow.
M: Well, I did not mean to sound like I am all so much more mature…
S: You are a pretty mature young bunny. But when I was growing up, there were a lot of girls like Nancy and her friends, and I feel like a lot of girls must have sympathized with the characters of the book for this book to have become such an iconic book.
M: Yes. It might also be that they felt like they should act like Nancy but they were actually feeling like Margaret who is not quite there. And eventually she does start obsessing about similar things.
S: The desire to fit in is often very strong. Especially among teens and tweens, but more generally it seems to be pretty common.
S: So this book was iconic, but it was also banned in many places. Did you know that?
M: Yes, I did. It talks about menstruation and so on, which some people claimed were not appropriate. But also it talks about religion and how it is okay if you do not pick between Christianity or Judaism, and how there might be other ways to finding spirituality in your life. This probably came across as anti-religion to some very religious folks.
S: Well, maybe today we are a bit more open-minded about these things. And the United States is a lot more diverse today in terms of people’s religious affiliations.
M: Yes, Margaret said, for example, that she was not considering Islam or Buddhism because she did not know anyone from those religions.
S: But there are people from a few other religions in your class, right?
S: So we have come a long way from the 70s in that regard.
M: I hope so!
S: Okay, did you like Margaret as a character?
M: She is okay, she is very genuine, and kind of bland, she does not have a very big and sharp personality, and maybe that is intentional because the reader can fill in the gaps and more easily identify with her.
S: That makes sense to me.
M: There is also a girl in the school who has already grown up in terms of her body, and all the other people think she is sticking out. They make up rumors about her, they gossip about her, and they are pretty mean.
S: That is not good.
M: I think they are jealous. And I don’t think the girl does anything to deserve it.
S: Middle school can be a cruel place.
M: Well, they are in sixth grade but I guess that is middle school in some places.
S: Yep. So we got a hold of this book because there is a new movie about it. Do you think we should see it?
M: Yes. The trailer looks fun. Can we put a link to it here?
S: Sure, let us embed it right now:
S: Do the characters look the way you visualized them?
M: Not quite, but I think they are close enough.
S: So we should try and watch it then. Okay, how would you rate this book?
M: I’d rate it 95%.
S: Sounds good. And what do you want to tell our readers as we wrap things up?
M: Stay tuned for more amazing book reviews from the book bunnies!
Today Marshmallow is reviewing The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, the 2016 novel by Adam Gidwitz which won a Newberry Honor in 2017. (Coincidentally she had already reviewed the book that won the Newberry Medal that same year: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.) Following Marshmallow and her recommendation, Sprinkles also read the book, which offers a lot of food for thought, both for young bunnies and the not-so-young ones. The two bunnies discuss the book together below.
Sprinkles: So Marshmallow, why don’t we start with a brief introduction to the book? What is the book about?
Marshmallow: This book is about three kids, named Jeanne, William, and Jacob, and their dog, named Gwenforte. The kids have superpowers. Jeanne has fits and can see the future when having them. William is tall and very very strong. And Jacob has the power to heal people, but at an uncanny level. Even the dog seems magical. She died and then many years later reappeared above the plot of land she was buried in.
S: The subtitle of the book sort of hints at this, right? Three magical children and their holy dog?
M: Yes. And they are living in France, in the middle ages.
S: Yes, the story starts in 1242, and there are a lot of historical facts and people who show up in the book.
M: Yes, for example the king is Louis IX, the ninth Louis, and we also get to meet his mother Blanche of Castille. They are both real people from the history of France.
S: So in some very real sense this is historical fiction, which according to Wikipedia is “a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting related to the past events, but is fictional”.
M: Yes, but if we want to talk about genre, I think we might also have to talk about magical realism. Remember, I reviewed two books that I thought fit this category before: Ikenga and Hurricane Child.
S: Why would you say that?
M: Because everything seems real and like things are in the real world, but every now and then some weirdly magical stuff happens. And some of the characters interpret them as magic, and some think they are miracles. But they are almost always extraordinary and supernatural.
S: Can you give an example?
M: Jeanne has visions of the future for example. And then there is a dragon whose fart causes things to burst into flames. And everyone acts as if dragons are real and the main issue is that this dragon’s fart is unexpectedly deadly.
S: Yes, there is a farting dragon, and I am sure Caramel would love to learn more about that. And you are right, I think. I’d agree that this book is somewhere between magical realism and historical fiction. In fact at the end of the book, there is a section where the author explains which parts of the book are real history, which storylines he took from legends and myths and other stories of medieval times, and which he himself totally made up. All together these all add up to make a really rich story, don’t you think?
M: Yes. And the book is written like a medieval manuscript. There are illustrations on most pages, and they are credited as “illuminations by Hatem Aly”. Illuminations are the decorative illustrations that were sprinkled here and there in medieval manuscripts. We learned about them in history class when learning about the middle ages.
S: I can see why the author and the illustrator and the publisher decided to call these illuminations, besides the historical connection. I think they are not just illustrations that would accompany the text and depict some event happening in there. Sometimes they do not seem to be directly related to the story at all.
S: So you read this book a while ago and really wanted me to read it, too, so we could discuss it. Can you tell me why?
M: Because this book, more than any other book I read or reviewed recently, talks about religion at length, and I wanted to think out loud about some of the themes that came up together with you.
S: You are right of course. The book talks a lot about religion. Europe of the thirteenth century was almost a Christian continent, and we see this in the characters and their world views very clearly throughout the book. And Jacob, one of the three magical children, is Jewish, and we also see the tension between his world and the world of the other characters involved. In fact one of the main challenges the children have to face involves the king’s decision to burn all copies of the Talmud in France so as to get rid of all non-Biblical wisdom available to the Jews. And this was actually a real event that happened. Some background can be found in this Wikipedia article about the Disputation of Paris. Did you know what the Talmud was before reading this book?
