Alex Gino, Amazon Prime Video, Anna Konkle, Beverly Horowitz, Caitlin Kinnunen, Cecily von Ziegesar, Davina Pardo, documentaries, Emily Berg, Gabrielle Moss, Jacqueline Woodson, Jason Reynolds, Joanne Stern, Judy Blume, Judy Blume Forever, Justin Chanda, Karen Chilstrom, Leah Wolchok, Lena Dunham, Lorrie Kim, Mary H.K. Choi, Mary Weaver, Michael Nelson, Molly Ringwald, movies, Pat Scales, Prime Video, Rachel Lotus, reviews, Samantha Bee, Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, Tarayi Jones, TV
April 21, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the documentary film “Judy Blume Forever” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are fans, loved ones and business associates of author Judy Blume, who also participated in this documentary.
Culture Clash: Blume talks about the controversies surrounding some of her books, her two failed marriages, and various insecurities and tragedies that she’s had in her life.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of Judy Blume fans, “Judy Blume” will appeal to people interested in documentaries about famous and influential book authors.
“Judy Blume Forever” is a fan tribute documentary in the best sense of the term. It doesn’t need a lot of exposé journalism, because Judy Blume candidly shares her flaws and failings in the movie. Anyone who is a fan of Blume should consider this documentary as essential as her best books. “Judy Blume Forever” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, “Judy Blume Forever” beings with a scene of Blume reading an excerpt from her 1973 young-adult novel “Deenie.” In this excerpt, gym teacher Mrs. Eileen Rappaport talks to her students about masturbation. It’s the type of writing that got some of Blume’s books denounced or outright banned for being “inappropriate” reading for children. This type of banning is still going on in some places for books by Blume and many other authors.
Most of the protagonists in Blume’s books are tweens and teenagers, usually girls. And for millions of people, Blume’s books were the first books that they read as children where topics such as masturbation, menstruation, bullying, eating disorders, physical disabilities and teenage sex were openly discussed as facts of life that not everyone dealt with in the same way. The books validated many underage readers’ own feelings and insecurities about these issues that these kids couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to discuss with any adults.
Former 1980s teen idol Molly Ringwald, who knows what it’s like to be thought of as a relatable “role model” for girls, is one of several Blume fans interviewed in the documentary. Ringwald says, “Everything I learned about sex, or thinking about sex or crushes, I learned from Judy.” Filmmaker/TV producer/actress Lena Dunham adds, “Judy’s books speak about the unspeakable. It’s the reason why her books were so complicated for people.”
And author Tarayi Jones comments on what it was like to read a Blume book as a child: “It was like a look into a secret world. I felt someone was being honest. That’s a gift. That’s magic.” Tony-nominated actress Caitlin Kinnunen “(The Prom”) adds, “Judy wrote these scenes that were awkward.” It was that awkwardness that made her work so realistic, say many of her fans.
Blume says in the documentary, “When I started to write, I only identified with kids, not adults.” Although Blume would later write some books about and for adults, she is most famous for her books about adolescents and teenagers. She adds, “I was an anxious child. I felt like adults kept secrets from the kids. I hated the secrets. I had to make up what those secrets were. That fueled my imagination.”
Born in 1938 as Judith Sussman, she was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Blume describes herself as a child who loved to go to the library with her homemaker mother Esther Sussman. Her father Rudolph Sussman was a dentist. Blume describes him as a “nurturer.” She adds, “I adored my father. He tried to raise me to want an adventurous life … and to take chances.” Blume also grew up with a brother named David, who was four or five years older than her.
As an anxious child, Blume says what worried her the most was her father dying in middle-age, because all seven of her father’s siblings died before they reached the age of 60. Blume (whose family is Jewish) also remembers childhood worries about the Holocaust and World War II. Blume admits that she’s struggled with lifelong insecurities about not being “good enough.”
Joanne Stern, Blume’s best friend since childhood, describes Blume as a child: “She was a good girl. She was very cute, very pretty, had beautiful clothes. She was very thin.” Blume adds, “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking inside.” Mary Weaver, another Blume friend since childhood, is also shown in the documentary. Weaver and Blume fondly reminisce about a boy who was a schoolmate crush.
Blume came of age in the 1950s, a decade that she describes as “the era of pretend: Pretend that we’re happy when we’re not. Pretend that everything is great when it isn’t.” You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know maybe that’s why Blume chose to be so frankly realistic in her books that are fiction but discuss issues that happen to real people.
