On a long road trip from New York to Nova Scotia a few years ago, documentarian Davina Pardo played an audiobook of Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to help pass the time for her kids, then 5 and 8.
Blume’s effervescent voice, reading the same 1972 novel of grade school angst that had engrossed Pardo as a child, enchanted the filmmaker’s kids as well. “It took me right back,” Pardo says. “Seeing the way my kids reacted to it, but also being an adult and wanting to know the adult behind these books. Kids used to write to [Blume] and say, ‘How do you know our secrets?’ It felt like a film could be an opportunity to get to know her in a way that we hadn’t had the chance to do yet.”
Judy Blume Forever, Pardo and co-director Leah Wolchok’s new film about the 84-year-old young adult fiction pioneer, tracks Blume’s upbringing in a Jewish family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the 1940s and ’50s and her ascent as an author in the 1970s who wrote for young people with a rare candor, often talking about taboo topics like menstruation and masturbation and ultimately selling more than 90 million books. The Imagine and Amazon Studios documentary, which will premiere Jan. 21 at Sundance ahead of an April 21 release on Prime Video, comes at a time when many of the issues Blume grappled with in her life and work — book banning, abortion, antisemitism — are shockingly topical.
While Pardo and Wolchok, the team behind the Emmy-winning HBO doc about New Yorker cartoonists, Very Semi-Serious, thought Blume was a natural subject for a film, the author herself took some persuading. “I said, ‘I don’t want a documentary about my life,’ ” Blume says, speaking by phone from her home in Key West, Florida, where she runs an independent bookstore and lives with her husband, George. “Why would I want that?” Over the course of three years, Pardo’s passion and quiet persistence eventually won Blume over.
Agreeing to the doc was part of a series of decisions Blume has made recently to open up her life and work to others. She has also agreed to participate in a biography by writer Mark Oppenheimer; donated her archive to Yale University’s Beinecke Library; allowed writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig to adapt her breakout 1970 novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, for Lionsgate in a movie due April 28; and Mara Brock Akil to make a series for Netflix loosely inspired by her 1975 novel Forever. “The right time, the right place,” Blume says of the Margaret decision, which she had held out on for 50 years. “I was in the right frame of mind.”
Ever since she published her first book in 1969, Blume has been the one deciding how to frame the story. But with the documentary, she turned over that responsibility to Pardo and Wolchok. “I didn’t have any power,” Blume says of the documentary. “I answered their questions and talked at great length, but I never saw any part until it was close to being finished. I had to understand that this is what was going to happen, and it wasn’t me telling my story.”
The film includes interviews with Blume’s children, now 59 and 61, as well as two readers who had written to her as children in the ’70s and ’80s detailing their private problems and received remarkably thoughtful and consistent correspondence from Blume over decades. Authors including Alex Gino and Jacqueline Woodson talk about Blume’s impact on them and their work, and archival footage shows Blume enduring blowback for writing with such frankness about sex. In one delicious clip from the show Crossfire in 1984, Blume responds to criticism from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan by asking him why he’s so interested in masturbation.
“Neither one of my parents ever told me that sex was bad,” Blume says, explaining where her own openness comes from despite growing up in a conservative era. “Nobody ever said it was wrong for a girl to enjoy her sexuality. My father made it clear that I would be enjoying my sexuality — just not until, as he used to say, ‘You should really wait until you’re married or you’re 25.’ I was like, ’25, Daddy?’ ”
While critics tried to get Blume’s books removed from schools and libraries for dealing with sex, today, book banners are targeting titles that include frank portrayals of racism or feature LGBTQ families. “Book banning is insane right now,” Blume says. “It was terrible in the ’80s, but it’s much worse now because, politically, those who would ban books are running for school boards and being elected.”
These days, Blume wages her free speech campaign not as a writer but as a bookstore owner trying to support other authors, especially ones whose books have been banned. Watching her own story unfold in a 97-minute movie has put some of her impact in perspective. “It’s an emotional thing,” Blume says, “to see your life go by that way.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.