Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. This month, Jill looks at one of our favorite classic YA novels, Forever . . . (which I think we can all agree is pronounced, "Forever dot dot dot") by Judy Blume.
When I taught young adult (YA) literature in a graduate program, my students were often less enamored by the academic background of YA lit and more interested in practical applications. So every year, I approached with trepidation our reading of Forever . . ., Judy Blume’s classic story of first love. What would contemporary library school students (and the teens they serve) make of this 40-year-old powerhouse?
And every year, Forever . . . inspired one of the most lively and animated discussions we’d have all semester.
“I remember sitting at the back of the school bus in junior high and passing this book around,” one student reminisced. Others reported middle school age readers borrowing the book and returning it partially read, having decided on their own that they weren’t ready for it yet.
Forever. . . , first published in 1975 by Simon & Schuster, is narrated by high school senior Katherine, who meets fellow senior Michael at a New Year’s Eve party. They date; they have sex. Katherine thinks their romance will last forever, but life has other plans. Minor characters include: Michael’s friend Artie, who may or may not be gay; Katherine’s friend Sybil, who fully intends to continue having sex after putting her baby up for adoption; and Jamie, Katherine’s younger sister, who in true 1970s fashion defends an impolite slang word for having sex: “That's not a bad word . . . hate and war are bad words.”
Blume wrote Forever . . . in response to a request from her then-teenage daughter for a book featuring “two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die.” In other fiction of the time, as Blume explains, “if they [teens] had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970’s), sometimes even death.”
As well as inspiring an entire genre of teen romance books, Forever . . . is also the direct inspiration for Daria Snadowsky’s 2007 YA book Anatomy of a Boyfriend, which retells Blume’s story in contemporary terms.
Like other controversial works of YA lit, Forever . . .’s reception has been mixed. The book comes in at number 16 on the American Library Association (ALA)’s list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of 2000-2009 and at a whopping number seven on the corresponding list for 1990-1999. On the other end of the scale, Blume won the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 1996, an ALA lifetime achievement award recognizing an author and her body of work for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” Forever . . . was specifically cited in the award announcement.
Forever . . . has been reissued with over a dozen different covers since its 1975 publication, including a now-iconic 2003 cover and a sexy new cover coming next month.
Perhaps some of the most fascinating aspects of Forever . . . are the urban legends that have sprung up around it. One such legend claims that page 115 of Forever . . .—the scene in which Katherine and Michael first make love—is the most read page in YA literature. (In class, readers of the 2003 edition were always slightly disappointed to find that its new pagination puts the content of the former page 115 on page 97.)
Another legend holds Forever . . . responsible for the decline in popularity of the name “Ralph,” the moniker Michael ascribes to a piece of his anatomy. Like many urban legends, this one isn't technically true—the number of American babies named “Ralph” peaked in the 1910s and has been dropping ever since—but who can say whether Forever . . . contributed along the way?
At a time when a seemingly endless amount of explicit content is available with a tap of a touchscreen, what accounts for the continued popularity (and infamy) of Forever . . .?
One factor might be the book’s relatability and accessibility: Katherine and Michael seem like real people teen readers might know, and Blume tells their story in simple, easy-to-read language. Another could be its usefulness as what scholar Amy Pattee describes as a “secret source” of love and relationship advice, including the practicalities of how to obtain birth control. (Newer editions include a letter to the reader with information about preventing sexually transmitted diseases.) Or maybe it’s the sheer idea that a book—a format that to some is clearly the domain of adults, school and other aspects of the formal grownup world—would dare to voice teens’ feelings and experiences in such an honest and upfront way.
Readers, share in the comments what classic YA book you'd like Jill to feature in her next Locker Combinations: Flashback Friday!