Judy Blume is having a moment, which is all the more remarkable considering she has been continuously relevant for more than 50 years now. After famously refusing all offers to adapt her seminal 1970 novel, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., Blume finally agreed, and a movie version starring Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates is coming to theaters. At the same time, the literary superstar is the subject of her very own documentary, Judy Blume Forever.
Director Davina Pardo had the idea for a Judy Blume documentary while on a road trip with her children. As they listened to Blume narrate the audiobook recording of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Pardo found herself suddenly wanting to know more about the writer behind it, and was surprised to learn no one had made a film about her before. (Blume claims she'd never been asked.) It would take years of corresponding with Blume before Pardo and co-director Leah Wolchok got her to agree to open up about herself on camera.
Judy Blume Forever — a title that tips its hat to the author's 1975 novel — sees the 85-year-old Blume candidly reflecting on the major milestones of her life and her journey from New Jersey housewife to literary icon. As the doc looks back on her impact over the years — revisiting letters from young readers pouring their hearts out to the author — Blume looks ahead to the future, rallying against censorship in children's literature. (Forever is still being banned in schools and libraries to this day.)
In conversation with A.frame, the filmmakers open up about their time with Blume and the transformative effect she had on each of their lives.
A.frame When you think back, do you have a defining childhood memory of Judy's work and how it affected you as a young girl?
DAVINA PARDO: I think it's a feeling more than a specific moment, and it's a place. I remember where I used to sit when I read Judy Blume books. Judy Blume books were just always there. I was always reading and I was always coming back to Judy Blume books again and again. There was a chair on the landing next to my bedroom that was this big comfy reading chair, and instead of sitting in the chair, I sat in the triangle crevice between the chair and the wall. It was just so much more comfortable, and it made me feel so safe. I remember sitting there reading, and one of the books that was especially formative was Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, like so many millions of women. I had got my period when I was 10 before my older sister got hers, which was hugely embarrassing, and Margaret made it all feel so much better. To open up this book and be inside the head of someone who wanted this horrible thing that was happening to me, and to see this character have conversations with her friends allowed me to become a part of a conversation that I wasn't really having in my own life.
As you were prepping for this movie, what was it like revisiting Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret as an adult?
DAVINA: It's pretty interesting. The first time, I was taken right back to that spot between the wall and the chair. It was almost like I was a kid again, rereading it, because it's so deeply lodged in my memory. Some of the lines are just so familiar, they feel like memories. So, I had to read the book that way, and then I had to read it again thinking about, "How is this going to fit into the film? What place does this book have in the story?" and be more analytical about it. But the first time was a total mind trip.
Leah, I know you became Judy convert later in life.
LEAH WOLCHOK: I'm a late bloomer, in every sense of the word. Davina and I always joke about how she got her period at 10. I got my period at 16. Somewhere in the middle is the average age for a girl to get her period, and we were both outliers, feeling so secretive and ashamed of how young or old we were. I grew up in the South in the '80s, when Judy's books were banned and seen as taboo, and girls' bodies were seen as something to be ashamed of, and women's bodily autonomy was something to be feared. I internalized all of those societal pressures, and I did not read any of the juicy Judy Blume books that I should have. I wish I could go back and tell my 11-year-old self, "Don't listen to those people telling you that Judy Blume's books are naughty!"
You know what book we were passing around in fifth grade? Flowers in The Attic! That was the book that I read and reread and reread. Somehow, that was okay for all of us 10 year olds to be reading, but not a book about a girl who is exploring her body and questioning religion. So, I read all these incredible books as an adult.
Were you able to capture some of that same feeling that Davina had?
LEAH: I was immediately taken back to what I was like as an 11 year old on the cusp. I think that is the sweet spot Judy always liked to write about — that moment just before adolescence, when everything is still possible but feels impossible to a kid. At the same time, I was raising my own kids who were just on the cusp. So, I was introducing the books to them, and I was reading the books out loud to them and getting to see how they were responding. I was experiencing the books both as an adult and as a mom, watching my kids experience them for the first time and seeing, "Oh my God, these words that were written 50 years ago are still so powerful! It's still so powerful for a kid to hear their own feelings reflected back to them in a character that they feel like they know."
I know the process of getting Judy to agree to the doc took a number of years. Do you think there was something you said or something about your pitch that was the thing that finally convinced her to say yes?
