For decades, Judy Blume‘s books have been cherished companions, guiding generations of readers through the turbulent and transformative moments of adolescence. Her uncanny ability to explore sensitive topics with authenticity and empathy has earned her the love and respect of millions around the globe. In Judy Blume Forever, directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok capture the author’s story not only as a writer, but also as a trailblazer, mother, wife, and more.
There is no doubt that Judy Blume’s words left an indelible mark on literature, but the documentary streaming on Prime Video also unveils more about the woman behind the words and the perseverance she exhibited throughout her personal and professional life tackling taboo subjects,
Read our full conversation with Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchuk, directors of Judy Blume Forever, below.
Hi, this is Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar and I am very excited to be speaking with Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchuk, the directors of Judy Blume Forever. Thank you both so much for joining me today. I am super excited to talk about this documentary and get a little of your insight behind the scenes of how it all came together.
Pardo: Thank you for having us.
Just to start it off what were some of the initial ideas and vision behind pursuing this story and bringing it to life in documentary form?
Pardo: I’ve been a huge Judy Blume fan my whole life. As a kid, I devoured all her books but was always more connected to the characters. With the stories and the books, I hadn’t ever thought a lot about who Judy Blume was, it never occurred to me to write a letter to her as so many of the people you meet in the film did. I wish I had written her a letter. But then many years later, I became a parent and I got to introduce her work to my kids. We were on a road trip one year, and I played the audiobook of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing which Judy actually narrated herself. So, when her voice filled the car and I heard her introduce the book and say, “Hi, this is Judy Blume.” It just hit me in this visceral way that there’s a woman behind all of this stuff. Someone actually created this and I’m so curious now to know what her story is. That’s how it all started.
Were you both Judy Blume fans growing up? Or did you approach it from different perspectives?
Wolchuk: I wish I had been a Judy Blume fan growing up. I was on the entirely opposite end of the Judy Blume fandom spectrum when I was a kid because I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida in the 80s when Judy’s books were seen as taboo and inappropriate for kids, and girl’s bodies were seen as something to be ashamed of. I think I internalized a lot of that shame. So, I didn’t read her books. I did read Freckle Juice, but I didn’t read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I didn’t read Deenie, I didn’t read Forever. So, I didn’t have this deep childhood nostalgic connection to her work. When Davina asked if I wanted to direct the film with her once Judy said yes, and once Imagine [Documentaries] came on board and it looked like it was going to happen I said, “I don’t think I’m the right director to make this film because there must be thousands of other women who would die to meet their childhood hero and make this film about her life and how her work has influenced so many generations of readers. But, we realized, actually, it would be really helpful for the film to have one director who has a deep childhood connection and another director who doesn’t and who’s approaching it from a different perspective. I think it helps the film. Of course, I fell in love with Judy immediately, and I fell in love with her writing immediately. You cannot be objective when you meet Judy Blume because she is just a magical presence, and her work is so magical. But I think it helped that I was coming at it from a different perspective.
I love hearing that you had two different lenses on the subject. What was that process like in the early stages of framing just how you’re going to do this by getting Judy on board?
Pardo: Someone described it as a courtship. It was a courtship that happened over around a year and a half to two years of emailing back and forth. Now initially, Judy was hesitant because she has a very full life in Key West running a bookstore. She also knows what kind of commitment doing a documentary is. I think she also knew that if she ended up doing it, she was going to be fully herself and fully honest and lay it all out. She wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to that. But over the course of about a year and a half, we got to know each other through email, and finally got to meet in person and the pitch was something along the lines of, “It’s the story of you as a writer. Yes. And trailblazer? Yes. But also as a mother, a wife, a bookseller, a free speech advocate.” Over time together once Leah got involved, too, it developed into something more specific, which was a coming-of-age story of Judy Blume and her readers. That was something we were in conversation with Judy about especially once we learned about the letters, which are at the Yale archive, that she received from children over 50 years and the long-term relationships she had with some of those letter writers.
That was really something that I had learned through this documentary. I didn’t know that was a part of her career and such a visceral component of how she continued to grow as a writer. Seeing those letters unfold, it was really touching. What was that discovery process like to see how her readers responded in that way?
Wolchok: There is something so powerful about holding a piece of paper with a child’s handwriting on it, where they are pouring their hearts out to someone telling her that no other adult in their life could understand them the way she understands them. Even though she’s never met them and she’s a complete stranger. But there was something so powerful about her work, her characters or stories that felt like kids were reading their own diaries when they were reading her books. They felt like, “This woman must know my secrets. Therefore, she must be able to help me with anything I’m going through.” Because of COVID, we weren’t able to get into the Yale archive until almost right before we were finished editing, it was closed for almost the entire two-year process. It was closed to outside researchers. But we worked with them and worked with the Yale researcher to get us digital copies of a lot of the letters. Then, because those letters are under strict protections, you cannot reach out to any of the kids that wrote her. They made it very clear no one can reach out to them. But, Judy introduced us to two of the women that wrote to her from the time they were kids, Lorrie and Karen, who you meet in the film, and it was only after Judy reached out to them and asked if they’d be interested in sharing their stories that they said yes, that we then started this relationship with them and a relationship with their letters, who they were as kids, and who they are now and how Judy played into their development as humans. She was there for them in such a profound way. That was really unexpected. When Davina had told me that the letters were at the library, I wasn’t expecting how deeply connected we were going to start to feel to Lorrie and to Karen and they’ve become friends. We’ve been on this healing journey with Karen especially, it’s been powerful as a filmmaker to feel connected to someone that you have gotten to know through this process.
