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If the subject of sexual content in YA comes up, you can count the minutes until the first mention of Judy Blume’s Forever. Published in 1975—as Watergate raged, Saigon fell, and Saturday Night Live premiered—it was a shot across the bow from an author who’d made a name for herself with honesty that knocked the wind out of you, with previous novels including Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), Deenie (1973), and Blubber (1974).
It’s hard not to look at that list and conclude that Blume was, to some extent, working her way down the Puritanism checklist, writing about the things you weren’t supposed to write about and having a good time doing it. And so what? Tearing down social mores was happening. The Joy of Sex had come out only three years before Forever (so, too, had Deep Throat). To use the lingo of the era: frank rap sessions about balling were groovy.
The decision to write and publish these books was a political act with cultural currency. To that end, it worked: Forever still makes the longlists of America’s most challenged books, and one need only glance at the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2016 to see Blume’s shout still echoing: Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (2014), Alex Gino’s George (2015), David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013), and more.
No doubt these authors would heap upon Blume all the credit she deserves. There is, of course, a downside to being first: to break down doors, sometimes you need a blunt object. It would make sense—it would be expected and excused—if Forever read today as purposeful and clinical, like an overly chummy sex-ed teacher.
Here’s the amazing thing about great literature: it doesn’t feel that way. Against all odds, Forever still works. The whole thing. It’s fairly incredible. If anything feels dated, it’s the absence of pornography; the characters wouldn’t be less innocent today, exactly, but their concerns about sexual expectations might be different. That aside, not only could Forever be published today but it would still make waves.
Before we get into why, let’s review the story for those who have forgotten everything but a penis nicknamed “Ralph.” Kath and Michael are 17-year-old classmates who start dating and gradually making their way around the sexual bases. They deal with the anxieties and wonder of first times; parents express reservations; Kath goes on birth control; and finally, they spend a summer away from each other and begin to drift apart.
In terms of plot, Les Misérables this is not. There’s zero fat here; though clearly a YA book, Blume has pared it to the bone, aware that readers want “the good parts” and giving them nothing but. Read today, the prose feels nearly experimental, page after page of dialogue that is—and here’s the kicker—pretty dull. But a good author (and Blume is a great one) can write about dullness without being dull.
These kids are not overly smart snarkers. They have nothing especially insightful to say. And it is totally refreshing. Early on, Blume spends three pages on what you might call a “dullness montage,” cutting together several days’ worth of phone conversations between Kath and Michael. Here is a telling snippet:
On Thursday night he said, “Did I tell you I’m trying to get my ski instructor’s pin by next year?”
“No . . .”
“Yeah, I am. Do you by any chance like spinach?”
“Ugh, no . . . why, do you?”
“It’s only my favorite food.”
The rest of the exchange is every bit as scintillating. Blume underlines that this is intentional by making Kath’s sister, Jamie, extremely interesting. Jamie plays music; she creates art; she cooks feasts. This book is not about Jamie.
In a way, reading Forever is like cracking open a diary you hoped would be rife with poignant observations but instead only bullet-points the most memorable facts, which, in the case of Kath, are what goes on with Michael. It is a bubble of a book that offers little in terms of scene setting or a sense of community. Again, Blume is doing this on purpose: halfway through the book, she writes, “About my other friends, which I also haven’t mentioned . . .” Imagine an author doing this today. Would this, void of context, be called lazy writing instead of what it is, which is emotionally focused?
If there’s any lingering doubt whether Kath’s bubble is deliberate, take this scene near the book’s end. “What do you want to do with your life?” an adult asks Kath. “You’ve thought about it, haven’t you?” It’s clear she hasn’t. Not clear to Kath, necessarily, but clear to the reader, an effective distinction.
Those aforementioned “good parts”—let’s get to them. Until the last section, wherein Kath crushes on a new guy and dumps Michael, the story tension revolves solely around the whens, wheres, and hows of the young couple’s sexual experiences. In 200 pages, Blume puts Kath through a fantastic number of paces, including Michael’s past bout of gonorrhea; premature ejaculation; sex during periods; both female and male orgasms (notably, it’s after their first orgasms that they first use the promise “forever”); and, through side characters, pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, and impotence.
This last topic is handled via Artie, a boy that Kath’s friend, Erica, is hoping to “help him find out” if he’s gay or not. He’s not—or so says Erica—though we’re left wondering why, then, Artie tries to hang himself. What’s that? A highly not-dull suicide attempt in the middle of our wonderfully ordinary story? Yes, and though it doesn’t affect the narrative much, it’s a troubling detail that remains hard to wrap one’s head around.
Despite the pinging about of serious topics, there is no lack of mutually gratifying sex scenes (aka the dog-eared pages in your ancient copy) and even, on rare occasion, a laugh-out-loud bit of eccentricity. When surveying Michael’s bottles of aftershave, Kath suddenly asks, “Do you ever put it on your balls?” It’s hard not to love both Kath and Michael for the earnestness with which they tackle this pressing issue.
Patrick Ness has said his new book, Release, is inspired by Forever, and his book’s honest, everyday charm is indeed reminiscent of Blume. He’ll hardly be the last author to make such an honest claim, and that’s a good thing, not only because of Forever’s insistence upon being honest about sex but because of its insistence upon being honest about teens—in all their fumbling, boring, fickle glory.
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