There are a lot of 40th birthday celebrations happening in 2015: Saturday Night Live; Jaws (as well as that "different set of jaws"); Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell (of whom there is certainly an increasingly ugly portrait tucked away in an attic somewhere — I mean, those abs!).
But the 40th birthday that surprised me the most was Forever, Judy Blume's YA opus about first love, burgeoning sexuality and penises named Ralph, first published in 1975. Discovering that sent me rifling through my bookshelf for my copy, dog-eared and broken-spined from the many re-readings it endured during my own days as a lovestruck, confused teenager, to see what holds up and what doesn't, as well as try to figure out why, after forty years, it is still one of the most frequently challenged and banned books in the U.S.
Forever, ICYMI, is ostensibly the story of Katherine Danziger, a pretty average teenager growing up in New Jersey, and her first serious romantic relationship with a fellow high school student, Michael Wagner. They meet at a New Year's Eve party, start dating exclusively, say "I love you," have sex, graduate high school and (spoiler alert) break up before heading off to college at the end of summer. It's a simple story, but like so many of Blume's books, it's nuanced and layered, interwoven with serious topics and ideas that are handled with a deft mix of empathy and honesty.
It was probably the first realistic portrayal of sex you ever read
Prior to discovering Forever, my exposure to sex in literature had been limited to stealing my mom's Harlequin romance novels to read the steamy bits, which is great for learning about heaving bosoms and throbbing members, but not so great for getting an accurate idea of what sex is actually like. It's not that Forever doesn't have its scintillating moments ("I straddled him, helping Ralph find the right angle, and when he was inside me, I moved slowly — up, down and around — up, down and around — until I couldn't control myself anymore.") but it doesn't excise the unsexy parts of sex — the mental and emotional aspects, the responsibility, the awkwardness of being with someone for the first time.
Blume presents sex not as some Utopian fantasy or harbinger of doom, but just what it is: a natural part of romantic relationships that is fun but must be handled with care. Who would have thought?
It's still fighting the good fight against censorship
Of course, it's this truthful representation of sexuality in a YA novel (along with its references to birth control, masturbation, homosexuality and use of "four-letter words") that have made Forever one of Blume's most challenged and banned books (which is saying something). According to Blume, people really started working themselves into a tizzy over Forever and her other works in the 1980s, and it's continued right through into the 21st century. Forever was among the top 20 most challenged/banned books in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s, according to the American Library Association.
It may seem ludicrous that in our current climate of sexting and abundant free online porn, adults still get all up-in-arms about matter-of-frank descriptions of human sexuality and safe sex, but such is the culture we live in. Blume takes it all in stride (which is one of the many reasons why we love her), calling out her critics and their hang-ups, and encouraging young readers to seek out books that mean something to them.
But it's not just about sex
Reading Forever as a teenager whose body was hopped up on pheromones, it was hard to see past the book's main plotline of Katherine and Michael's physical relationship. Looking at it with fresh eyes as an adult, it actually deals with a whole host of other topics, from teen pregnancy to depression and suicide to the growing pains between children and their parents (Katherine's arguments with her parents about how she's "not a child anymore...I'm eighteen" especially hit home, as I recalled all the times I shrieked those words over my own dinner table. *Sorry, Mom and Dad.*). Beyond the examination of first love, Forever encapsulates all of the excitement and turmoil of that very transitional period between adolescence and adulthood.
Katherine is that rarest of female YA protagonists — a flawed but strong woman
On re-reading Forever, I realized that never once does Katherine talk down to herself or wonder how Michael could possibly be attracted to her. After all the chapters of today's Bellas and Trises agonizing about how they're not good enough for the boys they like, that was a welcome breath of fresh air. It's not that Katherine doesn't have flaws, but they only serve to make her a more well-rounded, relevant character.
But throughout Forever, Katherine holds her own — she waits to have sex with Michael until she's ready; once she does, she gets her birth control situation under control ASAP; and she knows how to handle herself against dudes making come-ons. ("I can wipe my own chin," is an introductory line on par with "I carried a watermelon.").
In fact, all the women in Forever are pretty awesome
Katherine's mom Diana, her younger sister Jamie, her grandmother Hallie, her best friend Erica, hell, even genius-IQed Sybil (who may actually be the most intriguing character in Forever) - with all these bad-ass women surrounding her, it's no wonder Katherine has her shit together. From being open and non-judgmental about sex to dropping '70s truthbombs like "Hate and war are bad words but fuck isn't," Forever's ladies are a sassy bunch we'd love to hang out with.
You can read it at any age, and still appreciate it
As Jaclyn Garver over at xoJane points out, Forever is a great book to re-read at different points in your life, just to see how your reactions to it change (I like to do the same thing with the complete Harry Potter series every so often). Reading it at 16, I could totally identify with Katherine's all-consuming affection for Michael, her combination of fear and fascination with the prospect of having sex, and her frustration at the injustice of having parents WHO JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND. At 30, I admire her candidness in discussing those fears with Michael, understand how hard it must be for parents to watch their children grow up and become fully functional people, and am glad that I now know that emotions and relationships are not as black-and-white as they seem when you're 17.
Forever never talks down to its audience
Probably because she has mad respect for her readers, young and old. Blume knew that presenting honest information about sex, love, and birth control wouldn't make readers' heads explode or turn them into deviant sex fiends — it would just help them make more informed, responsible people. What a concept.
Every reader has their own special personal connection to it
When I first read Forever, I was in the throes of my own first romantic relationship (with a boy named Michael, natch). Like Katherine, I was completely enamored and thought we'd never break up (spoiler alert: we did). Like Katherine, I was simultaneously intrigued and terrified at the prospect of having sex with him (spoiler alert: we didn't. Unlike Katherine, I just wasn't emotionally or mentally ready for that step, a conclusion Forever helped me reach). Forever was like the kind older sister who held my hand and walked me through that whole experience.
The out-of-date references are quaint and nostalgic
Records and VD and touch-dancing, oh my! Forever shows its age with these references, which would probably have today's readers asking, "What's a record?" (as well as "Where are the iPhones and Facebook?"). Sure, Blume could update Forever so that Katherine and Michael Facebook chat every night instead of talk on the phone and Jamie's a talented digital photographer instead of painter, but being a time capsule is part of Forever's charm.
But its portrayal of the struggles of first love and growing up are timeless
Slang and technology may have changed in the past 40 years, but the emotions surrounding first love, first sexual experience and growing up remain much the same. As Blume herself said in an interview commemorating Forever's 30th anniversary, "There will always be first love, first sexual feelings, first sexual relationships." And like so many things in life, those experiences are even better with a heartfelt, honest book by your side.
Images: Getty, Giphy