The idea for the documentary, Judy Blume Forever, on the bestselling children’s author, came to Davina Pardo, who directed the film with Leah Wolchok, five years ago. Speaking over a video call from Los Angeles, California, Pardo says, “I was on a road trip with my children. We decided to play an audiobook and chose Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972), one of Judy’s earliest books. Since she was the narrator on the audiobook, when we hit play, her voice filled the car.”
Blume has a musical, effervescent voice, Pardo commented. “It was the first time I heard her voice. I’ve been a huge Judy Blume fan as a kid.” Though wrapped up with the characters and stories, Pardo says she did not know anything about Blume. “When I heard her voice that very first time, it hit me in the most visceral way and I suddenly wanted to know everything about Judy.”
Curiosity took over
Once she started researching, the filmmaker’s curiosity took over, Pardo says, and she realised there had not been a documentary on the author. “It was surprising because she’s such an icon, and has had such a huge impact on American culture. It made me realize we’ve got to make a film about Judy Blume.”
At first, Blume was hesitant about the project. “It took a couple of years for her to say yes,” says Pardo. “She has a bookstore in Key West and knew what a commitment the film would be. She knew that if she agreed to do a documentary, she would want to be her direct, forthcoming self.” Over time, Pardo says, — once Blume got to know the team with Wolchok and Imagine Documentaries — she came around.
The charming documentary has Blume’s daughter, Randy, son, Larry (who was the inspiration for the Fudge books) and husband, George Cooper on camera. “The first time we filmed with Judy, George was with her,” says Wolchok. “We had the camera person pan over to capture George’s reaction to something she was saying. He said, ‘What are you doing? I’m not going to be a part of this documentary. This is about Judy. That seems anti-feminist, to have her husband commenting on her work and her life. Don’t put me in it’.”
Over time, Wolchok says, Cooper agreed to be in the film. “He decided to appear in the scene where they are going through Polaroid pictures of themselves through the years. They are laughing and having so much fun together.”
Pardo and Wolchok say they always thought of the film as a coming-of-age story, of Judy Blume, her characters, and her readers. “The structure is fairly chronological, but it was based around where these key moments of coming-of-age intersect with Judy’s life, her books, and her readers. That was the balance we were working towards the whole time.”
One of the beautiful things about Judy Blume Forever is the presence of Lorrie Kim and Karen Chilstrom who have been writing letters to Blume from when they were little and she wrote back. “Judy published a book in the mid-’80s called Letter to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You, where she included excerpts from the letters she had received,” says Pardo.
“Young people wrote to her about how they felt about their bodies, siblings, parents’ divorces, depression, eating disorders, sexual abuse, incest and suicide,” continues Wolchok. “She included snippets of those letters in this book. We knew she had a deep connection to her readers. What we didn’t know was that she had corresponded with some of these readers for decades.”
The directors asked Blume if she would be willing to ask a couple of the people who had written to her if they would participate in the film. “She said, of course, and introduced us to Lorrie and Karen, who both agreed to share their letters from when they were kids and their stories over the years.”
Warrior of words
Pardo says she had no idea what a fighter Blume was throughout her life. “I knew that her work was groundbreaking, but I didn’t realize how trailblazing she was in her life, pushing back against societal expectations, breaking into this male-dominated industry without a lot of support from home or a community of friends.”
Wolchok agrees, saying, “She had to fight for her rights as an author in the ‘80s when her books were being censored. She went head-to-head with people like the politician, Pat Buchanan. I admire her so much for having that fight. And she’s still fighting today against people who want to take books off shelves.”
Need to know
The documentary also has writers, actors and creators talking about Blume’s legacy. “We always knew we wanted to talk to authors writing for young audiences today, whose work is being challenged including Jason Reynolds, Alex Gino and Jacqueline Woodson,” says Pardo. “The books being censored today are typically those written by people of colour or queer or trans authors. Those are the books that parents feel most afraid of influencing their children.”
Conversely, Wolchok says, those are the books that most need to be out there in the world so that young people can discover them and see themselves reflected in the story.
“We always knew we wanted to talk to those authors and were thrilled that they wanted to participate,” says Wolchok. “They all had such insightful commentary about how much Judy influenced them as writers.”
The director duo say they also wanted to talk to celebrities, creators and actors who had revolutionized the way female protagonists are seen in American television and movies. “Molly Ringwald, Samantha Bee, Lena Dunham and Anna Konkle were instrumental in telling the world how much Judy influenced American popular culture.”
Judy Blume Forever is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video