“I know that she loves promoting banned authors,” Davina Pardo says of Judy Blume, the subject of Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s soaring new documentary Judy Blume Forever.
Blume spent decades writing novels that bravely and matter-of-factly told kids all the facts they need to know — and that their parents are sometimes afraid to tell them. Retired from writing since her last book, 2015’s In the Unlikely Event, she carries on the good fight through Key West’s Books and Books, one of many Florida bookstores that, in light of recent Sunshine State censorship, has a special section devoted to banned books.
Judy Blume Forever, which debuted at Sundance, tells the often astonishing story of how Blume went from a mildly unsatisfied New Jersey housewife to perhaps the greatest novelist of young adult fiction — and a guide and mentor to countless confused, isolated children and teenagers who felt otherwise unseen an unheard.
Judy Blume Books Banned
Of course that sometimes made her a target of conservative censors. One of the wildest moments in Judy Blume Forever finds her holding her ground in a decades-old TV debate with Pat Buchanan, who objects to frank (but not graphic) talk about sex in her books.
“I don’t think we realized quite how subversive she was at the very beginning of this project,” Pardo told MovieMaker. “I think we knew she was a trailblazer and radical in her honesty, but I wasn’t familiar with the censorship years, because I was a kid when that happened. … The depth of her subversiveness is something that we learned through the making of the film and that we really wanted to highlight.”
Blume would seem to have won the cultural fight over her own books: Next week will mark the wide release of Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret, an adaptation of her 1970 novel about a young girl’s early teenage years, which includes blunt talk about her anxieties around her changing body. (Abby Ryder Fortson, who plays Margaret, told MovieMaker that Blume herself helped her figure out the book’s “must increase our bust” routine.)
But books that try to speak to young people who feel alone in the world remain popular cultural scapegoats, which is why Judy Blume makes a point of promoting them in her bookstore — and Judy Blume Forever takes care to include a diverse range of talking heads who explain how Blume’s novels made them feel less isolated.
Kids’ Letters to Judy Blume
One of the emotional high points of the film is its delving into the thousands of letter Blume received from kids who felt adrift — and how much personal attention the author paid to them.
Wolchok was astonished by “the magnitude of the experiences that are reflected in those letters and the vulnerability that is contained within the handwriting in those letters.”
“Really, it kind of was it was mind boggling. It was kind of hard to process holding a letter from a child from maybe who maybe had written to Judy 35 years ago and poured their heart out to her,” she said. “It was such an honor to be able to do to hold that really intimate correspondence.”
Pardo and Wolchok previously collaborated on Very Semi-Serious, an Emmy-winning documentary about New Yorker cartoonists that that Pardo produced and Wolchok produced and directed. They like literary subjects, as you may have guessed, and have no fear of provocation: Pardo’s past jobs include working for body-horror master David Cronenberg.
They first started talking to Blume about a possible documentary in June 2018, but it wasn’t until February 2020 that the author finally sent them a letter saying, “Yes, let’s do it.” (The Are You There, God filmmakers had a similarly long courtship with the author before she agreed to their film.)
Pardo first became interested in making a documentary about Blume six years ago, on a long car trip to Nova Scotia. She played her kids the audiobook of Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, narrated by Blume herself, and it began to occur to her how essential Blume was to the childhoods of at least two generations.
“She was like always there,” says Wolchok. “And everyone sort of counted on her being there as their fairy godmother or their guide through puberty and through their first kiss, first sex, maybe your parents divorce.
“And yet you sort of maybe took her for granted a little bit,” Wolchok continues. “You used her when you needed her. And now it’s such an honor to be able to tell her story, help everyone remember how important she was to them and can be for future generations, too.”
She said even making the film has helped her talk about potentially embarrassing subjects with her two sons.
“I’m okay talking about it because because Judy is okay talking about it. And I’ve spent so much time reading her books, spending time with her, and my kids reading the books too,” Wolchok says. “So I’m really grateful because I feel like it’s changed me as a parent. And that’s my most important job in life.”
Judy Blume Forever is now streaming on Prime Video.
Main image: Judy Blume in Judy Blume Forever, courtesy of Prime Video.