I don't remember who had appointed themselves carrier of the book. But whoever it was, it was probably the tall girl, the same girl who helped at the tuck shop giving out 1p fried eggs and lips like it might be the last thing we ate. She handed me the book gravely, before the start of double English in Year 7. It was my turn. I had done the right thing, allowing the queue to take its course, even waiting patiently while slower readers took it home for a few days. I had finally been handed the chalice of knowledge.
That book was Forever by Judy Blume, and between us we had only one copy. It fell open naturally on the pages where the heroine, Katherine, is introduced to her boyfriend Michael's penis, which he calls Ralph. This seemed only reasonable. I walked around school that day, knowing the book was in my locker, waiting for me. There were a few other texts that made the rounds: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (a year or so later), The Lifeguard by Richie Tankersley Cusick, Adrian Mole … But it was the Judy Blumes – Forever and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret – that made me feel glad I had a torch with big batteries to read with at night.
In fact, it made me glad I could read. In the story we follow Kath's life from when she firsts meets Michael at a party, starts having sex with him, falls in love with him, and then meets someone else. What struck me immediately was a sense of the book's un-Englishness – but not in a way that grated against my Englishness: Kath's school life, summer camp and the dynamic with her parents was so American somehow. And I remember the potency and fun of the teen intimacy, the letters, the phone calls, the emotional steps towards sex and wondering if this was what we would all experience. On one level, it was everything real life wasn't: unembarrassed conversations about sex, access to real-life boys (my school was all-girls). But it was also everything my experience actually was: the intricacies of female friendship, obsession, lust, nightgowns, underwear, bodily fluids, hilarity and tragedy somehow enmeshed.
It has been interesting coming back to Forever, 20 years later. I worried that Michael might in fact have been a touch creepy and weird, and that Kath would not be the separated-at-birth American twin version of me I imagined at the time. But it more than lived up to expectations, not least in its boldness and braveness. Kath asks her mum, while the two of them are driving, when she lost her virginity (wow); her grandmother sends her sexual-health advice in the post upon hearing she's sexuality active (I mean, imagine). These women aren't afraid of "Ralph", they're not afraid of sex and, most interestingly, Kath has a kind of sexual appetite and agency that feels completely accurate: she's up for it, ready to go, bored of being a virgin. That's striking because – even 38 years after the book was written – these things are still so often underrepresented or, worse, misrepresented. When it comes to sex, teenage women are too often either a rape victim or a punchline. Best of all, I think, is the fact that Kath decides "for ever" might not actually mean for ever for her and Michael. It's feminism in action.
Often, it feels painful looking back, remembering the days when virginity held you in its grim grip, and you didn't even own your own jeans. But re-reading the book isn't cringeworthy, it's uplifting. This book has helped to make most women I know what we are, in the way that only literature can. Perhaps we've kept it secret for some reason; perhaps, like so many aspects of female identity, we've been a little ashamed of it.
Maybe, in a way, that's the point. Judy Blume has a way of making the invisible important. Kath's life was important enough to write a book about. And, while I read it, I felt my life was important too. Judy, if you're reading this, thank you. (And if anyone wants to read the book, I have a brand-new copy.)
• EV Crowe is a playwright and has curated part of the Royal Court's Big Idea: Sex season. Romola Garai will be reading from Forever at the theatre tonight.
Forever, Judy Blume
Forever is a novel from 1975, and while it isn’t the most contemporary thing out there right now, the content of this novel is still important and applicable to teens in 2013. It is a YA story about both teenage sexuality and love. The story follows 17-year-old Katherine, who is a senior in high school. She falls in love with Michael at a New Year’s Eve party, and readers follow their romance through the loss of virginity, birth control, promising to stay together forever and planning their future together. However, Katherine takes a summer job outside of their town and they spend time apart, eventually ending their relationship, which they both thought would last “forever.”
There are many issues in this novel that are complicated but real to life. There is an attempted suicide, homosexuality, and talk of sexually transmitted diseases. Sex is a topic that comes up frequently in this novel in many different ways. It is explored as an emotional or physical issue as well as health and moral issues. Readers see that all of these issues are complicated, but that they are ones to be discussed rather than ignored.
Why it was banned or challenged and why we should still read it:
“But I think it’s more than that. It’s what we don’t want our children to know, what we don’t want to talk to our children about; and if they read it, they’ll know it, or they’ll question it.” – Judy Blume
Judy Blume’s Forever deals with teenage sexuality and birth control, and because of its content it has been on the ALA list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009, at number sixteen. (http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009) Blume’s Forever has sold over 3.5 millions copes and today it is still causing controversy. It was one of the first books to give teen girls insight on “going all the way.” Why is it that as a society we try to hide sexuality from teenagers?
One blogger said of Forever that it “Has frequently been the target of censors. This story about the sexual awakening of a teenage girl has been challenged since its publication because it “does not promote abstinence and monogamous relationships.” It was challenged by Midvalley Junior-Senior Scranton, Pennsylvania high school library (1982), Orlando, Florida schools (1982) and Akron, Ohio school district libraries (1983) for using “four-letter words” and for talking about masturbation, birth control and disobedience to parents.”
Although these issues are not frequently talked about, they are important. Safe sex is important. Judy Blume thoughtfully crafted a novel that talks about the dangers of unsafe sex and how to be safe. Without being preachy, Blume provides a novel that teenagers can relate to. If these issues are hard to discuss, why not hand a kid a book that they can explore?
Judy Blume says it best herself:
“What I hear from my readers is that the story itself is timeless. There will always be first love, first sexual feelings, first sexual relationships. Here we are, 30 years later, and just as many young people are reading the book today as when it was published.”
“The 70s was a much more open decade in America,” she says. “Forever was used in several school programs then, helping to spur discussions of sexual responsibility. This would never happen today. How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don’t have information and no one is willing to talk with them?”
A Video Interview with Judy Blume:
Judy Blume’s Website:
More about Judy Blume and censorship:
On Safer Sex:
by hlr2501975, censorship, forever, judy blume, young adult literature