When co-directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok set out to film their biographic documentary Judy Blume Forever—about best-selling author and activist Judy Blume—they knew that the censorship from the 1980s would play a big role in the film. However, they had no idea just how relevant it would be. “I don’t think we realized we were making an activist film,” said Leah.
Surprisingly, the idea to make this film came from something entirely different. Davina decided she wanted to introduce her children to Judy Blume’s books, books she had grown up reading, during a family road trip. “I was taken right back,” she said, “right back to the spot I sat in when I read Judy Blume’s books [as a child].” This nostalgic throwback got Davina wondering about what Judy Blume was up to these days, and that curiosity is what led her to begin carefully crafting an email to Judy Blume herself proposing this documentary.
On the other hand, co-director Leah had not grown up with Blume’s books. Leah had been brought up in the South, where the banning of books at that time meant she grew up without access to Judy Blume’s work. When reading the books for the first time as an adult, Leah remembers feeling angry that she was deprived of them as a child because Margaret—the lead character in the novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret—would have been her best friend. “I was really shy, insecure, and flat… [Judy Blume] could have really helped me through my middle school years.” Leah describes Judy Blume’s books as “warm and funny. [Judy Blume] was so honest; I related immediately.”
Leah is not alone in how she thought her younger self could have found solace in Judy Blume’s writing.
Leah is not alone in how she thought her younger self could have found solace in Judy Blume’s writing. In fact, during the 1980s Judy Blume sometimes received 2,000 letters from children every month. Although many of these letters were routine fan mail, some children would write at length asking for advice about the various struggles they experienced at school and at home.
Two of the children who reached out to Judy Blume in their childhoods—Lorrie Kim and Karen Chilstrom—are now adults (of course), yet each of them has maintained a correspondence with Judy Blume for decades. For Davina and Leah, one of the hardest parts in making this documentary was crafting interviews with subjects like Lorrie and Karen in a sensitive, delicate, and truthful manner. How to describe how this author developed such a deep level of intimacy with her readers?
Despite the popularity of both Judy Blume (in person) and her books (on the shelf), once Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1980, negative political agendas emerged. Suddenly, textbooks and books in school libraries were being examined for “immoral, anti-family and anti-American content.” Although Davina and Leah were unable to interview Judith Krug (who died in 2009), I thought of her inspiring fight against censorship in her capacity as Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. One of Judith’s greatest accomplishments was the creation of Banned Books Week, which is still celebrated annually and now growing more important than ever.
Recounting her own feelings, Judy Blume says: “It was frightening. It was depressing. I mean, what is this fear that is gripping the country?” In this excerpt taken from the documentary, Blume is describing her feelings about the nationwide book censorship that was happening during the 1980s. But she might just as well be talking about today, because book bans have been on the rise all across the United States. According to PEN America (a free speech organization) “182 school districts in 37 states and millions of students” have been affected. Their findings show that in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year alone, there have been 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles.
Judy Blume is known for being one of the most banned authors in America, and with the recent rise in American culture wars, both Judy Blume and her books are once again under attack. Her 1975 novel “Forever” is one of the eighty books that have been recently removed from Martin County school libraries in Florida. Bringing up the topics of sex, gender, or race is now considered “inappropriate.”
“It was frightening. It was depressing. I mean, what is this fear that is gripping the country?”
So, Judy Blume’s fight against censorship and book bans continues. In late March of 2023, she told the BBC in London that this round of book banning “has become political… it’s worse than it was in the 80s.” And she is concerned about the level of intolerance that is spreading in the USA “…about everything, gender, sexuality, racism. It’s just reaching a point where again we have to fight back; we have to stand up and fight.” In this documentary, Davina, Leah, and Judy Blume are doing exactly that.
Both filmmakers are passionate yet humble; they are filled with fascination and love for their craft. During Davina’s time in college, she described herself as an amateur photographer who was interested in “so many kinds of social issues and different subjects.” After discovering documentary film as an art form, Davina realized that making documentaries was a way to merge all of her interests. “It’s just so compelling to see real life on screen and to think about the different ways—visually and narratively—to tell those stories. To think about what those relationships mean, what they represent and all the ethical questions that come up in the making of documentaries. It’s just sort of endlessly fascinating.”
“It’s okay to be vulnerable; it’s okay to be emotional.”
When asked if they had any advice for other women filmmakers, Leah said: “It’s okay to be vulnerable; it’s okay to be emotional. I think those things are sometimes frowned upon in an industry that might be male dominated.”
Davina and Leah’s documentary, Judy Blume Forever (and other upcoming adaptations of Blume’s work) could not have come at a better time. “We knew Judy was a fierce activist for the freedom to read, but we didn’t realize that our film would be part of that conversation,” said Leah. While describing the current politicization of book banning as “infuriating,” Leah says she is honored that they were able to make this film in the hopes that it could “inspire people to get involved in the movement against book banning and against censorship.”
Judy Blume Forever streams globally on Amazon Prime Video beginning tomorrow, Friday, April 21st.
© Katusha Jin (4/20/23) – Special for FF2 Media®
NOTE: This interview is based on my participation in a Press Day on April 18th scheduled by Maddie Hilf on behalf of Amazon Prime Video. Thank you for including me, Maddie!
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Anna Nappi’s SWAN of the Day tribute to Judy Blume.
Follow this link to read about an inspiring documentary about Pre-Roe/ProRoe Activism.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Behind-the-scenes photo from Judy Blume Forever taken by Kevin Kerr, copyright Amazon Content Services LLC.
Middle Photo: Still of Judy Blume in Judy Blume Forever owned by Amazon Prime Video, USA.
Bottom Image: Support the next Banned Books Week (10/1/23 thru 10/7/23). Promotional material courtesy of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom in partnership with the Banned Books Week Coalition.