M: No, I did not. But reading this book made me curious. It seemed to be really important to the Jewish communities and it seemed like Louis IX was trying to destroy something sacred to and vital for them. Then I learned from the relevant Wikipedia article that the Talmud is a collection of writings of more than a thousand Jewish scholars that addresses all sorts of theological and philosophical issues as well as very practical ones, like how to live one’s life.
S: So the children set out to try and save the copies of the Talmud that would be burned. Why did they want to do that? Only Jacob is Jewish. How come the other children agreed too that this was an important thing to do?
M: Because it was centuries of knowledge and wisdom collected and cared for by generations of people. And of course it was not fair to the Jewish communities who had so cared for these volumes of books one generation after another.
S: Yes, there is a part of the book when the children realize how each book is written and illuminated by a person who dedicates years of their lives to this work. And I really liked this because, even though we have the publishing press today and books can be published much faster, a book is still the product of many years of hard work of many many people.
M: And I like books! I mean I can like some books more than others, but every book I read takes me to a different world! I would not want even the worst novel I read to be burnt. And these are not novels. They contain sacred wisdom of a whole people. It just seems pretty terrible.
S: Yes, and the children can see beyond their own differences of world views, their own religious backgrounds, to see the value of these books and the cruelty of burning them.
M: Of course they are kind of guided to this by Michelangelo of Bologna, “the red, fat, and wicked” priest who begins as their nemesis and ends up being their friend and mentor. And in the end he turns out to be–
S: Wait, let us not spoil that. That is revealed all the way at the end and we don’t want to spoil it for our readers.
S: How about we instead talk about one of the big questions of all time that shows up in the book? The question of evil? The question of the reason and the justification of the existence of evil in a world created by a good God?
M: Yes. Some really bad things happen in the book, and at some point the children are so sad that they ask why God ever allows for such bad things to happen if He is good. And I think this is a really tough question. I don’t know how to answer it.
S: I think you are not alone Marshmallow. This is a big question for a lot of theologians and philosophers. What did you think of the answers offered in the book?
M: I’m not sure I totally understood them.
S: Well, the main Christian answer is, I think, captured in the Book of Job, and the drunk friar named Roger Bacon recites a part of that book to explain that the living are too small to understand the grand plans of God. What may seem like evil to us may not be. What we find wrong and bad may not be.
M: And then there is a troubadour (apparently that is a “a French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in Provençal in the 11th to 13th centuries, especially on the theme of courtly love”) who gives a different answer. He says God is a troubadour. I did not quite get that answer.
S: Yes, there is a part of the story when a troubadour sings The Song of Hildebrand, a story of a father and son who meet in battle. The father recognizes his son but cannot convince him that he is his father, so they go on and battle and it is all pretty bad and sad all around. And the troubadour sings this song and the song is sad, too, but it is also beautiful. And then he says that this is how our lives are. When we live them, it may be sad and ugly and terrible and we cannot make any sense of it. But all in all, there is a song that God is putting together and that song is beautiful. I think in a way this is the same answer as the answer from the Book of Job. While we are in the thick of things, going through the rollercoaster of life, we cannot appreciate the big picture. But the faithful believe that there is a meaning to it all, and it is known to God.
M: Hmm, I will have to think more about that.
S: Okay, then let us get back to the form of the book. What can you tell us about the general organization of the book?
M: Well, there are twenty-seven chapters. Each of them is titled The Innkeeper’s Tale, the Nun’s Tale, and so on. Each is told through the perspective of someone else who knows a part of the story of the three children and their dog. And slowly, chapter by chapter, we get to learn their story as it unfolds. Also there is a main narrator, who is the “I” of the main story. And he is trying to learn about the children and what happened to them and so on.
S: So maybe it makes sense to also tell our readers that the story starts in an inn and the different people talking are all at that inn, taking turns, telling us the story of the children, in more or less chronological order.
M: Yes, I guess that would also be useful to know.
S: In that way the book resembles some medieval stories, in particular The Canterbury Tales and the earlier Decamoeron, which were each written as collections of tales told by a handful of characters one after another.
M: I did not know about those earlier books. But looking them up on Wikipedia, I see that they were both written in the middle ages, so it makes sense that the author chose this form. I like that!
S: Me too. It somehow gives the book an even more authentic feel.
S: Okay, Marshmallow, this is already a pretty long review. Let us try and wrap things up. Who is your favorite character?
M: I liked the children a lot. They are all good people. And they are also in some ways very realistic even though they have some strange super powers. They act like real children.
S: True. Which super power among the three would you have liked to have if you could choose?
M: Probably the healing power of Jacob. I think that would be really good, so I could help a lot of people.
S: Did you know the author would choose William’s strength? He says “Well, Jeanne has visions of the future. That could only screw you up psychologically. Jacob has the power to heal wounds—which just means I’d be running around like an EMT all day. William has incredible strength. That I would take.” (This is from a longer interview with the author, which you can find here.)
M: I guess I can understand that.
S: You have also read and reviewed A Tale Dark and Grimm, by the same author. Do you see any similarities between the two books?
M: That was a lot of fun to read but also kind of scary. This too has some scary things that happen. So maybe both would be more appropriate for older bunnies, like me, rather than Caramel.
S: I see. This one also engages with some pretty mature themes, so I agree that perhaps it is best for more mature readers, like you. So finally how would you rate this book Marshmallow?
M: I’d rate it 95%.
S: And what do you want to tell our readers as we wrap up this review?
M: Stay tuned for more amazing book reviews from the book bunnies!