On Saturday, the Athena Film Festival screened its Centerpiece Film, Judy Blume Forever, a documentary following the life, career, and legacy of one of the most influential YA authors of all time.
“Raise your hand if you masturbate,” requests Judy Blume in the first scene of Judy Blume Forever, which screened at the Athena Film Festival on Saturday in the Diana Center Event Oval. It’s a fitting opening to the film, capturing the now-85-year-old author’s commitment to portraying girlhood in its visceral, often-humorous, and always-honest entirety. Co-directed by Leah Wolchok and Davina Pardo, the documentary, which premiered first at Sundance and releases on Prime Video on April 21, follows Blume’s life from her childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey to her retirement in Key West, Florida, and her immeasurable literary impact on young readers along the way.
Known for her realist depictions of early adolescence, Judy Blume is perhaps the most influential author of young adult fiction in her generation. Her 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret—perhaps still her best-known work—brilliantly captures girlhood anxieties surrounding friendship, boys, and the onset of puberty. It’s far from Blume’s only book to do so—her 1974 novel Blubber, about a group of fifth-grade girls who ostracize one overweight classmate, has spent the last five decades a favorite among preteens and adults alike for its strikingly accurate depictions of preteen friendship dynamics. Blume’s novels also follow their readers as they grow; her 1975 novel Forever…, perhaps her most controversial work to date, follows two seniors in high school as they decide to have sex for the first time. In the documentary, Blume says she wrote the novel so that her own teenage daughter, Randy, would have access to a story “where a teen girl decides to have sex and her life doesn’t end.” In the process, as Wolchok and Pardo passionately lay out for their audience, Blume’s writing made generations of young girls feel seen like never before.
Indeed, Blume’s lasting impact as a young adult author is at the center of Judy Blume Forever, which is peppered with interviews featuring a variety of creatives who credit Blume as an influence. Celebrities including Samantha Bee and Molly Ringwald reflect on the profound impact Blume had on their own childhoods, while Young Adult authors Mary H.K. Choi, Jaqueline Woodson, and Jason Reynolds share how Blume’s books permanently shaped middle-grade literature. Author Cecily von Ziegesar credits Blume with laying the foundation for the Gossip Girl book series. Anna Konkle and Lena Dunham, creators of PEN15 and Girls, respectively, say their shows would not exist without Blume’s work. Literary historians and librarians alike say the entire Young Adult fiction genre would not exist without her.
As Judy Blume Forever recognizes, it’s impossible to discuss Blume’s literary legacy without discussing her extensive history as a subject of censorship. Beginning in the Reagan era, Blume—already a successful author for over a decade—suddenly found herself at the center of a culture war, her honest depictions of girlhood, puberty, and sexuality branded by the right wing as a national threat to children and morality. Judy Blume Forever brilliantly illustrates this period through a blend of archival footage, excerpts of Blume’s writing, and interviews with the author in the present day. Wolchok and Pardo follow Blume as Forever… becomes the censors’ first target for its depictions of premarital sex, so much so that many of the authors interviewed in Judy Blume Forever admit they have no memory of reading the book, despite reading most of her other work. Next, Deenie is taken off library shelves for a two-line mention of the titular character masturbating; it becomes known as Blume’s “masturbation book.” Finally, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is banned en masse, seemingly for its mentions of bras, or perhaps menstruation, or perhaps its frank discussions of religion—to this day, conservatives remain unsure quite what the danger is.
It’s in this story of censorship where Judy Blume Forever begins to take a closer—albeit perhaps still incomprehensive—look at Blume’s feminist impact. In one particularly poignant moment, 85-year-old Blume reflects on watching the women’s liberation movement unfold from a distance during her life as a housewife and says, “perhaps I was doing with my writing what I was too scared to do with my life.” This feeling doesn’t start to go away until the mid-1980s, when Blume joins the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), becoming a powerful voice against not just the censorship of her own works, but the works of authors across the country whose voices have been silenced by conservative moral panic. Still, the film begins to falter during its brief, somewhat reluctant exploration of the gender politics in Blume’s work, which, as the author herself admits, often reinforces a kind of gender binary that doesn’t hold up to modern understandings. This seems to be a topic more than one interviewee is willing to discuss, but Wolchok and Pardo spend notably little time exploring it. Eventually, Jason Reynolds explains the issue best when he says, “I don’t think her works were written to be timeless—they were written to be timely, and they were so timely that they became timeless.” Still, perhaps one of the only areas where Judy Blume Forever falls short is in its reluctance to let Blume’s legacy be as complex as it is resilient.
