Judy Blume Forever is a reminder that literature can break down barriers, and that books deserve our continued protection.
This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.
Judy Blume is most at home surrounded by books. That’s the predominant impression of a new documentary on the author’s life directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, Judy Blume Forever, which premiered at Sundance last month and will begin streaming globally on Prime Video in late April. The author of over two dozen books, including best-selling children’s classics like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) and Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing (1972), Blume’s writing has inspired countless readers—a legacy she upholds not only through her work, but also in the bookstore she now owns and operates in Key West, Fla.
As a young Jewish girl growing up in New Jersey during and after World War II (Blume was born in 1938), she learned to hate how adults kept secrets from children, trying to shield them but also refusing children the chance to understand the world and form their own opinions. When she later married and became a mother in her own right, Blume quickly grew dissatisfied with being a housewife and determined to make her own career, a career where she could tell the truth.
Blume’s determination to be honest earned her accolades and admiration, but also vitriol and fear throughout her career. Her books attempt to normalize things that often aren’t openly discussed with children and teens, like menstruation, masturbation, sex, disability and bullying. When her career took off after the publication of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume’s popularity soared, but she also experienced pushback from conservative groups, which became especially virulent during the anti-feminist backlash in the 1980s and attempts to ban her books from libraries and stores. At one point, Blume recalls, she received 700 death threats in one day for being a supporter of Planned Parenthood.
“I could be fearless in my writing the way I couldn’t in my life,” Blume explains in the film, referring to the complexities of her own personal life, where she chafed against the confines of her early marriages.
Judy Blume Forever relies heavily on interviews with Blume herself, a wonderfully charming presence throughout the documentary. But one of its best components is its emphasis on the readers and how they were and still are affected by her novels. As such, it features a host of authors, actors, and others reading their favorite passages from Blume’s books with loving regard and waxing poetic about the ways Blume changed their outlook on childhood, puberty, love and life.
Blume quickly grew dissatisfied with being a housewife and determined to make her own career—a career where she could tell the truth.
Children are more perceptive that many adults give them credit for, one of the reasons they’re drawn to Blume’s novels in droves: a sentiment echoed in archival footage of kids interviewed at various book signings in the ’70s and ’80s.
During the height of her career, Blume received as many as 2,000 letters a month, mostly from children writing to express their affection for her books, but also sharing details of their lives they often felt they couldn’t share with parents and teachers. Sometimes these were just the mundane trials of conflicts with siblings or youthful crushes, but occasionally darker confessions emerged about depression, suicidal thoughts or abuse. Blume wrote back when she could, providing resources and kind words; in some cases, she continued corresponding with certain readers for years.
A few of these letter-writers, now adults, are interviewed in the film—even reading back their own letters and Blume’s responses, many of which are archived at Yale University. Their testimonies are beautiful tributes to the author and her enduring impact.
Judy Blume Forever is certainly a film that will speak to the legions of fans of her work, but it’s also a trenchant reminder about the importance of literature to break down barriers and why books deserve our continued protection in an era when unfounded fears and rampant conservatism are leading once again to calls for censorship.
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