Blume met her first husband, attorney John Blume, when she was a second-year undergraduate student at New York University. Sadly, her worst fear about her father came true, when he died of a heart attack at age 54, just five weeks before her wedding in 1959. Judy and John became the parents of two kids: daughter Randy and son Lawrence, also known as Larry. Blume said she knew she wanted a career outside of the home. And so, this avid reader decided to become a professional writer.
Like many famous authors, Judy’s early career was filled with a lot of rejections from publishers. She describes her earliest unpublished work as “imitation Dr. Seuss.” Judy says her mother was always her biggest supporter, who typed all of Judy’s manuscripts and never gave any criticism of her work. But Judy also admits her feelings toward her mother were complicated: “My mother had some low self-esteem issues herself. She wanted me to be perfect.”
Judy’s first children’s book to be published was 1969’s “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo,” which went largely unnoticed by the general public at the time of its publication. And then, Judy heard that book publisher Bradbury Press was looking for realistic fiction for middle-school kids. After getting a series of rejections, Blume finally got her big break: Bradbury published Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It was a bestseller and is widely considered one of the most influential young-adult novels of all time. It has now been made into a movie, starring Abby Ryder Fortson as the title character.
In the book, 11-year-old Margaret Simon has parents who are in an interfaith marriage (her father is Jewish, her mother is Christian) but they chose not to raise Margaret in any religion. Margaret frequently talks to God about her hopes, dreams and fears about her life and about growing up. She is afraid of being the last in her peer group to grow breasts and get her menstrual period. And she worries about being accepted by her peers in school and in her New Jersey community.
These are all insecurities that Judy says she went through in her own adolescence. She was embarrassed that she hadn’t started menstruating yet, like most of her female friends, so she lied to her friends about getting her menstrual period. Judy says, just like Margaret, she was also self-conscious about being flat-chested. Judy can laugh about it now, but at the time, these issues weighed heavily on her adolescent life.
“I wanted the truth, the reality of being that age,” Judy says about how she wrote “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Judy adds, “Writing ‘Margaret’ gave me my sense of who I was and what I might be able to do.” Pat Scales, a librarian, comments on the phenomenal success of the book: “I knew when I read ‘Margaret’ that kids would flock to this book. The ‘realism’ that was available prior to Judy [Blume books] was not realistic at all.”
Simon & Schuster publishing executive Justin Chanda comments on the book: “It was explaining things that were foreign to me, quite frankly. But it was also speaking to me about stuff that I was thinking about, in terms of religion and where you fit in the world.” Young-adult author/historian Gabrielle Moss quips about the book: “Come for the masturbation. Stay for the empowerment.”
Judy says that although she supported the feminism movement that flourished in the 1970s at the same time as her career flourished, she was not an outspoken, public supporter. She says she wanted to march in protests and burn bras, like many feminists did at the time, “but I didn’t. I could be fearless in my writing in a way [that] in my own life I could not.
Among her other bestsellers are the aforementioned “Deenie,” whose title character has scoliosis and wears a brace; 1974’s “Blubber,” which covered issues of bullying and body shaming; and 1975’s “Forever…,” perhaps her most controversial young-adult book, because it had descriptions of unmarried 18-year-olds having sex with each other. It’s common for today’s young-adult books to have frank descriptions of teen sexuality, but back in 1975, it was unprecedented.
Judy says that even with all of her success, she’s always had many critics and opponents. “Some people weren’t necessarily wishing me well,” she wryly comments. Judy says one of the questions she would often get from literary snobs was: “When are you going to write a real book?”
After “Deenie” was published, she says a male school principal told her that male masturbation was normal, but female masturbation was not normal. During the worst of the criticism that she got from people who wanted to ban her books, Judy says that she was getting death threats, “which I took very seriously.”
At the height of Judy’s fame in 1975, she decided to end her first marriage. All she will say about why she and her first husband John were incompatible is this comment: “I married a man who, like my mother, never talked about his feelings.” Judy remembers feeling stifled in her marriage at the time: “Enough of this. I have to get out of here. I have to live.”
By her own admission, she jumped too quickly into another marriage after her first divorce. Her second husband was a London-based scientist named Thomas Kitchens. That marriage ended in divorce in 1978. Blume says her biggest regret in life is deciding to uproot her kids to live in England during this doomed marriage.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Judy comments on her second marriage. “I was rebelling in the stupidest way. It was very rough, not just for me but my kids. I still have guilt about that. The honest thing was to admit I had made a terrible mistake … Through all the worst times in my life, I’d been able to write, and my writing has gotten me through.”
