It's only appropriate that Judy Blume's upcoming appearance in Madison as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival coincides with the American Library Association's "Teen Read Week." Even more appropriate: Her visit comes hot on the heels of "Banned Book Week." Few children's authors have had their books challenged and pulled from library shelves more often than Blume. Five of her books landed on the list of the ALA's "Most Challenged" books 1990-2000. This is in large part thanks to Forever, Blume's 1976 novel about the sexual awakening of a teenage girl. It is #8 on the top 100 most challenged books of the 1990s.
This may surprise readers who have only dabbled in her "Fudge" series or Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which are fairly tame, funny books for younger readers. In her "young adult" writings, Blume offers an adult voice capable of introducing young people to menstruation, sex, voyeurism and masturbation in a way that is frank - but neither clinical nor shaming. While J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Christopher Paolini own the current teen-fantasy mantle, it's hard to argue against Judy Blume's supremacy as the American Teen Realism writer of the past three decades. Sales of over 75 million of her books back up such claims.
Forever is Blume's most controversial novel. It was "an incredibly influential and groundbreaking novel" when first published, says Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the UW-Madison. Its subject matter was so controversial that it was originally published as an adult novel, even though it was clearly aimed at teens. "It was very risqué," says Horning, "but it pales in comparison to some of the books published for young adults today. It ushered in a new era where people writing for teens could be more candid about sex and sexuality."
What makes Forever edgy (and, in some people's minds, objectionable) is that it takes a realistic look at the sexual discovery of a teenage girl in a healthy environment. And it is explicit. And then nothing bad happens to this girl. It isn't a morality tale in which she is raped or contracts a venereal disease or dies or is even made fun of in school afterwards. While plenty of frank books are written for teens today, it's a 30-year-old book that still may do the best job of preparing girls, and even boys, about the realities of becoming sexually active.
This sounds like a bold statement. But in comparing Forever to the two most popular series of novels among teenage girls today, Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series and Cecily Von Ziegesar's "Gossip Girl" novels, Blume's novel presents a far better introduction to sex and adult life.
Katherine, the 17-year-old protagonist of Forever, discovers sex with her first love, Michael. She discovers it a few times, actually, and along the way encounters frank talks with her parents and her grandmother, has her first visit to Planned Parenthood, and receives a prescription for "the Pill." Ultimately, nothing worse than bruised feelings result from her sexual activity.
Considering it was written in the 1970s, this book holds up well. Some of the slang ends up a little antiquated (one character refers to his father as "my old man," and young people don't refer to sex as "getting laid" unironically anymore), but otherwise, it maintains its power and its purpose. The sexual scenes are brief but plenty descriptive, and the information provided about birth control, adoption and abortion are entirely relevant to teens today. In addition, Blume opens the novel with a note to young readers who are contemplating sexual activity about the dangers of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, the necessity of condoms, and provides contact information for Planned Parenthood.
It remains an entertaining read, and although it is entirely focused on Katherine's sexual awakening (the rest of her life, including a friend's attempted suicide and her grandfather's death, is clearly just a sideshow), it still contains some natty, but believable, dialogue and a nice narrative pace. It concludes with an epistolary section in which you can watch Katherine and Michael slowly fall apart. And then life goes on.
Forever, with its initial popularity and healthy sales, has been followed over the last 30 years by a sea of books for young adults (as librarians and book publishers deem teenagers) that tackle adult topics. Various lists of "edgy" or "gritty" young-adult novels provide a litany of nightmarish teen situations: forced prostitution, incest and shockingly abusive households; selling and using crystal meth, heroin and crack; and journeys to and from sobriety. There are also vampire teens struggling with their newly undead world and teens who are diabetic but who think they're vampires.
This is not to say that young-adult novels should never address such issues, because clearly they should. But there seems to be a dearth of teen novels that deal with sex as a healthy experience.
I teach high school English at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, and I'm one of those people who think it's not enough just to see teens reading. I believe they should be reading good writing and that there are trashy novels students would be better off not reading at all.
While discussing recreational reading with my junior class and asking them what they read on their own time, I learned that a majority of female students in four of my classes have read Gossip Girl, Twilight, or both. Only one of them has read Forever. Having read a "Gossip Girl" novel, I can promise that this lack of exposure to Forever is truly a shame.
Gossip Girl (also a television series on the CW Network) follows the meandering social lives of wealthy Manhattanite teenagers. The main storyline is that the protagonist, Blair, wants to have sex with her boyfriend, Nate, but hasn't been able to find the right moment. Meanwhile, her old friend Serena returns from boarding school - and unbeknownst to Blair, Serena and Nate had sex together two years ago. The rest of the book follows the various thrusts and parries of Serena and Blair within their social circles, and vicious lies about Serena build throughout the novel. The plot is meant to climax at a long-planned fund-raiser for peregrine falcons.
Yep, it's Sex and the City for teenagers. Most of the main characters are either ruthlessly materialistic or too stoned to care about anything. The teens live in a parentless universe and drink more than Dylan Thomas.
Oddly, even though most of the characters are sexually active, drink alcohol, and the swearing is explicit, the sex scenes are not as graphic - or as believable - as Blume's.
Although Gossip Girl is popular, all 10 of the current top 10 books for young adults on Amazon.com are by Stephenie Meyer, and most of them belong to the "Twilight" series.
Many of my students rave about these books; one claims to have read the first three books of the series in just two days. This is no small task considering these are 500-page novels. While the prose is not great, the story is riveting. The first book in the series, Twilight, deals with a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. Sex is dealt with metaphorically, as the girl is debating whether she ought to swap bodily fluids with her boyfriend - but the bodily fluid in question is blood. Abstinence is really at the heart of Meyer's novels.
More frankness in young-adult lit may seem like an odd thing to clamor for (picture picket signs reading "More Graphic Sexuality in Teen Novels!"), but the details in Forever are important. They help Blume portray sex as the sometimes imperfect, sometimes awkward, sometimes fantastic entity that it is.
Although Forever may not ultimately live up to its title in longevity, it is still being read. "Forever is still circulating very well," says Karen Lucas, youth services librarian in the Madison Public Library system. "Realistic fiction and problem novels aren't as popular among teens today compared to fantasy books, books such as Eragon by Paolini and the 'Twilight' series by Meyer." But "contemporary books that take on issues of sexuality, abuse, teen parenthood and bullying, among others, are still popular among teens and circulating well."
This is good news, as is the current rise in teen reading across the country. Fantasy novels can serve as outstanding gateways to reality. Still, there's a lot to be said for Forever.
Read all about it
Blume will give the Charlotte Zolotow Lecture at the Wisconsin Book festival at 7:30 pm, Oct. 15, at Wisconsin Union Theater. Tickets are free, but required (at Union Theater box office).
Blume's website includes a blog where she, characteristically, addresses complex issues of the day - like Sarah Palin's views on teen pregnancy and abortion: "What I don't need is some sarcastic hockey mom who describes herself as a pit bull, who flaunts her pregnant teenager and her new special needs infant, a heartbeat away from the presidency."
Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series
"For Bella Swan, there is one thing more important than life itself: Edward Cullen. But being in love with a vampire is even more dangerous than Bella could ever have imagined."
"Welcome to New York City's Upper East Side, where my friends and I live, play and sleep - sometimes with each other. Enter the scandalous world of Gossip Girl: a world where everyone is gorgeous, everything is fabulous, and jealousy and betrayal are everywhere you look."
Edgy teen reads
A booklist from the UW-Madison's CCBC.