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Author Judy Blume is finally ready to tell her own story in new documentary

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For girls coming of age in the '70s and '80s, girls like me - and to be clear, I came of age at the later end of that timeline - there was a rite of passage. It was digging into "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" by Judy Blume. Through the story of 11-year-old Margaret Simon, we learned about getting our periods, about bras, about friendships, about sex and so much more. Writing honestly for adolescent readers about puberty and sex is not unusual today in 2023, but in the '80s, when I read "Margaret," and in 1970, when it was first published, it was revolutionary. Now Blume's own story, how she came to write "Margaret" and 23 other books, is front and center in the new documentary "Judy Blume Forever." Judy Blume herself and one of the directors of that film, Davina Pardo, join me now from our New York offices. Welcome to you both.

JUDY BLUME: Thank you.

DAVINA PARDO: Thank you.

KELLY: Judy, I am told that you were initially hesitant about making this documentary, which kind of surprises me because you're so candid and so open and so out there in your fiction. Why were you reluctant to tell your story?

BLUME: I - because it's about me. I didn't think I wanted that.

KELLY: Did you think we wouldn't be interested, or...

BLUME: No, I didn't think at all about an audience. I was just thinking, did I want to do this? And I just didn't want to do it. But Davina helped me understand it would be a good thing to do. And then I started to think it would be a good thing to do while I'm still alive and can participate.

KELLY: All right, Davina, that cues you up. Judy says you helped her understand why this would be a good idea. How'd you do that?

PARDO: Really, over a couple of years. You know, we struck up an email correspondence, and I remember in that very first email, she was honest, as she always is, and open about her concerns. And I think over two years of emailing back and forth, getting to know each other a little bit, bringing on Imagine documentaries...

BLUME: First we had breakfast, because I wanted to meet Davina.

KELLY: Ah.

BLUME: And it was a very sweet breakfast. And George, my husband, and I both liked Davina a lot, but we still weren't sure. And then you brought in Leah.

KELLY: This is Leah Wolchok, the other director.

BLUME: Yes.

PARDO: Yeah.

BLUME: And I was very comfortable with Davina and Leah, their generosity and their care with women who had written to me as kids that they interviewed and brought on camera. They're part of the film.

KELLY: I wanted to ask about the letters, because this is kind of - the backbone of the movie is all through, we see you, Judy Blume, reading letters. And I got the sense that you found those letters, that response, the way young people connected with your fiction, that you found that real-life communication as satisfying as writing the books was. Is that right?

BLUME: Well, it was certainly a surprise when that started. It's like, oh. Oh, you can actually hear from people who have read your books. And with some of the young people who wrote to me, our friendship and correspondence has never stopped.

KELLY: And just so that people understand, we're not talking about, like, a small shoebox of letters that - we glimpse...

BLUME: No.

KELLY: ...You in the middle of a room. It looks like the National Archives. Are those all boxes of letters that came to you over the years?

BLUME: I think there's something like 147, somebody just told me. Is that right? Davina would know.

PARDO: It's extraordinary. I mean, it's thousands upon thousands upon thousands of letters, and kids are really pouring their hearts out about everything from sibling rivalry to sex and love and their changing bodies and real trauma that they're experiencing at home.

BLUME: I mean, the pain of loss, death, things that kids needed to talk about, but they had to talk about it with someone they wouldn't see at the breakfast table the next day.

KELLY: How did you decide, as the filmmaker, Davina, to put these letters at the center of the movie?

PARDO: We knew as soon as we learned about the letters and how extensive that correspondence was, and especially that Judy had had really deep, intimate relationships with some of the readers over years, that they would be an important part of the film. It spoke so much to the connection Judy had with her readers.

KELLY: Well, Judy, I did not write you a letter.

BLUME: (Laughter).

KELLY: If I had, among other things, I might have complained that the bosom increasing exercise that Margaret does fervently does not work, because I tried, my friends and I tried.

BLUME: And don't I know it. And when I talk to kids, I tell them it doesn't work. It doesn't matter. And one day when you're as old as I am, you might even be glad.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: We should - for people who don't know what we're talking about, would you just say what we're talking about here?

BLUME: We're talking about, I must, I must, I must increase my bust, with the proper accompanying arm movements.

KELLY: Like chicken wings flapping, as were.

BLUME: Yes.

KELLY: I remember sitting in a circle circa age, I don't know, 12 or 13 with my girlfriends and doing this. And I had totally forgotten about that, 'cause it's been a while, until I watched your film. And then I was just on the floor laughing. Davina, were you being intentional with that and some of the other scenes about capturing - there's a lot of honesty, as we're talking about, in Judy's work. There's also a lot that's just funny.

PARDO: Absolutely.

BLUME: I like funny.

PARDO: Yes.

BLUME: Funny is really important in life.

KELLY: Yeah.

PARDO: It is, and growing up is funny. I mean, it's hard, and it's awkward, and it's painful, and it's funny. And something I talked about with Judy, I think, at the very first breakfast was that we wanted the film to be funny. It can't all be serious. And one of the ways we move through difficult moments is by laughing. And there is so much humor in the pain and awkwardness of growing up and adolescence, and Judy's books capture that so well. So we really wanted the film to reflect that.

KELLY: I want to ask about a line of yours from this documentary, Judy, that resonated with me, which was, and I quote, "I could be fearless in my writing in a way I wasn't always in my life." Explain.

BLUME: I'm not a particularly brave person. Certainly as a kid, I was, you know, a very anxious person. But when I sat down to write, I never felt afraid. I never felt fearful of anything that I was writing. I'm trying to catch up now in my real life.

KELLY: (Laughter) And live as fearlessly as you have in your fiction?

BLUME: I'm trying.

KELLY: Oh, I love that. And you're - if I may ask - you're in your 80s now, right?

BLUME: I have turned 85.

KELLY: Eighty-five?

BLUME: Yes, 85.

KELLY: Would you share an example of what you're doing today that you might have been scared to do a decade or decades ago?

BLUME: Oh, no, not really. I mean, I think it's just a way of thinking and being and doing. I'm not afraid to speak out now, but I wasn't afraid to speak out in the '80s either, because that's what saved me in the '80s when I felt so alone and dejected and people were coming after me and coming after my books. And it was when I met the National Coalition Against Censorship that I realized I wasn't alone, and then other authors who were also in the same position that I was, and we would go out together. And we would speak out, because speaking out is so much better for you in every way than hiding at home.

KELLY: That is the writer Judy Blume and the director, Davina Pardo, talking about their new film, "Judy Blume Forever." Thanks so much to you both.

BLUME: Thank you so much.

PARDO: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.