Before I get into Ralph, I want to reframe Judy Blume in today’s light. Now, as a mother and writer with a suitcase full of failed dreams, I am blown away by Blume’s biography. A homemaker, Blume didn’t start writing in earnest until her children went off to preschool in the late 1960s—for context, married women wouldn’t be able to apply for credit cards without their husbands’ permission until 1974. The very idea that she was able to be this prolific with children under 10 is wildly undersold. And on top of that, she had chutzpah. Faced with rejection after rejection, she kept submitting her work. And when she did eventually publish, she—and her novels—became the target of conservative outrage: Periods?! Masturbation?! Teen sex?! Four of Blume’s titles still remain on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books.
But the thing is, the conservative blowback wasn’t wrong. Blume’s works were outrageous. In 1970, the year Margaret came out, nobody was talking about puberty, let alone sex, to teens the way Blume was. When you watch Blume in interviews, her doe-eyed expressions and sweet, soft voice might convince you she is still that housewife who accidentally stumbled upon topics she didn’t realize were taboo. But that’s not the case. She knew what she was doing. She says this outright. She wanted to talk about sex. She’d had orgasms, so she wanted to write about them. She wanted to write about teen sex responsibly, and not where, as her young daughter noticed, the characters who do it suffer the moral consequence and die. But, ironically, it was these things—the coming-of-age topics, the pre-teen audience, the author herself—that perpetuated the image of Blume over the years as your friendly kid-lit author next door, when in reality, Blume was revolutionary.
So Ralph. In Forever…, Blume’s 1975 novel about a teenage relationship, the characters have sex, and they don’t die afterwards. They even fool around and teach each other things, like how to pleasure Ralph, the pet name for the protagonist’s boyfriend’s penis. As a 12-year-old, I read the passage over and over and over again, concerned that maybe I read something wrong. Did Katharine really just hold Michael’s penis in her hand? Did he really explain to her how to rub it? Did they really do this in a fully lit bathroom? Did they really nickname the penis Ralph? Was I really allowed to be reading this? But there he was. Ralph. It was like a mind-altering acid trip, one I would have flashbacks to for the rest of my life. Could sex really be a silly, intimate conversation between two people?