Judy Blume threw the gauntlet down earlier this year when she declared Kelly Fremon Craig's upcoming film version of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret to be better than her seminal 1970 novel that's been a must-read for multiple generations of teenagers. And filmmakers Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok can confirm that the author's reaction is 100% genuine. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival — where their new documentary, Judy Blume Forever, had its world premiere — the directors reveal that they were in the audience the first time Craig screened the film for Blume, now 84.
"It was so exciting to watch Judy watching the movie," says Wolchok. "And we were so excited to be in the audience with all of the people who made it and all of her fans. We're so excited for her, because it's her baby! She held onto her baby for so long, and now we're all gonna get to watch her baby onscreen."
General audiences will get to judge for themselves when Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret premieres in theaters on April 28. And they'll be able to prep for the movie by watching Judy Blume Forever, which debuts on Prime Video on April 21. While the longevity of her books guarantees that the author — who currently owns and operates a bookstore in Key West, Fla. — will always be in the public consciousness, these back-to-back projects seem to represent a step back into the spotlight eight years after publication of her last book, In the Unlikely Event, in 2015. And there's more Blume on the way: Netflix recently announced that Mara Brock Akil is developing a streaming series based on one of the author's most controversial novels, Forever.
"I think the reason she's decided to say, 'Yes,' is that she wants to see the product, and be here to enjoy it," Pardo explains. "I don't think it was a strategic decision about being more forward-facing, but she realized that she's in her 80s and she's got all of these incredible people coming to her with interest. She wants to be part of the process and see the results."
Judy Blume Forever, meanwhile, is a chance for the author to tell her life story in her own words, beginning with her typically honest descriptions of coming of age in the stultifying atmosphere of ’50s-era suburbia. While it's a time and place often lionized by some — particularly those in more socially conservative circles — Blume expresses little nostalgia for that long-vanished world. And Wolchok, for one, describes her candid commentary about the 1950s as "refreshing."
"It really resonated with me, because my parents grew up at the same time, and I feel there was a lot of pressure [on women] to be a good girl — to smile and pretend that everything's OK. I don't think either of us were surprised that Judy talked about the ’50s that way, because her whole career has been about uncovering secrets that adults were trying to keep from kids, and being honest about experiences that kids were having within their own bodies and within their friendships."
That honesty manifests itself in the grounded accounts of teenage sexuality that permeate Blume's books, from Margaret's experiences with puberty in Are You There God? to Tony's wet dreams in Then Again, Maybe I Won't to Katherine and Michael losing their virginity in Forever. Of course, those scenes have also put Blume on the list of America's most-banned authors, as conservative watchdogs still seek to pull her novels from school library shelves. In fact, the filmmakers note that Forever was among 52 books that were nearly banned by a school board in Utah — where the Sundance Film Festival is held every January — last August, although the district ultimately backed away from that decision.
Blume has never shied away from taking book banning proponents on directly. Judy Blume Forever includes a memorable clip from her appearance on CNN's Crossfire in the 1980s, where she handily spars with right-wing firebrand, Pat Buchanan, who makes a show out of denouncing her so-called "obsession" with teen sex. "We knew that was going to be in the film as soon as we saw it," Pardo says. "We were just amazed at her passion and her bravery. She was able to go head-to-head with him and really take him on."
Blume denounced America's recent wave of book banning during her recent appearance on the Today show, and Pardo and Wolchok confirm that she's "furious" the cycle has started over again. "She thought we had moved past that," says Wolchok, noting that the author makes a point of selling banned books at her Key West bookstore. "We're all enraged that that books are still being banned — that they're being taken off shelves and kids aren't going to be able to find themselves in a book simply because one parent had a problem with it."
"I think it's in parallel to what's happening with reproductive rights," Pardo adds, referring to how the conservative block of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. "It's like 'Here we are again!' It never really went away, but it also feels like we're fighting a battle that should have been over a long time ago."
Clocking in at 97 minutes, Judy Blume Forever doesn't cover every title in Blume's personal library, but the directors say they devoted one of their shooting days to a book-by-book discussion spanning her 29 literary works. 1971's Then Again, Maybe I Won't was among the books that didn't make the final cut, and it was a difficult one for Wolchok in particular to omit.
"I'm raising two boys, and the way [Tony] talks about his fear about having a boner in front of the classroom [rang true]," she says, laughing. "As a mom, I was thrilled to be able to hand them that book and have conversations with them about it."
One controversial aspect of Then Again, Maybe I Won't that may have aged poorly for both progressive and conservative readers is Tony's amateur attempts at playing peeping tom — using binoculars to watch his 16-year-old neighbor undress. But Pardo argues that's a small part of the novel, and one that's been blown out of proportion over the years.
"That's so not the most important part of that book: It's really a book about a kid with anxiety, which was so unusual to see at the time," she notes. "And the connection that Tony feels to his grandmother is one of the most beautiful relationships that Judy ever wrote. I was really pushing for that book to be more present in the film, but there was no way we could include it. I mean, she's written 29 books! We had to find the ones that intersected most with her own life story."
Judy Blume Forever premieres April 21 on Prime Video.