When I was in high school, we lived within walking distance of the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. If I wasn’t at home or school, I was likely at the library, scouring the shelves for books I hadn’t yet read. YA as a genre wasn’t quite as robust back in the early aughts as it is now; there weren’t as many options, so I burned through them pretty quickly. One day, I took out a book that would change the way I thought of books: Forever by Judy Blume. I knew Judy Blume; she had written some books I loved in elementary school. This book was different though. It felt real in a way I didn’t know possible.
Judy Blume and her legacy are the subject of a new documentary, Judy Blume Forever on Prime Video. I cannot not articulate how excited I was when I found out about this documentary. The first time I watched the trailer, I got all teary eyed. It should be hard to encapsulate one woman in 90 minutes, but it was truly so unbelievably good. Not only does it capture Judy Blume the woman, but it does an excellent job of capturing the impact she’s had on children’s literature over the last 50 years.
I got invited to an early screening of the film, and I have never been more excited. By the end of the opening sequence, I had tears in my eyes. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but my emotional reactions to Judy Blume Forever go beyond basic nostalgia. I don’t think I knew how much her books meant to me until I watched this film. Authors don’t often get this kind of recognition, even though their work touches so many lives. It’s amazing to see Judy get the recognition she deserves while she’s still here to receive it. While Judy is the focus of the film, she isn’t the only person they talk to. Actors like Molly Ringwald and Lena Dunham are featured, as well as authors like Jacquline Woodson, Alex Gino, Mary HK Choi, and Jason Reynolds. People close to her, including childhood friends, her children, and her husband are also featured. Everyone in the film talks about her and her work with such reverence: It’s clear how many lives she’s touched.
The documentary tells her life story in a linear fashion and shows how it impacted her work. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, she was a curious child, much like the children she writes about. She didn’t set out to be a writer, but storytelling was something she enjoyed, and after becoming a mother, she thought she’d give it a try. It didn’t happen right away, and she faced a lot of rejections before having her work published. Her breakout book Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret was her third book, and it didn’t just change her life; it changed children’s literature. (The film adaptation, which Blume says is even better than the book, comes out this week.)
In the film, Blume reads excerpts from many of her books, accompanied by beautiful animations full of floral aesthetics. During the Margaret segment, there are floating tampons and maxi pads instead of flowers, which I thought was a total hoot. She reveals how those books paralleled what was happening in her life at the time. Margaret contained elements of Blume as a child. Fudge, the star of a series of books, was largely based on her son Larry, and later, her grandson. Forever was written after her daughter asked for a book where teens had sex and the girl didn’t die or face dire circumstances after. Deenie became known for a few sentences where the character reveals she masturbates, even though that’s not what the book is ultimately about.
One of the best (and most emotional) parts of Judy Blume Forever comes when we learn about two women who started writing to Judy as children. They forged special relationships with her over the years, writing and telling her things they couldn’t tell anyone else. Lorrie, a Korean American woman, revealed that she treated her letters to Blume as her diary, which led to them forming a close friendship. The other woman, Karen, wrote to Blume after reading the novel Tiger Eyes. The books deals with the death of a close family member, and Karen felt connected to the story after losing her brother to suicide. She and Blume maintained a relationship over the last 30+ years.
All of the letters children have written to Judy Blume live at Yale, where Blume donated her manuscripts and correspondence for preservation. I was weeping as she read different letters she’s received over the years. Even though they didn’t know Blume, she was the most trusted adult in their lives. And she still is. The filmmakers went to a school and talked to children now about the part Judy Blume’s books play in their lives. They might not know how to use a rotary phone, but it doesn’t matter to them. They can still see themselves in Margaret or Deenie or Blubber which focuses on bullying. It makes you see just how apt the title of the film is.
Judy Blume has left an indelible mark on my life as both a reader and a writer. Her books were SO REAL. That’s the thing I always remember most about them. She wrote in a way that made me feel seen as a kid. She just got it when I thought no one else could. Even though I had never been in a relationship when I read Forever, it’s exactly what I would have wanted my first relationship to be. There are few authors who can grow with their audience like Judy Blume does. I loved her at eight, and I loved her again at 15. Heck, I still love her at 37. When I saw her standing just a few feet away from me, I started to cry all over again. And I cried just as much the second time I watched the film!
The latter third of Judy Blume Forever focuses on a subject that is incredibly important to Judy: book banning. Shortly after Reagan took office in 1980, the U.S. saw the rise of the Christian right and the moral majority. Judy Blume’s books were some of the first and most swiftly contested and banned books for children. Why? Because they dealt with things that white Christian parents didn’t want their children thinking about. When Blume’s books began constantly being contested and banned, she became an activist to fight against the censorship of books, especially those meant for children. There is a great clip in the documentary of her on the show Crossfire debating with Pat Buchanan about her book Deenie. “Are you obsessed with masturbation?wp_postsshe asks him, totally exasperated with his baseless arguments.
Anyone who has been paying attention in the last few years knows that book banning has only gotten worse since Judy Blume’s books started getting banned 40 years ago. Her books still remain on those lists, but many of the most contested and banned books are those written by marginalized writers. Books that focus on race and LGBTQ+ characters are constantly coming under fire. Book bans that target LGBTQ+ content are hurting youth. Some of the writers featured in the documentary, including Woodson, Reynolds, and Cecily von Ziegesar, are authors of frequently banned books. Their commentary is invaluable in these moments to illustrate how little has changed. It was very smart of the filmmakers to make those connections — it would have been easy to keep the focus solely on Judy Blume and her work. But then you wouldn’t have a complete picture.
After the screening of the film, I was lucky enough to attend a talk with Judy Blume and the film’s directors. Judy admitted she was reluctant to participate in the documentary, and it took time for her to come around. She watched it with a certain level of detachment from the versions of herself portrayed, but it was clear that the whole thing still made her emotional. When asked what part of the film really got to her, she admitted that one of Jason Reynolds’ quotes really got her in the heart:
“Judy didn’t set out to make her books timeless; she made them timely, and that’s what makes them timeless.wp_posts
I couldn’t agree more.