How old were you when you read Forever…?
I was 11, which makes me among one of the first generations for whom a surreptitious read of Judy Blume’s barrier-busting (pun kind of intended) novel of teen sex marked our crossing from innocence to experience (at least hypothetically).
Judy Blume’s books were fixtures in the lives of preteen American girls in the ’70s. We read them all: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. Within their pages, we learned about, respectively, menstruation, masturbation and something strange called “nocturnal emissions.” My mother, who came of age right after World War II and bore children at the dawning of the sexual revolution, was perfectly happy to cede sex ed to Judy Blume. She knew it was important, but she would really rather not do it herself.
Check out more frequently banned and challenged books for teens in today's list.
Most of my friends’ mothers were the same, which led to my friend Jenny’s gift of Forever… from her mother as just the next title on the Judy Blume shelf. Her mom almost instantly regretted it, as that very night, during a cocktail party, Jenny descended the stairs to ask what the first sentence meant when it said that Sybil “has been laid by at least six different guys.” Her mother quickly explained (with far more grace than I think mine would’ve managed), then packed her back upstairs.
It didn’t take long for Jenny’s copy of Forever… to blaze its way through the sixth grade. I actually read more than just the dog-eared pages, but that’s because I was a nerd in the making. It just didn’t occur to me not to read the whole book. Then somehow Mrs. Whetstone plucked it off of somebody else’s desk and read the dog-eared pages.
An excruciating circle time ensued (sixth grade was still part of elementary school in my day, so this conversation was held on the rug in front of the blackboard, in the same place we listened to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories). I don’t remember much of what Mrs. Whetstone said before she asked if anyone in the room had read the whole book. With trepidation, I raised my hand. (Jenny, lucky duck, was in Mrs. Coleman’s class and didn’t have to suffer through this.)
Miraculously, reading the whole book was the right answer. White-haired Mrs. Whetstone, who also taught Sunday school and who retired at the end of the year, lectured us firmly on the importance of literary context and how the book was far more than just those dog-eared pages. If she took the matter any further—that is, contacted our parents—I never learned about it.
Looking back during this Banned Book Week at my first real encounter with anything like a book challenge, I realized that I have taken both my experience and Mrs. Whetstone’s wisdom very much to heart. The latter I used with parents unhappy with the dog-eared pages in their children’s books. (One of the standard questions on any “request for reconsideration of materials” form in any library is a variation on, “Have you read the whole book?” It’s a damn good question in those stressful circumstances.)
The former I use with myself. Did I, upon reading of Cath’s growing familiarity with Michael’s penis, Ralph, immediately go out and get myself laid? Ugh. Actually, Ralph kinda grossed me out. I simply stashed him next to menstruation, masturbation and nocturnal emissions and stumbled my way through puberty with at least a modicum of information. That it was more or less hypothetical for some time was just fine.
I have to admit that now that I have a teenage daughter I see Forever… and its younger cousins, such as Doing It, Anatomy of a Boyfriend, Rainbow Boys, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Kendra, in a rather more complicated light and feel a bit of a knee-jerk desire to keep her away from them. Do I want her to rush out and get laid? Hell, no, so maybe let’s just not introduce the subject at all. But I remember my 11-year-old self and Forever…, and I just hope reading these books will give her the information she needs to make it successfully through adolescence herself.
I also hope those who would like to keep Forever… and its ilk from any children will take a step back and remember how and when they first encountered explicit sex. Really, what better place for a kid to encounter those aspects of adolescence than in the nice, safe pages of a book? It’s even better if they read the whole story.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor for Kirkus.