DAVINA: I think Judy really appreciated that I went to Yale to her archives to start researching the letters that she'd received from kids over decades. She treasures those letters and those relationships more than anything. I think she feels like it's a part of her story that has not really been told — that isn't really understood — so I think she was really grateful for that. Also, I think the tipping point was bringing on Imagine Documentaries and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. That gave her a comfort that this film would happen in a big way. It wasn't just an independent filmmaker going at it slowly — which we've both done. We understand her hesitation with that, so Imagine was a huge help on that front.
Do you remember the day she finally said, "I'm in"?
DAVINA: Yes, I do. I got an email from Judy and the first line was in all caps: "Yes, I'm in." I was rushing to a yoga class, and it was a teacher I knew well — you know those yoga teachers you have a really close relationship with — so I didn't have time to process and digest it. I probably texted you right away.
LEAH: You did. I remember exactly where I was when I got your message.
DAVINA: When I got to yoga, I saw the teacher and just immediately burst into tears. It had been so long of hoping, hoping, hoping and feeling so deeply that this film needed to be made and knowing how wonderful it could be, so when she finally said yes, it was such an emotional relief. It was just a thrill.
On the flip side, I have to assume the interviewees in the film [including Molly Ringwald, Lena Dunham and Jacqueline Woodson] were some of the easiest asks in documentary history. "Do you want to talk about how much you love Judy Blume and what she means to you?"
LEAH: It's so funny. The month and year that Judy said yes was February of 2020, and then everything shut down. We wanted to rush down to Key West with our cameras and start to film her right away, but obviously we couldn't. So, we spent a lot of time watching every possible Judy Blume interview that ever existed online and rereading all of her books. But in some of those interviews, we saw Molly Ringwald doing an introduction to Judy Blume when she was on her book tour, or Samantha Bee. There were people that we knew had a really deep connection and had already publicly displayed their deep love for Judy Blume. Those people were very easy to get.
At some point we started to enter names of celebrities plus Judy Blume into the Google search to see if it would come up. And often, there would be something! Like, someone in an interview somewhere said, "And when I was reading Forever..." and, "When I was reading, Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret..." so, yes, those were thrilling interviews.
What was it like showing Judy the film for the first time?
DAVINA: It's always the most scary moment in the process. We sent her a link, and it's incredibly emotional for her. She says this again and again, that watching the film, she thinks, "Who is that woman?" It's something she says in the film, too. It's such a strange thing to look back on a life and realize how much time has passed and how much you've done. So, it was emotional and nerve-wracking, but she's thrilled. And I think for her, getting to see it with audiences, she got to feel that there's just so much love for her. There's so much love in the room when the film plays, and she got to be there and feel that and that was really great.
LEAH: And there's so much emotion in the room when the film plays, I think, because she's such an emotionally open person. Everything just comes right out. Also, the way that the audience responds is so emotionally open, and you can feel it in the room. It's on so many levels: They're connecting to their own childhoods. They're connecting to their own marriages, their own parents, and maybe remembering the loss of their parents. I think for her to see that everyone was transported back into their own lives, through her life, was really powerful.
DAVINA: She's also such a humble person. She says her favorite part of the film is the letter writers we interviewed, and I believe that, because I know how important those letter writers are to her. But she says that's her favorite element of the film — the way that we handled Lorrie and Karen's story, the way their letters were included, and the way her relationship with them was portrayed.
The movie is as much about Judy as it is about the impact she has had on people's lives. What did you take away from your time with Judy? What did you learn as a filmmaker, as an artist, or just as a person?
DAVINA: Making this film, I was struck again and again by the intensity and depth of feeling Judy's readers have for her and her work. It's a reminder for me of the power of books, especially the books we read when we're young. Books can make us feel safe, more understood, less alone. A book can affirm lived experience, or offer a window into a life we know nothing about. I hope every kid today gets to find their Judy Blume, to discover the authors who will make them feel more at home in the world and more understanding of others.
LEAH: Getting to know Judy has completely transformed the way I talk to my own kids about their feelings, their bodies, and about sex. Judy's honesty inspired a new level of honesty around our dinner table. No questions are off limit. No answers are embarrassing — although sometimes the shy 11 year old inside me still blushes during our conversations. Judy's fierce advocacy for the freedom to read and her unwavering support of women's bodily autonomy throughout the past 50 years have empowered me to start to speak out against the recent surge in book banning and anti-abortion legislation taking over the country. For most of my documentary career, I've been comfortable in my role as a quiet observer, but Judy's badass activism has encouraged me to find and use my own voice.