‘Judy Blume Forever’ paints a tender portrait of the beloved author at Sundance
Filmmakers Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok joyfully celebrate Judy Blume’s career in ‘Judy Blume Forever’
Judy Blume’s books have become synonymous with adolescence.
When Blume began her writing career, she focused on the agony and joy of 11-to-12-year-olds. And adolescence is abundant with agony — I spent mine torturing myself over my frizzy hair, thick unibrow and boys. So many boys.
For those in the trenches of puberty, Blume’s books are a haven. A soft place to land. A space where they were not only seen and understood, but validated. How, her readers have wondered, does she know exactly what’s happening in my life?
If I could describe Blume in one word, it’d be empathetic. Blume’s empathy is the beating heart of “Judy Blume Forever,” directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, and it makes the documentary achingly tender. The film is brimming with it — both the empathy of and for Blume, but, perhaps most importantly, empathy for Blume’s readers.
“(The directors) were so gentle with my readers,” Blume said during a Q&A after the film premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “That was more important to me than how they were with me, which was lovely. But the fact that they were respectful of my readers was number one.”
Judy Blume’s beginnings
Blume, born in New Jersey in 1938, makes it clear that she was raised in a Jewish, traditionally 1950s family. Her father worked, her mother stayed at home. It was expected of her to go to college, get married and start a family.
While Blume did exactly that, her childhood was peppered with course-changing moments. Her mother encouraged reading. She had a vivid imagination. But perhaps the biggest moment of her early life was the death of her father, who died of an unexpected heart attack five weeks before her wedding. Blume was 20 years old.
Looking back at the time of her father’s death, Blume said, “By the time I started to write, I really had a lot to get out.”
Now with a family of her own, Blume began to dabble in writing. She started with what she called “imitation Dr. Seuss” and after multiple rejections, finally published two books: “The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo” and “Iggy’s House.”
Blume acknowledges that those weren’t stories from the inside. “It wasn’t really from here,” she said, putting a hand to her chest. “Not until I wrote ‘Margaret.’”
Blume published “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in the 1970s. While it was a monumental turn in her career, it was a monumental turn in young adult literature, too. Pat Scales, retired middle-school librarian and author, said, “The realism that was prior to Judy wasn’t realistic at all.”
“Margaret,” and Blume’s other children’s books, tackles the messy weirdness of adolescence with the honesty, uncertainty and fascination of adolescents themselves. It was both unheard of and wholly necessary.
“I felt like Margaret was someone I knew,” Jacqueline Woodson, author, said in the documentary. “... (Adolescence is) that period where you’re too old to be a child and too young to be a teenager, and yet you’re existing in two worlds at the same time.”
Blume went on to write “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Superfudge,” “Blubber” and more, before tackling more adult-themes in books such as “Forever,” “Tiger Eyes” and “Wifey.”
Judy Blume cherishes her readers
One of the most touching parts of “Judy Blume Forever” is Blume’s relationship with her readers. She has received thousands and upon thousands of fan letters — of which Yale University acquired 50 years worth in 2017 — and the film shows Blume revisit them with affection and tenderness.
Young readers of all ages bombarded Blume with myriads of questions. One reader precociously asked Blume to send them the facts of life in numbered order. Another told her that her body was beginning to develop and that it was deeply embarrassing. Others revealed their feelings, their struggles, their desires, their curiosities.
Blume read them all. “I was always emotional about their letters, that they would pour their hearts on in this way,” she said as she looked over the letters.
But there are a few specific relationships that the film chooses to dive into. One of them is with Lorrie Kim, who started writing to Blume when she was nine. As Blume pulls out Kim’s first letter, she fondly says, “Oh Lorrie, Lorrie. I can still remember part of Lorrie’s first letter.”
Kim began writing to Blume to ask her why she wrote about periods. “How do you know all our little secrets?” her letter asked. Kim revealed that she found that Margaret’s story, in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” was much like her own. Kim ended her letter with a question: what’s the average age for girls to get their periods and bras?
This began a life-long correspondence. In later years, as Kim’s college graduation approached, it was clear that her parents would be unable to attend. So she wrote to Blume, asking if she could come.
Blume happily complied. She and her husband, George Cooper, went to Kim’s graduation. It was the first time that they met in person.
This is the one of the most striking, and stirring, moments in “Judy Blume Forever.” One of Blume’s greatest gifts is her empathy and understanding for her audience. No clearer is it illustrated than in her willingness to read their letters. By doing so, she’s telling them that yes, she sees them. She knows that growing up is hard. Being little is hard. And it’s all OK — or, at the very least, it will be.
‘Judy Blume Forever’ owns Blume’s controversies
“Judy Blume Forever” doesn’t shy away from Blume’s controversies. If anything, it faces them head on. One of the most contentious points of Blume’s work is her acknowledgement, and portrayal, of sexuality.
The documentary begins with Blume reading an excerpt of a sexual education scene in “Deenie.” In the excerpt, Deenie’s gym teacher discusses the word for “stimulating our genitals.” It sets the tone for documentary’s exploration of Blume’s depictions of sexuality later on.
“Deenie” is Blume’s 1973 young adult novel that chronicles the life of the 13-year-old titular character, who has scoliosis and a mother who dreams of Deenie becoming a model. The book includes a scene where masturbation is discussed in health class and two brief scenes that vaguely depict Deenie masturbating.
These scenes resulted in backlash from conservative groups and a book banning ensued — “Deenie” was on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990 and 1999.
During a Q&A after the premiere, Blume was asked about the radicalness of her work. “Of course I didn’t think I was being radical, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Blume said. “I was just telling stories.”
Many of Blume’s books have been banned, including “Forever,” “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “Tiger Eyes.” This is the genesis of Blume’s work to fight against censorship, which the documentary explores in detail.
The documentary also touches on the use of language in her books, most famously in “Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson.” The book contains the f-word, which Blume (and others) repeat a handful of times throughout the film.
Is Judy Blume still relevant?
Blume, now 84, has officially retired from writing. “In the Unlikely Event,” published in 2015, was her last book. Nowadays she spends her time in Key West, where she and her husband own a bookstore, Books and Books Key West.
Despite her retirement, Blume’s work has proved to be resilient. The documentary briefly touches on the datedness of Blume’s work — her books were penned over 30 years ago, after all. But the documentary brings up an interesting point: her books were incredibly urgent and timely, and as a result, have become timeless.
Dial phones are thing of the past. Menstrual products haven’t been called sanitary napkins for decades. But girls are still getting their periods. Bodies are still developing. Bullies still exist. Adolescence is still puzzling — and perhaps more than ever.
Blume’s work pulled the curtain back on it all, and still continues to do so. “It was like a look into a secret world. I felt like someone was being honest,” author Tayari Jones said of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” “That’s a gift. That’s magic.”
“Judy Blume Forever” will be released on Amazon Prime Video later this year.