Reading Judy Blume in the Book Ban Era

Judy Blume
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It’s hard to overstate the significance of author Judy Blume, particularly to teen girls, particularly to Gen X women who came of age during the 1980s. For many of us, she was a primary source of real, honest, straightforward information about our developing breasts and our impending periods, about relationships and sex, even the kind before marriage. She told us that anger and swearing and sadness and bullying were all part of life, and also that we could tolerate them and live through them and grow from them. I still remember the Judy Blume diary I had, a telling piece of merchandising. In the end, what Judy Blume taught us was that feelings of all kinds were okay, were meant to be expressed and understood through the power of reading and writing.

This comes through quite arrestingly in Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok‘s documentary Judy Blume Forever, a recent Peabody winner, which includes interviews not only with Blume herself but also with women whose lives were deeply affected by reading her books. We hear from well-known women like Molly RingwaldLena DunhamMary H.K. Choi, and Jacqueline Woodson, but also women who were lucky enough to correspond directly with Blume about the ways she helped them through formative years. Blume, a guest on a future episode of our podcast We Disrupt This Broadcast, told us in that interview that girls would write to her about being terrified of their first periods because they didn’t know what was happening to them—they thought they were dying—and only discovered Blume after the fact.

That’s one of the many reasons why we should fight the current swell of book bans in the United States, she told us, so that we don’t return to a time when children, particularly girls, are kept so in the dark about their own bodily functions. As a bookstore owner in Florida, a ban-heavy state, Blume has felt this more acutely. “I don’t even know what a safe book would be,” she said. “If you come into my bookstore, we have a little area that’s taped off, with banned books, but really, we could put that tape anywhere in the store on any shelf in any department. Because books are there to make you think. We want people to read books and think, and it’s as if they would ban thoughts if they could.”

Book banning is at an all-time high in America, starting an upswing in 2021. More recent bans have targeted LGBTQ+ and race-related books, though the fears behind many bans remain largely the same as they were when Blume’s books were at the top of the banned lists: “Inappropriate sexual content” is still one of banners’ top concerns, though this more often takes the form of stories about gay characters or gender questions these days than it does about periods. Blume’s philosophy on book bans is simple: “Life is difficult enough to navigate without not being allowed to read.”

After you catch Judy Blume Forever on Amazon Prime, here are some other programs to help you understand the current boom in U.S. book bans and further appreciate the crucial work that libraries do.

‘Borrowed and Banned’

'Borrowed and Banned'

The Brooklyn Public Library’s podcast documents the recent turn against books as it happens, interviewing students, librarians and teachers who have resisted bans, and authors whose works have been taken off shelves. We meet an Oklahoma teacher who lost her job when she gave her students a QR code that allows access to the Brooklyn Public Library’s full digital collection (a workaround for bans); learn how 19th-century obscenity laws continue to reverberate through modern times; and go inside an ultra-conservative takeover of a Texas schoolboard. Over ten episodes, listeners learn the true costs of such actions: the students who cannot learn, the educators whose livelihoods are threatened if they don’t comply, and the writers whose perspectives are silenced.

Where to Listen: Brooklyn Public Library

‘What’s a book ban anyway? Depends on who you ask’

'What's a book ban anyway? Depends on who you ask'

This short NPR segment from Peabody-winning producer and reporter Elizabeth Blair ponders the nebulous nature of the phrase “book ban” and looks at key players’ definitions, from the director of PEN America’s Freedom to Read to a “concerned grandparent and parent” in Maryland. Because it aired in June of this year, it offers a quick snapshot of the situation as it currently stands, from a wide swath of perspectives.

Where to Watch: NPR

The Milwaukee Public Library’s Social Media

How can I support public libraries?

The Milwaukee Public Library serves as a standout example in the growing and vibrant world of library-gram, and library-tok, using Instagram and TikTok to demonstrate the services libraries offer and get young viewers excited about books. Using memes, trending music, and pop culture references, and featuring librarians and patrons as its stars, the Milwaukee Public Library’s accounts make libraries a key part of the modern digital-information landscape. Just a few examples: a sassy, 90-year-old manga reader; a Saweetie meme-illustrated list of ways to support your public librarya montage of gay-themed books; and kids’ book favorite Amelia Bedelia (or at least someone dressed like her) on a visit to the library.

Where to Watch: InstagramTikTok

‘The ABCs of Book Banning’

'The ABCs of Book Banning'

From Peabody-winning producer and director Sheila Nevins, this 27-minute Oscar-nominated documentary spotlights centenarian Grace Linn’s efforts to fight book bans in Florida schools, as well as the voices of inspiring young people who understand quite well that they’re being denied access to information about LGBTQ+ and racial issues as well as the simple realities of the world they’re growing up in.

Where to Watch: Paramount+

Judy Blume Speaks Out Against Current Book Bans for the American Library Association

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Next time on Peabody Finds:
Looking at the Women’s Health Crisis Through the Creepy ‘Dead Ringers’