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December 11, 2017

Tayari Jones: Keeping Up with Her Things

Posted by tom

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including SILVER SPARROW (a Bets On pick in 2011) and AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE (which releases on February 6th and also will be a Bets On selection). As a child, Tayari loved Judy Blume (in fact, she still does) and considered her copy of ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET to be her “most prized possession.” In her Holiday Blog post, Tayari recalls what happened when she misplaced the book one day and the valuable lessons she learned as a result, just weeks before Christmas.

When I was a little kid, I loved Judy Blume. LOVED her. (Actually, I still do.) Anyway, in the fifth grade, my copy of ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET was my most prized possession. I read it while I ate breakfast. I took it to school and read it when I should have been paying attention in math class. At home, I read it under the table at dinner, even though no books were allowed at meals. The mysteries of religion, puberty and tween social hierarchies provided endless fascination. Endless!

One day, when I reached into my backpack, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET was nowhere to be found. I traced my steps in my head and determined that I must have left the book in the cafeteria. (And, to be honest, this wasn’t the first time I had lost track of the tattered paperback; I was the kind of kid who was easily distracted.) I ran to the lunchroom and asked the lady in the hairnet and apron if she had seen my book, but she hadn’t. Maybe I had dumped it in the trash when I emptied my tray. After all, this had been the recent fate of my calculator. As I poked in the smelly garbage with a broom pole, the cafeteria lady looked on with bemusement. “You need to learn to keep up with your things,” she noted. I didn’t respond. My mother had made a similar point just that morning, in reference to my favorite purple hair barrette.

The next day I found the book, but it was in the hands of one of my classmates, a shy girl I’ll call Melanie. She didn’t have any friends at all. Her clothes were always rumpled, and she sometimes missed school for weeks at a time. There she was, by herself as always, reading MY book.

That night, I told my mother that I had been robbed.

“But how did Melanie get your book in the first place?”

I explained.

“You need to learn to keep up with your things,” my mother said, sighing.

My mother came to the school the next day, and the teacher called me and Melanie out of class. We were escorted to the teachers’ lounge, a space about which I was intensely curious. It smelled of cigarettes and was littered with empty cans of Tab. In the corner was an aluminum Christmas tree, festooned with lights.

I narrowed my eyes as my mother greeted Melanie kindly, then asked her how she came to be in possession of my book.

“I found it in the cafeteria,” Melanie said softly.

“But you knew it didn’t belong to you,” Mama said in a voice that was a little stern.

“It was just sitting there,” Melanie said.

“Well,” my mother said, “Tayari needs to learn to keep up with her things. But that doesn’t give you the right to take it.”

I nodded my head with righteous indignation as Melanie sheepishly returned the book.

Then, my mother reached into her bag and produced a copy of ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET, so new it gleamed in the fluorescent lights. “I’m very happy to see that you enjoy reading,” my mother said. “I wanted you to have a book of your own.”

Melanie looked wide-eyed at the book and asked, “I can keep it?”

“Yes,” my mother said in a voice as warm and sweet as fresh-baked cookies. “It’s a Christmas gift from Tayari and me.”

I was so annoyed with my mother that I didn’t talk to her on the drive home after school. When I got to my room, there was a wrapped package on my bed, even though Christmas was weeks away. I tore off the glittery wrapping and found a boxed set of THREE Judy Blume books. The note attached said, “I am proud of you. Be grateful for what you have. And learn to keep up with your things.”