A few years ago, I went to see Judy Blume on her book tour for her latest (and she says last) novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event. Town Hall was packed with “women of a certain age” and the room buzzed with the excitement of a long-awaited reunion… a reunion of all of us who were once tween girls in the 1970s, 80s, and beyond, who picked up and were honestly saved by Judy Blume’s books. I’m not even kidding: There was some open sobbing amidst all the beaming and excited smiles. It was like getting to see your favorite childhood teacher, or the cool neighbor or aunt that you fell out of touch with after your formative years. And she projected the love right back at us.
Needless to say, I’m the absolute target audience for Judy Blume Forever. This warm documentary about the beloved author felt like going back to childhood, where her stories, for many, felt like perhaps the safest and most understanding place in the world.
Judy (can I call you Judy?) grew up in the suburb of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and by all accounts had a good childhood. A kid of Jewish parents, she was pretty and popular in school. She and her school girlfriends were wildly curious about sex and adulthood (talking about boobs, menstruation, and masturbation) while her own mother remained completely tight-lipped about the facts of life. She went off to college, and like most women of the era, married young, had kids right away, and suddenly found herself as a young woman needing a creative outlet beyond her family duties. So she started to write.
I don’t know why, but it is always heartening to hear that almost all successful people initially fail. While her early picture books for young children couldn’t find publishers, one local publishing house pointed out that there was a gap of books for adolescent “middle readers.” She refocused, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) was the result. To her great surprise, it found a HUGE audience, and is still being read and talked about today.
Judy Blume Forever features the author recounting many of her now classic YA books, and the topics that they so boldly addressed, like, yes, menSTROOation (Margaret), masturbation (Deenie), bullying (the brutal and still hard to read Blubber), and losing one’s virginity (the explicit Forever…, that we all passed around in 6th grade). Many of these books were controversial to adults and still appear on banned book lists. (Frankly, that just makes young people want to read them more.) Representing Judy’s fandom are a kind of random but interesting assortment of celebs and writers like Molly Ringwald, Samantha Bee, Lena Dunham, Jason Reynolds, and Tayari Jones. They serve as talking heads, basically giving voice to all of use groupies watching, the generations whose formative years were affected by her books. (Over the closing credits, the guest speakers are shown giving her books a good huff. That pleased me.)
Most interesting is the revelation that thousands and thousands of young people wrote letters to Judy over the years (and she responded!), talking to her as a confidant in often the most heartbreaking way. One fan/pen pal named Lorrie Kim is featured in the doc, revisiting her letters which turned into a decades-long correspondence (!). Lorrie even invited Judy to her college graduation under duress (her parents were having issues), and Judy showed up! LUCKY. Boxes and boxes and boxes of these fan letters are now preserved at Yale University. Judy still gets choked up while revisiting these letters–she felt the responsibility of knowing that for some of these young people, she was the only one they could talk to. (We love you Judy!)
I’m sure I’m not the only one who will immediately revisit her work after watching this charming documentary (I’m reading Tiger Eyes now, one that I missed). But as member of one of the generations who read Margaret in the years after it was first written, I do have one nagging question for Judy: “What. About. The belts?“