Judy has been happily married to her third husband, George Cooper, since 1987. She describes him as “easygoing” and “non-judgmental.” Together, they own the retail store Books & Books in Key West, Florida. They are frequently in the store and make themselves accessible to customers and other visitors. The documentary includes footage of the couple greeting many of these people and interacting with employees, such as Michael Nelson and Emily Berg. Judy’s biological children are not in the movie, but Judy’s stepdaughter Amanda Cooper is briefly interviewed in the documentary.
Speaking of fans and admirers, one of the best parts of the documentary is how it shows that Judy considers her fan mail to be among her most treasured possessions and some of her fans to be among her closest friends. She reads some of her fan mail out loud and is obviously still emotionally touched by people telling her how her books have changed their lives and made them feel less alone in the world. Judy has kept so much of her fan mail, in 2017, Yale University acquired 50 years’ worth of her writing and fan mail to keep in the Yale archives.
Lorrie Kim, who has been writing to Judy since Kim was 9 years old, is one such superfan who became a friend. The documentary shows Judy attending Kim’s graduation from Bryn Mawr College. Karen Chilstrom, who’s been writing to Judy since Chilstrom was 12, shares her traumatic family history of having a brother who sexually abused her and who then committed suicide. Chilstrom says of how her friendship with Judy developed: “She saw a person who was hurting, and she didn’t give up on me.”
The documentary has mention of Judy’s foray into adult-oriented novels—most notably 1978’s “Wifey,” which covered the topic of marital infidelity. Judy also talks about how she’s said no to numerous lucrative offers to turn her books into movies because she’s so protective of her work. Her 1981 young-adult novel “Tiger Eyes” (which was inspired by her own real-life experiences of her father’s death) is one of the few of her books that has been made into a movie. The 2013 “Tiger Eyes” movie, starring Willa Holland and directed by Judy’s son Lawrence, was a low-budget independent film that flopped.
Many fans of Judy’s books talk about how her books helped them learn about many of life’s issues that are larger than a girl worrying about if she’ll be popular in her school. Jones comments on the impact that “Blubber” had on her: “It made me understand that just being a bystander to cruelty made you cruel.”
Other fans and associates interviewed in the documentary include comedian/media personality/author Samantha Bee, author Jacqueline Woodson, screenwriter/producer Anna Konkle (“PEN15”), author Cecily von Ziegesar (“Gossip Girl”), author Mary H.K. Choi, book publisher/editor Beverly Horowitz, author Alex Gino, sex educator Rachel Lotus and author Jason Reynolds. There are also numerous children of various races who are shown reading from her books out loud.
“Judy Blume Forever” is more of a “fan appreciation” documentary than a “fan worship” documentary. The movie doesn’t shy away from including criticism of Judy’s work, although that criticism is mostly shown in archival clips. One of the more memorable clips is from 1984, when Judy appeared on the CNN talk show “Crossfire” for a heated discussion with conservative media pundit Pat Buchanan, who was one her most outspoken critics. In the documentary, Judy comments on this “Crossfire” appearance: “It was a very strange experience.”
The documentary also mentions the uproar that some people had because of a line in Judy’s 1993 young-adult book “Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson.” The line was “Here’s to my fucking family.” This was in 1993, when most kids had access to movies and TV shows with vulgar language on cable TV and home video releases, but book publishers were still skittish about putting profanity in books geared to tweens and teens. Judy says that her editor told her that she would have full support from the editor on her decision to keep that line in the book. Judy describes her former book editor Richard “Dick” Jackson (who died at the age of 84 in 2019) as “the best editor in the world.”
The documentary probably would been more interesting if it had current interviews with Judy’s critics, especially since book banning (particularly in schools and in libraries) has been having a resurgence in recent years. Not surprisingly, Judy is vehemently in support of writers’ rights. Even with the absence of recent criticism of Judy’s work, “Judy Blume Forever” doesn’t feel like it’s an incomplete movie. The documentary undoubtedly shows that Judy Blume, who is a master of soul-baring storytelling, is indeed the best person to tell her own life story.
Amazon Studios released “Judy Blume Forever” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023, the same day that the movie premiered on Prime Video.