For all its literary history, Judy Blume Forever is also, centrally, a film about motherhood. Throughout the film, Blume reckons with having had an imperfect mother and later, with having been one herself. During her childhood, her own mother, Esther, is emotionally distant to the extent that young Judy feels out of place discussing any feelings, much less sensitive topics like puberty or sex. Then, unexpectedly, when Judy becomes an author, Esther personally types the final draft of every one of her manuscripts to send to her publisher. As Blume’s career explodes, her mother joins her, a silent support as she writes about topics they never could have discussed openly. “Oh god,” says Blume as she reflects on their relationship. “Did I really let her type Forever…?”
Years later, shortly after her first divorce, Blume destabilizes her own children’s lives when she remarries on impulse and pulls them out of high school to travel Europe with her new husband. Even now, the 85-year-old Blume still struggles to contend with that decision. Throughout her career, Blume thinks of her writing as being for her son and daughter, but worries she’s becoming a better mother to other people’s children than her own. The film allows its audience to posit that in some ways, these dynamics are inextricable—Blume begins to write about these topics with such earnestness because she could never discuss them with her mother, and later uses her own children’s experiences as inspiration, even if it is ultimately her writing that places a strain on her relationships with both of them. Blume loves motherhood, but, as Judy Blume Forever so powerfully emphasizes, she refuses to feel guilty for wanting more.
While Blume’s literary impact is unparalleled, Judy Blume Forever shines when it leans into these intimate moments in her life. The documentary offers a powerful discussion of censorship, but hits its stride when it moves into Blume’s much more personal impact on young women readers—the part of her legacy readers may not see right away. For over fifty years, Blume kept personal correspondence with a variety of young girls who wrote to her after reading her books through letters which have now been cataloged in the Yale University archives. One such correspondent, Lorrie, is now in her forties and has been writing to Blume since the fourth grade, after reading Margaret for the first time. Lorrie’s interviews are perhaps the highlight of Judy Blume Forever, bringing together delightfully precocious humor with poignant honesty. In her first letter, at age nine, Lorrie writes, “if you have any sex books you can recommend, please include author, date, etc.” More than a decade later, she asks Blume to attend her college graduation in lieu of her own parents, with whom her relationship has become strained. Blume accepts her invitation without hesitation.
Not all of Blume’s letters tell such a funny story. Often, young girls write to Blume because they feel they can’t speak honestly to their parents, opening up in ways they never have before about everything from friendship to puberty, to sexuality, to mental health and abuse. One of Blume’s regular correspondents, interviewed for the documentary as an adult, writes to Blume about coping with the death of her older brother, before revealing her grief is complicated by having suffered abuse at his hands. After she receives this letter, Blume’s therapist tells her, “you can’t save every child.” As Judy Blume Forever—and more broadly, Blume’s own writing—testifies, that doesn’t stop her from trying.
Blume may have written some of her most popular works more than five decades ago, but in 2023, Judy Blume Forever feels more relevant than ever. Today, as censorship once again takes hold in states across the country, Blume’s books have returned to the top of the banned books list, flanked by more recent works that bring her brand of realist fiction to tell the stories of LGBTQ+ children and communities of color. From her bookstore in Key West, Blume remains a passionate board member at NCAC, and just as dedicated to fighting censorship as she was forty years ago. Censorship may be back in full force, but Blume—and the filmmakers—seem ready to take it head-on, with the knowledge that the impact of her writing on young readers truly does last forever.
From the beginning of Judy Blume Forever, we see women and men of all ages approach Blume to tell her about the profound impact her work had on their own adolescence. After a lifetime of revolutionizing how we understand not just young adult fiction, but adolescence in general, it’s reverence well-earned. Wolchok and Pardo assume their audience, like any young person in the United States for the last five decades, has probably heard of Blume. Still, they set out to ensure we never forget just how central of a figure she has been in American literature. With Judy Blume Forever, a delightful blend of humor and earnestness, they do just that.
Event Photo via Athena Film Festival