At the beginning of Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s documentary about the beloved author Judy Blume, who wrote novels for young adults decades before the term "YA" existed, we’re pretty sure what kind of film we’re going to get. The still strikingly beautiful 83-year-old Blume tells her story herself, directly into camera, in clear, well-prepared interviews. These personal reflections are augmented with interviews from younger writers, publishers, and notable celebrities like Molly Ringwald and Lena Dunham, who talk about how Blume inspired them, and the effect she had on the culture. That would be perfectly fine for a nice little retrospective documentary, and Blume is a trailblazing American icon more than worthy of that type of feature treatment. But as the film progresses it becomes far more noteworthy and moving.
We hear from a couple of women who aren’t identified as writers or thought-leaders but simply as people who started to write to Blume when they were young girls. And their favourite author wrote back. A lot! Cross-cutting between these now-grown women and Blume, who sits in a university archive where all of her letters are now housed, we learn how many young readers were lucky enough to have Blume as a pen pal. It’s both impressive and touching to see the handwritten letters and hear them read out loud by those who wrote them. In most cases, these letters were from kids growing up in the ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s who had questions about basic adolescent issues and facts-of-life that their parents and other adults just didn’t talk about back then, but Blume’s books did.
Since 1959, Blume has published more than 25 novels, most of which are, amazingly, still read by young people of all ages. Books like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (1970), Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972), Deenie (1973), and Blubber (1974) provide relatable stories that deal head-on with subjects like menstruation, masturbation, sexual desire, bullying, peer pressure, parental problems, feeling like an outsider, and all the other embarrassing things every child and teenager goes through. Her books talk straight to kids; they never talk down to them. Because of that, she was considered a much-needed dose of fresh air and frank truth in the “Free to Be” '60s and ‘70s, and a dangerous, smutty radical in the repressive Regan-era '80s and early ‘90s.
Today, with book banning being taken to a whole new level—and leaders on the political right making damn clear they would like not only to ban the teaching of ideas they disapprove of but to essentially destroy public education entirely—Blume’s books and life story are suddenly all the more relevant. What makes this picture such a powerful response to rightwing fearmongering is seeing and hearing the simple things Blume's young readers have written to her over the decades. Their questions are almost entirely about basic human development; the most natural, non-radical questions any kid might have about their most ordinary, everyday life experiences. And Blume has responded in such kind and thoughtful ways. For many young folks, she's functioned like a diary that writes back. As well as a place to express their most private thoughts that can’t be discovered or invaded by their nosey parents.
I have often thought about Blume’s books recently when writing film reviews and essays about current trends in children's and young adult cinema. Movies that, to me, feel condescending and moralistic with hackneyed self-deprecating humor that the generations that followed mine seem to confuse with honesty. Such pictures have often made me long for the sincerity and utter lack of hipness the Judy Blume books I read as a kid possessed. I think those qualities are why her books have lasted so long and spoken to so many generations.
There's a brief section near the end of this film that talks about the ways Blume's novels may now seem a little dated. These range from societal throwbacks like rotary telephones, binary gender dynamics, and moms firmly planted in the kitchen; and behavioural aspects like depictions of adolescent courtship and teenage sexual relationships that are more truthful than instructional. But rather than suggesting that she, or others, go back and “update” these books, as has cynically and horrifically been done with deceased authors like Roald Dahl, one of the interviewees in the doc suggests Blume's books should be treated like the best kind of historical fiction.
Judy Blume Forever makes clear the tremendous contribution of this beloved author to the field of children's and young adult literature. More importantly, it shows us why her groundbreaking work feels so timeless.
A solid career retrospective doc about the iconic young-adult novelist who wrote honestly for teen and pre-teen readers decades before the term "YA" existed.