Judy Blume’s most loved – and controversial – novel, Forever, empowered millions of girls about their sexuality. But how does it stand up to a close reading four decades after its original publication?
When I was eleven, my favourite things included Bonne Bell lip gloss, Ice Magic, 1982 In the Sun and reading. I devoured Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High books, but Judy Blume was the first author I felt like I knew. At a time when most of the adult voices around me seemed consistently inconsistent, Judy’s – and that was how I thought of her, first-name basis – felt trustworthy.
Since being eleven was much like being in limbo, it was nice to have some company, even if it was only on the page. My older sisters had become silent and secretive once puberty hit. If I was ever going to learn how to grow up, it would be through books, and Judy’s were both a comfort and portent for things to come.
From 1970 to 1980, Judy Blume wrote fourteen books for young people; of these, I have read twelve. I remember them by subject (Judaism, scoliosis, wet dreams) and by small, evocative details: grape jelly, apartments with cheerful doormen, the New York Times, Esther Williams. Karen from It’s Not the End of the World had a rug shaped like a foot; Margaret, from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, coveted sanitary pads that had actual belts – and so, for a time, did I.
Though I read Judy’s books out of order, I somehow knew Forever should be saved for last. This might have been due to parental fielding, or it might have been due to marketing. Judy’s other books were published under the Pan Piccolo imprint, but Forever was a Pan Horizons, indicating more grown-up content.
In the 1987 edition of Bookseller and Publisher, Steve Klein raves about Pan Horizons’ decision to market their titles in a ‘clearly identifiable’ series: ‘Kids know where they are with them.’ The series came at the tail end of the first golden age of teen fiction, and included authors like M.E. Kerr, Lois Duncan, Norma Klein, S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel. (According to Time magazine, we are in the second golden age now.)
It has been forty years since Forever was first published. It is Blume’s most contentious novel, notably making the American Library Association’s List of Most Frequently Challenged Books as recently as 2001.
The problem? Forever was explicit about sex and contraception – it could almost be read as an instructional guide— it also broached homosexuality and, albeit fleetingly, suicide.
‘Sexuality and death – those are the two big secrets we try to keep from children,’ Judy stated in an interview with Joyce Maynard, ‘partly because the adult world isn’t comfortable with them either.’
I had a churchy upbringing, and in my household sex was not discussed. There were copies of Where Did I Come From and What’s Happening To Me on our bookshelves, but they were just information, and had all the appeal of a science textbook.
I read Forever around the same time as I read Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey. The sex in Puberty Blues was brutal and inevitable, and little to do with the teenage protagonists’ own desires. Forever was a far gentler exploration of the subject.
I kept my Judy Blume books until I felt I’d outgrown them, and moved on to more exotic bonkbusters like Lace by Shirley Conran or pretty much anything by Jackie Collins. My friends and I passed these books around, but we didn’t talk about them. To talk about them would have been to reveal ourselves as too interested.
A few months ago, I had cause to re-read Forever for a panel discussion. I downloaded a copy and read it on my laptop. Revisiting a formative read can be perilous, but I whipped through Forever and then spent some time marinating in all the nostalgia it invoked.
The story follows Michael and Katherine, two seniors who fall in love. Katherine is a virgin, but decides she wants to have sex with Michael, who is all for it. Katherine and Michael’s relationship is sweet and believable, and ultimately unsustainable.
Re-reading the text, I was struck by Judy’s language, which is plain and frank; there are no metaphors or euphemisms in Forever. The prose may be unspectacular but the content seems somehow emotionally honest. Much of the story had slipped through the net of my memory, such as the genius little sister, the sexually active parents, and maybe-gay Artie, but I remembered Ralph, the name Michael gives his penis. At the time I wondered if all boys named their dicks. I also wondered why Judy hadn’t chosen a more evocative epithet. But perhaps the everyman quality of Ralph contributed to the book’s relatability. When I first read Forever, it was not impossible to imagine a similar storyline one day happening to me.
Today’s ‘contemporary’ (read: realistic) young-adult fiction is a sophisticated stew of snarky-yet-philosophical narrators and competing issues. Forty years ago, losing your virginity was storyline enough; now you’d have to at least throw in some factions, maybe an ironic karaoke scene. In an article for the Guardian, British young-adult writer James Dawson wondered if Forever was ‘the first and last word on teen sex…Virginity was lost so perfectly it was almost as if no author ever need bother again.’
I would think that writerly reticence is more to do with economics than unfavourable comparisons. The explosion of young-adult fiction has meant that more teenagers are reading than even before. Books that include what the industry calls ‘content’ have less chance of being used as a teaching resource, or, in some cases, even making it into school libraries. As long as there are writers willing to go there, there are gatekeepers ready to bar the way.
The recent furore over the banning of New Zealand author Ted Dawe’s coming-of-age novel, Into the River, exemplifies this. The book was given a classification by New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review to restrict it to 14+. Christian lobby group Family First appealed for an interim restriction, banning the book from sale in New Zealand altogether. Dawe’s response:
There comes a stage in the life of a child where they make the transition to adulthood, they have to walk free of their family, have to walk into spaces which may be dangerous. This is what young-adult fiction prepares them for. I understand adults who get upset (with some of the topics) but often their children are the ones who can’t discuss these things with their parents. In the safety of a novel they can learn about this.
While young-adult sex increasingly occurs off the page, there are some notable exceptions in our local fiction. Fiona Wood’s 2013 novel Wildlife describes, with realism and honesty, the developing sexual relationship between Sybilla and school hottie, Ben.
‘When I read a book that opts for a dissolve when it comes to sex, rather than providing any detail, I can feel my sexually curious teenage-self asking, But what are they doing? What is actually happening?’ Wood says. Forever, incidentally, was banned from her high school in the mid-1970s.
Kirsty Eagar’s forthcoming Summer Skin, which is about romance and sex among first-year-university students, will be published within the young-adult fiction genre but carry a warning of explicit content. When asked about the nature of the sex in her novel, Eagar (who hasn’t read Forever) explains:
I didn’t censor myself when writing the book, other than making sure it was ‘real’. I felt like I had a lot of permissions, though, because it’s set at uni, the main character is nineteen, and from the outset I wanted to write a book that’s about sex. That’s not to say I want fourteen-year-olds reading it – it’s aimed at older teens and readers in their twenties, and the publisher has gone to incredible lengths to communicate that. That said, there’s a much higher chance of a fourteen-year-old watching hardcore porn than reading my book, and my book directly addresses the former by making a case for intimacy. That’s how much has changed. We’re at a point where pornography is the main sex educator. My view was, show ‘real’, show what’s being lost – holding hands, talking, kissing – and stop this pretense that girls don’t feel desire, too.
Forever has, unquestionably, dated. I’m not sure if today’s teens would read it as anything more than a curiosity, but it does mark an important time in social history. In 1975, feminism was heading towards a bright future; the sexual revolution was in full swing. Nice girls did and didn’t mind. For all the shag rugs and monkey prints, Forever deserves to be held up as shining light of young-adult literature. Judy Blume demystified first sex, took shame out of the equation and espoused the feminist ideal that a young woman can choose what she does with her body, and that a young man can respect this choice.