April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

‘Annie on My Mind’ Author Nancy Garden Dies at Age 76

Copyright by Midge Eliassen

Photo credit Midge Eliassen

Award-winning author Nancy Garden, best known for the classic—and sometimes controversial—novel Annie on My Mind (FSG,1982), one of the first YA titles to depict a lesbian relationship, died of a heart attack June 23. She was 76.

Annie on My Mind told the story of a teenage girl who meets and eventually falls in love with another girl, discovering her true sexual orientation in the process.

While growing up as a lesbian in the 1950s, Garden yearned for more portrayals of gay people in literature, and wrote Annie to address this lack. The book resonated with young people and garnered critical acclaim: SLJ named Annie one of their One Hundred Books That Shaped the Century, and in 2000, the American Library Association (ALA) listed the title as one of its Best of the Best Books for Young Adults in the Last Four Decades of the 20th Century. Garden also won the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2003, an honor that recognizes an author’s lifetime contribution to the field of children’s and young adult literature.

However, Garden’s sensitive and nuanced work also resulted in controversy. In 1993, after the LGBT organization Project 21 donated copies of Annie on My Mind to 42 high schools in the Kansas City area, copies of the book were publicly burned. Ron Wimmer, superintendent of the Olathe School District, ordered it removed from the library. Several teens and their families and a teacher, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the district, and in 1995, a federal judge prevented the book from being removed.

NancyGarden_COVER_SLJ0306The case ignited a fervor for intellectual freedom in Garden, who continued to criticize censorship, speaking at libraries and conferences, receiving the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award in 2000 for her work against censorship. Pat Scales, chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, spoke of Garden’s willingness to testify on behalf of her book and praised the message that her actions sent to readers: “Be who you are, stand tall for tolerance, and use your voice to make a difference in a not so tolerate world. That is her legacy, I believe.”

Her passion for the cause extended to supporting her fellow writers. Lesléa Newman, author of the Stonewall Honor Book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepherd and whose picture book Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson, 1989), about a young girl being raised by a lesbian couple, attracted its own share of negative attention, told SLJ, “I could always count on [Garden] to drop me a friendly note saying something like ‘Looks like Heather is at it again.’ It was her way of letting me know that she was there if I needed her.”

Michael O’Neil, communications director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, emphasized Garden’s impact in defending First Amendment rights. “Her voice will be missed: 30 years later, we are still witnessing attacks on LGBT-themed literature. [Garden’s] courage in fighting for the rights of authors and readers, along with her body of work, is a lasting legacy.”

NancyGarden_AnnieOnMyMindThough both Garden’s work and the novel were crucial in the fight for intellectual freedom, Annie also paved the way for LGBT books, showing a same-sex relationship as normal and healthy. Newman described it as a book “that we didn’t have and so desperately needed as teens, a book that showed two girls could fall in love and it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, and who interviewed Garden for the 25th anniversary edition of Annie on My Mind also spoke to SLJ about the book’s importance: “[It] wasn’t the first LGBTQ book for teens, but it was the first one that had a happy ending. There were no car accidents, no deaths, no humiliating break ups. It reassured countless gay and lesbian teens that they were okay and that they weren’t alone.”

Next month, Garden was set to receive the 2014 Lee Lynch Classic Award from the Golden Crown Literary Society, a nonprofit organization that recognizes and promotes lesbian fiction and nonfiction.

Born in 1938 in Boston, Garden developed a love of reading at a young age. Both her parents read to her, while her father often made up stories for her. Garden enjoyed writing as a child, too, though she initially aspired to work in theater, attending Columbia University School of Dramatic Arts. She later obtained a Masters in speech from Teachers College, working as an educator, before obtaining a job with a literary agent. She published her first two books in 1971: What Happened in Marston (Four Winds), a novel that dealt with racial issues in 1960s New York, and the nonfiction Berlin, City Split in Two (Putnam).

Though Garden was most known for Annie, she wrote many other novels that tackled challenging issues. The author explored censorship—a subject she knew all too well—in The Year They Burned the Books (FSG, 1994), a story of a high school student who writes an editorial about sex education for the school newspaper, rocking her small-town community. In Endgame (Harcourt, 2006), a work that SLJ described as “a hard-hitting and eloquent look at the impact of bullying,” she took on school violence. Garden’s picture book Molly’s Family (FSG, 2004) examined adoption through the story of a kindergarten girl drawing a portrait of her family, which includes two mothers: one adoptive, one biological. Garden also penned many works of fantasy, such as the “Monster Hunters” and “Four Crossing” series (both FSG).

“[Garden] wanted gay teens to have a book that they could relate to that had a positive message,” Margaret Ferguson, publisher of Margaret Ferguson Books, a division of FSG, told SLJ. “At the time, we could not have imagined just how important this book would become. [She] was a generous and kind person who will be greatly missed.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.