Judy Blume Forever Filmmakers On The Beloved Author’s Legacy
Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok discuss Judy Blume’s decades-long YA influence, convincing her to join their documentary, and more.
“Let’s say it together,” Judy Blume reads from Dear God, It’s Me, Margaret and glances up at the camera. “Masturbation! Let’s raise our hands if we masturbate." She holds her arm up with an unselfconscious grin on her face, swaying back and forth like a gleeful hype woman, in electric blue rimmed glasses and a mossy sheer blouse: “Everybody!”
Judy Blume, now 85, always got it. Growing up is really hard, and for generations, Blume has been there to make it better, with books like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret singlehandedly doing the work to demystify things like puberty and sex. (It’s such a timeless story that a film adaptation was also released last month.)
Blume’s work is immortal, but now, a new documentary seeks to cement her legacy as the most beloved children’s book author of all time and the bona fide queen of growing up: Judy Blume Forever was released this month on Prime Video. In the film, directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok chronicle Blume’s life from anxious kid to stay-at-home mom to bestselling author to free speech advocate to her rich life now running a bookstore in Key West, Florida, where she greets adoring fans all day.
Judy Blume Forever charts the longtime cultural effects of Blume’s legacy by interviewing people who have made art inspired by her, like Lena Dunham of GIRLS and Anna Konkle of PEN15, as well as showcases Blume’s long political legacy chronicling her years fighting against book banning.
“Learning about Judy and looking at the work again, what struck me most was just how trailblazing she was in all aspects of her life, in her books, but also in her personal life, and especially during the censorship year – but all the way through,” Pardo tells NYLON.
But the most emotionally resonant part of the film touches on the most micro-level of her influence: Kids would write to her, often with intensely personal confessions and she would write back – maintaining relationships with some of these letter writers for decades, two of which are interviewed in the documentary. Blume will always be huge on a cultural level, but really, she has always done it for the kids.
NYLON spoke with Pardo and Wolchok ahead of the film’s release about what inspired them to make the first-ever documentary on Blume, and how they convinced her to say “yes.”
Judy Blume Forever is available to stream on Prime Video now.
Where did this film begin for you?
Pardo: It began with sort of rediscovering Judy Blume's work through my kids. We went on a road trip to Nova Scotia in 2017 and needed some entertainment, and I decided to play the audiobook of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which I don't think my kids had listened to yet at that point. I didn't know that Judy narrates that series herself. When I played it and I heard her voice for the first time, I saw how they reacted to the book. They loved it and were giggling for hours, and I was hearing it for the first time in so many years. But really hearing Judy's voice, I think hit me in a really visceral way. Because growing up I had loved her books and I was so attached to her characters, I felt like they were my friends, but I never really thought much about the author.
I know some kids did think about the author because we saw all these letters from kids asking her questions about her personal life. But for me, it was very much about the story and the characters. Suddenly, I wanted to know all about Judy Blume. I didn't know anything about her, and I started doing research and realized then at some point, a filmmaker's curiosity takes over. I realized there hadn’t been a documentary made about Judy, who was such a cultural icon and had such an impact on generations of readers, and I decided to reach out to her.
What did she say?
Pardo: She said, "I'm not sure." She was very direct in the way that she always is. She said, "I have a full life running a bookstore and I'm not sure how I would feel about this. I'm not sure I want to open myself up, but I'm tempted by your warm letter." We stayed in touch over a year and a half, and then finally got to meet in person when she was in New York one weekend. We went out for brunch on the Upper West Side. As she tells it, she sort of said to George, her husband, "Let's just meet her. Let's see."
We met and we were building this relationship over email, and it felt like meeting a person was a continuation of that. It was so wonderful to meet, but I walked away feeling like she's still not saying yes. She wasn’t been saying no, but she wasn’t saying yes. At that point, I went to Imagine Documentaries. A company like Imagine would bring a lot of comfort to Judy in knowing that if she said yes, it would happen in a big way and it wouldn't be me as an independent filmmaker slowly raising money over many years. I think that was really the tipping point.
A few months after that, Judy agreed, and then I asked Leah if she would direct with me. She was back in the US after many years living abroad, so it all sort of came together in February, 2020, right before we had to stay inside for many months.
I'm wondering what surprised you about Judy, especially after knowing her books so well? Did anything about her match or not match what was on the page?
Pardo: She very much matches. Her voice and her personality feel very true to me, to the voice of her books. But as a kid, I don't think I was reading the books thinking, "This feels radical. This is so groundbreaking." Even though I think as a child you sort of experience that in a different way. There's something affirming about reading something or seeing your experience represented in a way you've never seen before, but you're not thinking in terms of cultural progress. Now, learning about Judy and looking at the work again, what struck me most was just how trailblazing she was in all aspects of her life, in her books, but also in her personal life, and especially during the censorship year – but all the way through. I hadn't realized that her books were censored. I grew up in Toronto and could always get them. I had no clue about that part of her story. Leah has a different experience with that, but for me, that was a big surprise. To see how throughout her life, she's been such a fighter. She's been such a badass. She's been pushing back against societal expectations for so long. That was a happy, interesting surprise to me.
I love the celebrities and writers you chose to talk about her. You picked so many relevant young women who were clearly inspired by her work. What was that selection process like?
Wolchok: We always knew we wanted to talk to authors who were writing for young audiences today whose work was being challenged in schools and libraries. From the very beginning when we were even putting together our pitch deck to present the film to potential buyers, we had a dream list of authors we'd want to talk to. Jason Reynolds, Alex Gino, Jacqueline Woodson, their voices and their perspectives as writers whose work is being challenged today, it was really important for us to include and we were curious what their take on Judy Blume was and what their experience is like. We also knew we wanted to talk to women who were creating TV shows, who were acting in movies, who were creating female protagonists, who were sort of pushing even further this body positivity, sex positivity that Judy had sort of broken the ground with and her books in the '70s.
That's why we chose Lena Dunham. Her imperfect characters in GIRLS are directly inspired by Judy Blume's imperfect characters. Anna Conkle of PEN15. I mean, that masturbation episode is…when we saw that we knew they had to have read Judy Blume as kids. We knew Sam Bee was a fan because Sam Bee had introduced Judy at an event at the 92nd Street Y in 2015 for her last book, In the Unlikely Event, and we saw how emotional she got in that introduction and in that interview.
We also knew we always wanted to talk to contemporary middle schoolers. Davina and I both have kids. We saw how our kids and at that point, 2020, 2021, were relating to Judy's books. So we thought it was really important to include the voices of young people today who are noticing that some of the characters might seem dated, like moms don't work. The girls are very girly. There are no non-binary characters, no queer characters, trans characters. That felt really unrealistic to some of the kids who are reading her work today. But the feelings that the characters were having, those feelings felt relevant and helpful, I think for the contemporary sixth graders who are reading her work in their English classes.
I mean, the one part of our film that I didn't even mention in that whole list of people that we knew we wanted to interview was almost the most emotionally resonant part of the film: the letter writers. At some point in the early stages of developing the film, we thought of it as Dear Judy Blume. We knew the letters to her were going to be very important. We were really thinking about the letters to Judy and not necessarily the letters Judy wrote back. When we discovered that she had these long-term relationships with writers who had reached out to her as kids and that she continued corresponding with her for decades, we knew we had to talk to at least a couple of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.