Week 1 – Forever by Judy Blume

 

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To kick off this blog, I’d like to discuss the first novel on my list: Forever by Judy Blume. This novel focuses on the story of eighteen year old Katherine Danziger, who has just begun a whirlwind relationship with a boy named Michael Wagner. Faced with the realities of graduating and moving on to college, the two are forced, throughout their new and exciting romance, to answer  one question: What does forever really mean?

When I finished this book, I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. Because I was not a teenager in 1975, when this book was published (in fact, I hadn’t even been born yet), I can’t speak to how relevant this book may have been to teens at the time. I did notice, however, that there were quite a few issues brought up in the book that are still very relevant today. For instance, Katherine, the main character, has a grandmother who is heavily involved in Planned Parenthood. I’m sure that, by now, everyone has heard of the current controversy facing Planned Parenthood for their willingness to provide abortions to women. Indeed, the topic of abortion comes up several times throughout the novel, as does birth control, venereal disease, and the practice of safe sex. All of these are still extremely relevant to today’s society, and I would argue that venereal diseases, in particular, are even more important to discuss today, as we now have a whole new host of them to worry about (such as HIV and AIDS).

While I’d never stopped to think about how big of an issue teenage pregnancy was in the 70s, I can certainly attest to the fact that it’s still a huge problem today. All over America, there are school districts that continue to insist that abstinence-only sex education is a useful teaching method to prevent unwanted teenage pregnancies. In a study done in 2011 by Kathrin Stanger-Hall and David Hall, however, the opposite proved to be true. “Based on a national analysis of all available state data, our results clearly show that abstinence-only education does not reduce and likely increases teen pregnancy rates” (2011, p. 2). Because of the continuing insistence that we simply cannot encourage teens to practice safe sex (and, in fact, can’t discuss sex with them at all), I understand why this book has continued to be challenged since it was published.

While I can certainly see why this book garnered quite a bit of ire upon its publication (and continues to shock and anger parents today), I also think it’s crucially important that this book be allowed to exist uncontested in school and public libraries. While it was by no means the best book I’ve ever read, it deals with the concepts of sex, love, and the future in very mature, no-nonsense ways. While it portrays this type of romance as something to be desired, it doesn’t give the reader unrealistic expectations for relationships. It encourages teens to be safe about sex, and to wait until they’re really ready for it, and I think it does so in a very smart and honest way. At the same time, it promotes a healthy relationship; Michael and Katherine may not be perfect, but Michael always respects her wishes when it comes to sex, and stops every time she asks him to stop. They don’t always get along, but they clearly respect and care about one another. That, I think, is extremely important for any young teenage girl to see, even in a fictional setting, as much of today’s media doesn’t really care to spread the message that consent and mutual respect is important.

When I was in high school, the big series to read was the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and while I reflect back on my love of that series today and cringe, back then it seemed to be portraying the perfect relationship. As an adult, I now realize that there is no such thing, and this book (aimed at the same age group as Twilight) really seems to understand that. When Katherine and Michael first have sex, it’s awkward, ends too soon, and leaves Katherine unsatisfied and Michael embarrassed. While sex becomes a large part of their relationship, it is not the only thing that matters; in fact, they spend a large part of the book getting to know one other and sharing their interests. Sex is in no way glorified as being something that everyone needs to do, and I think that’s a good thing for a young girl in high school (who may or may not still be a virgin) to hear, especially when she’s most likely being pressured by her peers to lose her virginity as soon as possible.

According to Carolyn Caywood in her review of the novel, she seems to agree that it is important for teens to be exposed to this book despite attempts from adults to keep it off of the shelves. “It is part of the nature of adolescence to want to understand sex. Before Forever, teens found other sources mostly middle-aged, neurotic, symbolic, and confusing. By contrast, relationships in Forever err on the side of idealism and are therefore more relevant to teens” (1996, p.62). Again, while I in no way believe this book was perfect (as some of it was rather cheesy and idealized), I do think it’s important in that it opens up a dialogue about sex, one that many teens would otherwise be afraid to confront. This is the kind of book I wish I’d known about as a teen, as I feel like it would have helped me to breach the subject of sex with my parents (something I was very afraid to do at the time).

One of my favorite parts of the book happens near the very end, when Katherine is spending time with Michael, her friend Erica, and Erica’s boyfriend Artie. While not a discussion about the importance of safe sex, it calls into question a fear that many high schoolers have upon graduating and preparing for college. Frustrated because he won’t be able to go to the school he really wants to go to, Artie says, “Sure, you spend your whole life trying to make it and for what… so you can wind up in some cancer ward full of needles and tubes with nobody giving a shit… that’s what you’ve got to look forward to… that’s what we’ve all got coming” (Blume, 1975, p.144). Erica, trying to comfort him, simply responds, “You’ve got to enjoy whatever you can and forget about the rest” (p. 144). That, to me, is the message of this entire novel.

Nothing lasts forever, even if (like the relationship in this novel) it seems like it will. Blume is constantly reaffirming this point throughout the novel by including moments (like Katherine and Michael’s graduations and the death of Katherine’s grandfather) that highlight the temporary nature of everything in life. More important than the messages about sex, consent, and being smart about protecting yourself, I think this is the ultimate message of the book: that life is constantly changing, and something that seems like it’s going to last forever is not always meant to. Again, while this wasn’t the best young adult book I’ve ever read, I completely respect Blume for writing a work that contests a lot of widely held beliefs about abstinence and sugar-coating material written for teens.

If I happened to be a sex education teacher, I would personally be happy to use this book as a classroom teaching tool to open up a dialogue about sex, though I know that there are many out there who would disagree with this. I, like many others, believe that teens are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for, and it’s important for us to remember never to talk down to them about important issues simply because we think they can’t handle the truth.

References:

Blume, J. (1975). Forever. New York City, NY: Simon Pulse.

Caywood, C. (1996). Deja views. School Library Journal, 42(6): 62-64.

Stanger-Hall, K. F., & Hall, D. W. (2011). Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S. Plos ONE, 6(10), 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

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