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The Awkward Age

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Judy Blume Forever (2023)

Too often as a culture we wait until someone is dead before we say nice things about them. Judy Blume’s books have meant a great deal to a great many people. Since her first one was published in 1969 they have sold over 82 million copies; to put it another way, that’s about 4,000 books a day, nonstop, for over 50 years. Since most young adult literature has a shelf life of a decade – the time it takes for a generation to grow up – this is an earth-shattering achievement. Certainly at this reviewer’s school, Judy Blumes were passed around in secret, with absolute shock that an adult was talking about sex, masturbation and bullying, in ways which understood what we were feeling too. Ms. Blume’s great talent is for dealing with the dramas of being nine as seriously as the dramas of being 19, or 49, and being able to articulate all the feelings kids experience but can’t articulate themselves. Very few have matched her achievements, and on this scale it’s unlikely to happen again.

Through family photos, animated montage, modern footage and talking-head interviews, codirectors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok interview Ms. Blume about her life while interviewing a selection of other young-adult writers about the influence of Ms. Blume’s work. Her angle with her stories was to be honest about how people behave, in good ways and bad, about topics including bodies, jealousy, grief and mischief from the kids’ point of view. No adult moralizing here. Children reacted very strongly. Adults, of course, reacted even worse. Ms. Blume’s books have been banned across America almost routinely – even from the elementary school she attended – and as a result she has led the fight against artistic censorship in a way which originally caught people by surprise. Here was a Jewish housewife who wrote while her children were in school, who came across as meek in the twinsets and pearls she wore in her early interviews and who was writing books for children (instead of “real books” for adults). She seemed like a mild people pleaser, someone who could be pushed around, but who, when pressed as to why she wrote about things a lot of adults don’t want children to know about, revealed a core of solid iron. That iron was an unshakable belief that kids deserve for their feelings to be validated and for the world to be explained to them honestly.

Her childhood in suburban New Jersey was unhappy, with a distant father and a mother who didn’t like to have difficult conversations. Ms. Blume was a sensitive child, whose family put a huge premium on appearances. The Holocaust was an ever-present worry, as was whether her father would live past the age of 60; none of his siblings did. He sadly didn’t either; and Ms. Blume married her first husband five weeks after his death, and settled into adulthood in a blur of grief. She swiftly had two children and the realization that her marriage wasn’t fulfilling enough to be her entire life. So – as her husband agreed she could, in her spare time – she started to write. And after some experimenting, she found her niche: stories for children as nervous and lonely as she had been, to help them realize that other people understood and shared their feelings too.

If this was all she had done, it would have been more than enough. But Ms. Blume also wrote four barnstorming novels for adults and currently operates a bookstore in Key West, Fla. But she also kept the thousands of letters she received from children over the years (a small boy wanted “the facts of life in number order”), and two women who started a correspondence with Judy in elementary school are interviewed. One of them went through a bad patch with her family when she graduated college, so she invited Ms. Blume and her third husband to attend instead. And they did. As an act of kindness and humility this is just incredible. Can you think of any other celebrity who would drop what they were doing and rush to the side of one of their admirers like this? But of course Ms. Blume is so much more than a celebrity. She is an ordinary woman whose belief in the power of a single self to effect change made her extraordinary. And as all the other writers – whose books have all, also, been banned in the United States – make clear, her idealism, her work and her remarkable kindness changed the world.

How nice it must be to participate in your own eulogy and for the chance to hear directly just how beloved you are, and have the movie of your life win awards at the Sundance Film Festival, while you are still around to enjoy it.


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