The first time I saw there was a show called “Forever,” I got really excited. Was ABC turning Judy Blume’s risqué book—a seminal staple of my tweens—into a TV series? No such luck. The show is a detective series about a medical examiner who can’t die. But it got me wondering about the book "Forever," which was written by one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors. Could it have been as racy as all that?
I remember the cloudy day in the fourth grade when there was a commotion on the other side of the room next to the windows. A few girls were huddled over Claire Goldberg’s desk. Now, Claire wasn’t a particularly popular girl—overweight, she tended to get red-faced very quickly when running after the boys—but that also gave her a certain I-don’t-care attitude that made her a bit reckless.
There must have a been a substitute teacher that day (our regular one had quite an iron hand when it came to discipline), so I used the old “I dropped the pencil and I have to go get it” ruse to scurry over there. I was disappointed to find it was only a book—a book by an author I’d loved since second grade, with the perturbed kid with an incorrigible younger brother in “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Fudge” and even more recently with tales of puberty in “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.” But a book nonetheless.
“You have to read this!” Claire said, making room for me among the girls. She pointed to a line on a page near the middle of the book.
“He led my hand to his penis.” I looked up and laughed. It said "penis"!
“Keep going, you’re not there yet,” Claire said. I went back to the page.
“Katherine … I’d like you to meet Ralph. … Ralph, this is Katherine. She’s a very good friend of mine.”
“Does every penis have a name?”
“I can only speak for my own.”
I burst out laughing. “He named his … thing?” I hooted.
“I know!” Claire slapped me on the back. She promised to lend me the book soon. Until I got it, I kept thinking about this “Ralph” thing—a word that for years would send us girls into gales of laughter. I knew boys had, you know, penises—but I had no idea that they related to their body parts that way. They named them? We named our dolls and stuffed animals, but that was pretend. What else were boys doing? It was mind-boggling.
I did read the book, which, as promised, had stuff about sex, but I was still fascinated with the penis anthropomorphism (even though I did not yet know that word). “In books penises are always described as hot and throbbing, but Ralph felt like ordinary skin. Just his shape was different—that and the fact that he wasn’t smooth exactly—as if there was a lot going on under the skin.” This must be the most adult book I ever read, I thought. I was sure it was for people who were like … 30.
I am way past 30 now, but when I picked up the book again, I was surprised to discover it was … just a book for teens. First published in 1975, "Forever" is narrated by a 17-year-old who falls in love with a guy who wants to have sex with her, but is willing to wait until she’s ready.
I also discovered that although the book has sold 3.5 million copies over the last 40 years, it’s been banned numerous times by libraries and schools across the country.
What they must have understood about the book was what I missed the first time around: "Forever" wasn’t a book about sex, it was a book about a strong female character who had fears, but was curious and full of desire, without any hang-ups about it. “Once I got over being scared, I let my hands go everywhere. I wanted to feel every part of him.”
Katherine and Michael promise each other they’ll love each other “forever,” but hanging over the book is her parents’ worry that she’ll get hurt. They send her away for the summer, and lo and behold, Katherine is the one who has feelings for another guy. She ends up breaking up with Michael, recognizing she’s too young to make promises like that, although she never regrets the love she had for him.
Girl has sexual desires, girl finds true love, girl realizes she has many choices in life and doesn’t bemoan her past. Girl is an empowered woman.
It may not be the book I remembered about sex, but it sure had important lessons for love and life—at any age.