Early in Judy Blume Forever, Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s documentary about the noted and often-banned author, Blume shares what may be the key secret of her success—she has total recall of her childhood from third grade onwards.
This revelation helps explain why her books resonate so deeply with young readers, and also why some adults think they’re dangerous and disgusting and want to keep them away from their target audience. Blume writes from the point of view of her young protagonists, not from that of an adult who filters the characters’ thoughts and behaviors through an adult lens of what is proper and appropriate. This approach sounds so simple, and yet it was positively revolutionary when her books began appearing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And still is today, apparently, judging by the frequency with which Blume’s books appear on challenged and banned lists.
Nothing in Blume’s early years suggests she would be a revolutionary—she grew up in a middle-class, culturally Jewish household in Elizabeth, NJ, graduated from NYU with a degree in education, got married and settled down to the work of raising a family in the suburbs. From the outside, her life seemed a model of conventionality and security, but she remembers knowing, even as a child, that there was more going on than adults would acknowledge in her presence.
A night at the movies in her childhood (Blume was born in 1938) included newsreels as well as a feature film. At the close of World War II, those newsreels included footage of prisoners being released from Nazi concentration camps, and even at that young age she realized they had been put there only because they were Jewish. That’s a big worry for a Jewish girl, even if the adults around you are reassuring you that such things only happen far away, and you are perfectly safe in America.
Blume was wise enough to realize that the adults had secrets that they weren’t going to share with her, and that was simply how things were. So she learned to keep her worries to herself, and to do what was expected of everyone in the 1950s—pretend. Pretend to be happy, pretend everything is great, and above all, always present the appearance of a “good girl” who is sweet and pretty and does exactly what she’s supposed to do.
Women in the early 1960s weren’t expected to have careers, especially not if they were married and had young children. But Blume knew she wanted more and began writing children’s books while her children were at school (her husband didn’t object as long as the writing didn’t interfere with her duties as a homemaker). Her first attempts were not great—Blume calls them “imitation Dr. Seuss”—but she persisted and published her first book in 1969. Her first big success came the next year with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, which she describes as her first book “written from the inside.” The protagonist is an 11-year-old girl of nonreligious parents who chooses God as her confidante as she puzzles over such mysteries as menstruation and bras.
Alert the media—getting your period is a huge deal to young girls, and also an incredible nuisance and sometimes an embarrassing mess. It’s something that girls are taught to speak of only in euphemisms, and to be ashamed of, especially if the merest spot of blood should leak on to their clothing (there was no period underwear in those days). Yet another news flash: leaks happen all the time, putting girls in a no-win situation that they’ll be dealing with on a monthly basis for the next 35 years or so. At least, if they can read Judy Blume, girls know they aren’t alone and aren’t wrong.
Blume went on to write about many other “taboo” topics, including nice teenagers having sex in Forever… (1975; the ellipsis is significant). Alert the media again, teenagers have sexual feelings, and pretending they don’t, or condemning them for those feelings, are not useful responses. In Blubber (1974), the story centers around the bullying (not a term in common use at that time) of a fat girl and does not end with the neat resolution that some readers may have expected. Despite her success, people would persist in asking Blume when she was going to write a “real book,” meaning one for adults. Although not worried about this odd criticism (how can one book be more “real” than another?), she did write several adult books, including Wifey (1978) and In The Unlikely Event (2015). They were also successful, and I’m pretty sure she’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Judy Blume Forever is a film for fans of the author, who will love it to death, but it also has a lot to say about children’s literature, censorship, and being a woman in American society. It’s constructed primarily of interviews with the authors, interviews with celebrity fans (the likes of Samantha Bee, Lena Dunham, and Jacqueline Woodson), readings from Blume’s books, and archival clips (including one where the author is being interviewed about female masturbation by none other than Dr. Ruth, and another where she faces off with Pat Buchanan on Nightline). There’s not much in the way of critical analysis, so if you’re not a Blume fan, the relentless boosterism may wear on you. Either way, one thing is clear: However dated some of their details may be, Blume’s books will remain popular and relevant as long as children growing up have to deal with changing bodies and imperfect adults and peers who are the usual mix of good, bad, and indifferent. | Sarah Boslaugh
Judy Blume Forever is available for streaming on Amazon Prime beginning April 21.