It really is moving to see this side of someone that you’ve read the name on the cover of a million books, you’ve seen Judy Blume at the forefront of so many things, but seeing her from this just human perspective, I think is what really made this a special experience to watch unfold. What was it like for you just getting to work alongside Judy and record conversations with her and her family?
Pardo: We were just saying how we miss her. She’s such a delightful, magical presence to be around. She’s the kind of person who when you sit down with her, you just want to tell her everything. She has an openness and straightforwardness that’s so great. I think because as a kid I was so connected to the characters in the books it wasn’t like meeting someone and saying, “What was it like to meet your hero? How are you able to be objective?” It didn’t feel that way because for me growing up, it was really in the books, it wasn’t the author behind the books. So, I wasn’t coming at it with this total fandom perspective. I was a fan of the books and the work but I didn’t have that kind of relationship where she was this celebrity that I held up in a certain way. Of course, we still joke that we crafted every email to her so carefully because when you’re writing an email to Judy Blume, you want it to be perfect. But she’s a very real, warm presence and we felt very lucky.
Wolchok: Yeah, it’s such a privilege as a documentary filmmaker, to be in a room with someone and to just listen to her tell her life story to us. She spent so much time talking about her childhood, her brother, her parents, her grandparents and so much that we couldn’t include in the film, but we’re aware of the privilege that we have as filmmakers to be in that space with someone and to really dive so deep into who they were as kids and adolescents, who she became as a young mom, how she pushed back against expectations and every step of her life to become the writer that she is. I feel that way when interviewing anyone. You probably get to do that all the time connecting with another person. We’re doing this over Zoom, but part of what I love about being alive is being able to connect with people one on one. Knowing that I was able to connect that way with someone who millions of kids have sought out as their source of comfort in the world through her books and her characters, I just keep coming back to the word privileged, but I felt really grateful to have that experience.
You’re absolutely right. Every day having these conversations, I experience that feeling and it’s so strong and so moving. One thing that really moved me, in particular, was hearing a little bit about the time before Judy Blume was Judy Blume and the challenges that she overcame. She just continued writing for years and years and was rejected by publisher after publisher after publisher. She mentioned that letter she got that said she couldn’t write, and she just kept writing. How did you go about capturing that and telling that part of the story where she had to overcome a lot and had to keep persevering to even publish a single book?
Pardo: Going into this, we knew that her work was groundbreaking and that the themes she explored, were groundbreaking at the time, and in many ways still are. But, I don’t know that we knew from the outset, what a trailblazer she was in her personal life. It came up again and again, in her life and in our personal story and we tried to include that in the film—this idea that she was constantly pushing back against societal expectations. One of the huge ways she was doing that was even in the act of writing. Those picture books were an act of rebellion. It was really important to us to include all those ups and downs that she experienced throughout her life. I think one of the amazing things about shooting her story, this is something that’s probably true for all of us, but she expresses it in a very clear way, she’s always coming of age. This coming-of-age story doesn’t end with adolescence, it’s a lifelong coming-of-age.
Simultaneous to her breakthrough moment with “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., the film came out on a similar timeline to your documentary. Was that something you had known was existing at this moment for Judy Blume?
Wolchok: When Judy finally said yes, and Imagine came on board, and we were ready to start with production it was March of 2020. We obviously didn’t go into production for 13 months, and so we had this long development period. The very first shoot that we did was in April of 2021. It was in Charlotte, North Carolina when she walked onto the set of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., for the first time. They were also held up because of COVID, so I think a lot of productions jump-started once everyone was vaccinated, and we walked behind her as she walked onto the set for the first time, and everyone stopped the scene that they were acting and recording and stood up and gave her a standing ovation as she walked onto the set. It was such a rock star moment of almost following her onto the stage. Even for me, who didn’t have this long-term personal connection, tears were streaming down my face because it was so emotional to watch her watching the scene that she had written 50 years ago. To be watching all the actors and the director and the producers and the cinematographer, everyone looking up to her with such gratitude as if to say, “Thank you, Judy, for writing this movie. Thank you for writing this book, so that we could make this movie. And thank you for finally allowing us to make the movie.” It was something that was not in the film, but we did always know that this was such an important moment for her that she had held on to this story for 50 years not wanting anyone to make it, and finally had found the right team. When she met the actor who plays Margaret for the first time, we were with her so we filmed that too. It didn’t make it into the film, but it was so fun to be a fly on the wall at that moment and watch them interact with each other.
That sounds incredible. Judy Blume when she was releasing these books early in her career, it was an important moment at that time for a lot of kids. I’m curious to hear your perspective with this time in 2023, what is the resonance and importance of these stories from Judy Blume being produced from your documentary and from the film adaptation of Margaret, where do you think the resonance and importance and reactions might lie for possibly a new generation of kids exploring her work in a new medium?
Pardo: I think there’s an emotional residence for kids today. In so many of her books, she explores that cusp moment when you’re not really a little kid anymore, but not quite a teenager and everything’s about to change. She went back to that moment time and time again. I think even though the way kids’ lives have changed, the way kids communicate is different, and the way kids experience relationships with kids and think about gender and sexuality is different, those things are very different from where they’re portrayed in Judy’s books, but the core of her books, the core emotional feelings, the questions haven’t changed. Kids have the desire to fit in, the desire to connect with their parents, to feel understood, and to feel safe. Those feelings haven’t changed. Because she saw kids so clearly, and so deeply and put that right into her books, the books still seem to resonate in movie or in book form today.
I completely agree and I just want to say thank you to you both for bringing this film to life and showing the side of Judy Blume because it really did move me personally. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for this film. I really appreciate getting the opportunity to chat and hear a little bit more behind the scenes.
Wolchok: Thank you so much for having us. It was great talking to you.