With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: Forever… by Judy Blume, originally published in 1975
Plot: After meeting at a New Year’s Eve party, high-school seniors Katherine and Michael quickly fall deep into first love, the sort of intense, all-consuming adolescent relationship that quickly leads to discussions of consummation. And boy, do these two discuss it. They deliberately, plainspokenly make their way through the typical teen-romance milestones: first date (a drive through town), first make-out session (“You taste like toothpaste”), first family trip together (a ski trip to Vermont), first time seeing each other’s naughty bits. (His penis has a hilarious name: “Katherine… I’d like you to meet Ralph…”) And inevitably, the book covers their first time having sex, and their subsequent experiments with each other. Along the way, Katherine narrates, interspersing her internal fretting about losing her V-card with mundane observations about and interactions with her family and best friend Erica (who is sorta-dating a maybe-gay guy who, late in the book—spoiler alert—attempts to hang himself from a shower-curtain rod).
Once Katherine and Michael do the dirty, around the book’s midpoint, the narrative shifts to the fallout. Some of their concerns are practical—such as Katherine obtaining birth control, complete with an uncomfortable, for both her and for readers, visit to Planned Parenthood. Some are emotional, specifically the couple’s certainty that they are in true, everlasting love in spite of pretty much everyone around them telling them they’re too young to tell each other “forever.” That conviction is tested when summer obligations in different states force them to tear their eyes off each other long enough to notice there are other fish in the sea.
Series status? While it’s often lumped in with Blume’s other coming-of-age novels like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, Forever… is a standalone novel with a slightly older target audience.
YA cliché: Judy Blume books are sort of their own YA cliché, to the point that they’ve become go-to reference points for TMI tales of adolescent discovery, even though Blume has written numerous books that fall well outside this description. Katherine and Michael’s intense relationship is one of the forebears of the sort of insta-true-love that proliferates in today’s YA romances, but the frank, non-flowery prose of Forever… adds a distinct puppy-love tone to the whole thing that sets it apart from its more heightened progeny.
Bad sign: Besides the fact that Michael named his penis “Ralph”? Katherine’s visit to Planned Parenthood—complete with blunt discussion of vaginal discharge and her mom’s diaphragm—is the sort of dully informative exchange that places Forever… on the dividing line between “novel” and “educational material.” The stakes are ridiculously low throughout, such that the book often reads less like an entertaining narrative than like an oversized “Should I Have Sex?” informational pamphlet.
Good sign: Then again, that’s sort of the point of Forever…, which was written during the height of the ’70s sexual revolution and was clearly conceived with confused, horny adolescents in mind, not literary critics. In that regard, it’s admirably frank, focusing especially on the emotional responsibilities and ramifications of having sex. (That frankness, not to mention Katherine’s decision to start taking birth-control pills, made Forever… a frequent target of censorship for decades after its release.) The book treats the central love story with respect while still being realistic about the long-term prospects of most teenage relationships. And while both Katherine and Michael are too generalized and bland to be memorable characters in their own right, their lack of distinctiveness makes them universal ciphers that young readers can project their own experiences onto, even more than 35 years later. (Though modern teenagers might have a hard time understanding why Katherine’s very ’70s family spends so much time making hooked rugs together.)
Young-adult appropriate? Extremely so, though its once-controversial tone will likely come off hilariously quaint to today’s more sex-savvy teens and pre-teens. But the mature, open-minded attitude displayed by all the characters in Forever…—particularly Katherine’s protective-but-pragmatic, slightly hippie-ish parents—is still somewhat remarkable. There is a requisite scare tactic in the form of a sexually active friend of Katherine’s who gets pregnant, but even that’s handled sensibly, with the girl giving up the child for adoption and vowing to get an IUD (“because I’ve no intention of giving up sex”). In 2012, there are plenty of more appropriate places for teens to learn the ins and outs of sex than Forever…, but the book’s candor and focus on sexual intimacy over physicality is still relatively unusual, and worthwhile despite the snickers it invites.
Old-adult appropriate? Only as a nostalgia item, or perhaps an ill-advised stall tactic to avoid the Sex Talk with kids. First loves and first times are the sort of topics that lose almost all their emotional heft once they’re in the rearview mirror, and the central relationship in Forever… consequently comes off as pretty juvenile. Considering that there isn’t much else to the book other than that relationship, more mature readers are unlikely to find much to latch onto in the narrative, and the inelegant prose and dialogue invites half-hearted skimming.
Could use less: Ellipses. Those three dots in the title are just the beginning, as every character in Forever… seems incapable of finishing a thought. Every single page is dotted with multiple ellipses, which may be intended as a purposeful indication of the characters’ uncertainty and immaturity, but comes off as a tic that gets more annoying the longer it goes on… and on… and on…
Also, less “Ralph.”
Could use more: Discussion of STDs and STIs. In all fairness, Forever… was written in an era when the only such concern was the ominous “VD”—which does get a couple of mentions—and most modern editions of the book contain a brief introductory note about the risk of AIDS and the necessity of latex condoms. But considering Forever… functions as much as a guidebook to sex as it does a tale of first love, this particular archaism keeps it from being wholly enduring.
For fans of: Snicker-inducing teen sex, and calm, rational discussions about it.