I remember myself as a sophomore in high school, lying on my bed and girlishly giggling at the pages of Judy Blume’s Forever. The novel was initially published in 1975, and a whirlwind of controversy followed its release for decades. Blume, one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed children’s and YA authors, had dared to write about a topic that, at the time, adults across the nation regarded as taboo: teenage sexuality. The talk about Forever didn’t surround the novel’s portrayal of young adults thinking about sex, or even having it — grown-ups knew that sort of stuff happened, regardless of if they wanted to believe it or not.
Instead, Blume’s critics condemned the text for the way it narrates the act of sexual intercourse in embarrassingly great detail, and further denunciation flew from the mouths of conservative groups that considered the protagonists’ use of contraception to be inappropriate. Forever was so often chastised by parents and activists for its exploration of teenage sexuality that the book was banned from a multitude of school libraries. Even in the nineties, the American Library Association included the novel on its list of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.” The most-targeted qualities of Forever were uncoincidentally the ones that its target audience — people like my best friend and I, who quietly laughed about the book’s explicit sex scenes in music class a year later — loved the most. Judy Blume didn’t candy coat a thing about sex and adolescence, and for teenage bookworms, Forever was enlightening. Today, the classic bestseller is a precedent to much of the teen genre fiction that’s in constant need of bookshelf restocking. Frequent and exhaustive sex scenes have become normalized in realistic YA, and writings of teenagers using birth control is justifiably applauded. These concepts are no longer labeled inappropriate, but educational.
Still, there are layers to teenage sexuality that even the most brilliant YA authors have been shy about capturing. Admittedly, writers are not always to blame for the retrospective conventionality of their works; there is a historical context for certain rebellions, and it’s unrealistic to believe an author can sell their work while managing to address all of society’s ailments. Judy Blume’s Forever and its heterosexual, male-driven, white illustration of sex exemplifies this point. Modern readers who come across the old-school novel would roll their eyes at the vanilla-ness of it all, probably forgetting to consider that Blume wrote Forever in the early seventies, when America was whiter, straighter, and more patriarchal than it is today. For older novelists like Blume, most status quos were nonnegotiable. And despite the influential book being released in the middle of second-wave feminism, diving into “radical” themes — women’s sexual empowerment, specifically — was a risky move.
Today, there continues to be a disappointing lack of YA fiction that accurately depicts female sexual empowerment. That’s why it’s crucial to talk about books like Cherry by Lindsey Rosin. Within the first few pages of the debut author’s novel, readers who have already flipped through popular classics on teenage sexuality will realize that Cherry is positively incomparable to most works of the past. Where books by the likes of Forever fail to seriously explore themes of women’s empowerment and pleasure, Rosin’s sparkling debut will not cease to impress even the most demanding readers. Because Cherry isn’t just about teenage girls having sex — it’s about feminism.
I’ll be honest — Cherry isn’t the kind of book advertised to have a particularly interesting or thought-provoking plotline. Indeed, its entire synopsis can be explained in less than a mouthful of sentences. The book’s protagonists, dubbed as The Crew, are loud, hilarious high school seniors, the kids who get glares from adults for whisper-yelling inappropriate things in public places. Naturally, they’re also the sort of girls who spontaneously come up with a sex pact — a vow to drop their statuses as V-card holders by their graduation. But getting laid proves to be harder than anticipated, as readers quickly realize that each member of the crew has their own adolescent tribulations, curiosities, and secrets that challenge their commitment to the pact. There’s Layla, who doesn’t quite understand why she feels so emotionally un-ready to sleep with her long-term boyfriend, and Alex, a so-called sex goddess who’s already done the deed — or so everyone believes. Contrasting Layla’s sexual confusion and Alex’s supposed promiscuity is awkward chick Zoe, who turns tomato-red at the briefest mention of sex, and Emma, who’s more stressed about laying out her life plan than getting laid. The Crew are everything you expect a coming-of-age ensemble cast to be: best friends whose variety of personality types sweetly harmonize, even throughout a discordance of threatening histrionics. Despite the occasional load of teenage drama, Cherry’s lightheartedness prevails, and “plot twists” are rather predictable.
However, it’s obvious that Rosin’s debut novel was intended to be more of an amusing feminist statement than emotionally-wrecking tearjerker. In this way, fans of Kody Keplinger’s The Duff or Shut Out will find Cherry to be entertaining. All three novels offer humorous, sexual empowerment-centric narratives, although Cherry most manifestly demonstrates the importance of female sexual discovery and exploration (rather than breaking sex-related norms). Readers will pick up on this theme as they vicariously experience The Crew’s sexual encounters and romantic relationships, many of which are questioned by the girls, who justifiably recognize their own sexual and emotional needs to be of equal importance as their love interests’. This — along with the authenticity of shameless sex-talk among the group of female best friends — is what makes Cherry such a memorable page-turner. Sure, the concept of feminism has grown to prominence in modern pop culture, but in YA fiction, the ideology is still marked secondary to clichéd themes that lack cultural significance. The discussion of teenage sexuality in literature is no longer a world-shattering concept, but a defense of the importance of women’s sexuality is. And those who agree shouldn’t hesitate to pick up a copy of Cherry.
Lindsey Rosin is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer. Read our exclusive interview with her here. Cherry was published in August via Simon Pulse. Grab a copy at your local bookseller or order it online.