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With movie and documentary set to be released, Judy Blume is back in the spotlight

Judy Blume walks amidst the Judy Blume Papers as they were being processed at Beinecke Library in 2018.
Provided photograph
/
Yale Beinecke Library
Judy Blume walks amid the Judy Blume Papers as they were being processed at Yale's Beinecke Library in 2018.

Author Judy Blume is back in the spotlight with a film adaptation of her 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It hits theaters on April 28. Blume’s novels have sold nearly 90 million copies worldwide, but the documents that comprise her life’s work found a home in Connecticut.

Since it was published more than 50 years ago, Judy Blume had turned down every request to adapt “Margaret” for the big screen. That was until she was approached by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, who convinced her the text would work as a film.

The story follows Margaret Simon, an 11-year-old grappling with issues like growing up and exploring her religious identity. In the film adaptation, Margaret is played by Abby Ryder Fortson.

“Just be normal and regular like everybody else, just please, please, please, please, please, please, please,” Margaret prays in the film’s trailer.

Blume’s work resonated deeply with millions of young readers, who as adults frequently burst into tears upon meeting her. In the trailer for “Judy Blume Forever,” a new documentary about her life and work streaming on Amazon Prime Video on April 21, Blume, now 85, reflects on her journey to be a published author.

“I grew up as a good girl with a bad girl lurking inside,” she said. “By the time I started to write, I really had a lot to get out. I could be fearless in my writing in a way that maybe I wasn’t always in my life.”

Blume’s novels are read around the world, but when it comes to the papers she’s accumulated over the decades, Blume found a home for her collection at Yale University.

Tim Young, the curator of modern books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, grew up reading Blume’s novels and looked to her when it came time to expand the library’s collection of young adult literature.

“There’s a whole area of documenting the young adult novel that is not as accessible in the research world as the early material for children,” Young said. “Of course, where do I go? I think, OK, Judy Blume.”

Young spoke with Blume for more than a year about what it would mean for her papers to go to Yale — a school where she doesn’t have any strong ties. One of her main draws was a warm welcome she received from students during a talk she gave shortly after 9/11.

“The welcome that she got showed that the student body here was so, sort of, committed to her work, they were both flattered that she was here, had lots of questions about their favorite books,” Young said.

The Beinecke’s 132-box collection contains Blume’s early manuscripts, photos, awards and letters. Thousands of young readers wrote to her, opening up about topics like body issues, divorce and mental health. Young said Blume gave kids the words to talk about issues they couldn’t before, and she wrote back to many of them, some for years.

“They were saying to her, you know, you explained it, or you were able to actually describe it, so now I actually have some way to talk about it,” Young said.

Provided photograph
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Yale Beinecke Museum

One of Blume’s young fans was Melissa Canham-Clyne, library director at the Hamden Public Library. When Canham-Clyne was in sixth grade, her friend Betty got her hands on a copy of “Margaret.”

“She showed it to me and the other girls, and we were like, ‘Oh my goodness, this talks about the period and everything else. This is amazing,’” Canham-Clyne said.

The book was considered dangerous at her Catholic school in the Bay Area, and students would have gotten in trouble for reading it — so Betty had to get creative.

“She covered the book in brown paper book covers, so it looked like our regular textbooks that we were supposed to be reading,” Canham-Clyne said. “And we passed it around the classroom.”

She said the book broke down barriers between the girls in her class, calling it her first participation in a “feminist collective action.”

“[Blume] was very much part of the larger movement of feminism of the 1970s,” said author Mark Oppenheimer, who’s writing a biography of Blume. “She was both made possible by it and also contributed to it herself.”

Canham-Clyne wasn’t the only one whose school censored Blume’s books over topics like menstruation and bullying, especially in the 1980s.

“There was a big push to get a lot of her books out of libraries, particularly school libraries,” Oppenheimer said. “The impulse to control what people read is a very, very old and enduring impulse because literature is so powerful.”

Oppenheimer said a younger generation, who grew up reading series like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games,” would be wrong to think young people’s literature was always a driving force in American culture.

“That wasn’t true 50 years ago, but it’s really true today, and that’s definitely thanks to Judy Blume.”

Young said Blume’s collection has been in steady use at Yale since it’s been available, and boxes of her papers can be requested and viewed in the library’s reading room.

Catherine Hurley is the Spring 2023 Gwen Ifill Integrity in News Intern.