Davina Pardo & Leah Wolchok direct a loving look at the creator of the sacred texts for Gen X girls
I think Blubber was my favorite Judy Blume book growing up, because it acknowledged the casual cruelty of adolescent girls. Or maybe it was Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, because it’s where I learned about slam books, and its titular character (like me) masked her insecurities with wisecracks. No, scratch that, it was Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, with a protagonist who (also like me) used her colorful imagination as an escape from a chaotic home life.
Written in a gentle and empathetic tone (as opposed to the PSAs and educational films kids used to be forced to watch, which were like being chastised for something we hadn’t done), Blume’s books addressed real-life issues for teenagers like menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), bullying (Blubber), parental divorce (It’s Not the End of the World), body image (Deenie), and anxiety (Then Again, Maybe I Won’t). Most of them were written with light humor, but some, such as Tiger Eyes and Forever, took serious, adult tones, addressing death, racism, and sexuality.
Before YA existed as a highly lucrative publishing genre, Blume’s understanding, conversational writing style touched girls across generations. She even made sure to include boys in her audience, featuring male protagonists in Then Again, Maybe I Won’t and the popular Fudge series. Blume got what it was like to be a young person in a way that parents and teachers just couldn’t (or wouldn’t), and her readers came to think of her as a treasured friend. She’s finally given her roses in Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s Judy Blume Forever, an affectionate look at the author’s six-decade career, and the lifelong impact her work left on women of all ages.
Illustrated with whimsical animated sequences and excerpts from some of her most loved books, the first half of Judy Blume Forever recounts Blume’s life as a “good girl with a bad girl lurking just inside” in post-World War II suburban New Jersey. Devastated by her father’s sudden death just weeks before her wedding, Blume settled into a comfortable but boring life as a middle-class wife and mother. She wrote mostly to pass the time, starting with, in her own words, “terrible imitation Dr. Seuss,” before finding both her own voice, and a creative niche in writing honestly for preteens and adolescents. Blume’s third book, 1970’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, came at a time when periods were treated as something shameful, even traumatic, even though they’re a natural bodily function nearly every girl experiences at some point.
Unsurprisingly, young audiences proved hungry to read realistic depictions of their lives, and Blume immediately became perhaps the most important children’s author of the 70s and 80s. While her success was met with condescension by adult peers, who snidely asked when she was going to write a “real” book, her readers wrote letters, opening up to her in a way they couldn’t to their parents. One fan, Lorrie Kim, began a correspondence with Blume at age 9 that blossomed into a longtime friendship, with Blume and her husband even attending Kim’s college graduation. Blume, it’s revealed, kept much of the fan letters she received, even today humbled at how much what started as a bored housewife hobby ultimately meant so much to people.
Blume, the second half of the documentary notes, enjoyed a full decade of success before meeting with controversy. Not surprisingly, her first taste of trouble coincided with the election of Ronald Reagan, and the rise of the pernicious brand of conservatism that still exists today, the kind that leads to book banning and censorship. It’s chilling to see a TV clip from the mid-80s of a smugly grinning Pat Buchanan attack Blume for forcing her supposed “obsession” with sex and masturbation onto innocent children, in the same exact way that people today refer to those who support trans youth as “groomers.” Though Blume retired from writing children’s books over ten years ago, she’s still one of the most frequently banned authors in schools and libraries.
Now, somehow, 85 years old, a still youthful Judy Blume radiates warmth and gentleness. She seems bemused that anyone would be interested in her life beyond her work, and cries as she reads an excerpt from Tiger Eyes, a book inspired by the death of her beloved father. If Judy Blume Forever is perhaps a bit more worshipful than a documentary should be, it’s because Blume’s impact on young people, even today, cannot be overstated. She both listened to them, and gave them a voice, in a world where their problems are minimized, if not ignored outright. Think back to when you were young, and felt things you didn’t understand, and worried if you were “normal” or not, or if you even knew what “normal” meant. “What I want,” a letter from a fan reads, “Is someone to tell me ‘you’ll live through this.’” Judy Blume’s books were beacons in a strange and difficult time, reminders that we were all going through it, and that we would get through it together.
Judy Blume Forever is now available on Amazon Prime.