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In Remembrance: Nancy Garden

In Remembrance: Nancy Garden

Author: Victoria Brownworth

June 24, 2014

She wrote the book all lesbians wanted to have as teenagers. She wrote the books kids of lesbian and gay parents needed to read. She was an icon and a treasure and every other over-used cliché about writers who are larger than life–except of course in her case it was all true.

Her heart was so big, so full of love for women and for kids who needed books about their own lives, it’s not surprising that her heart finally gave out. Nancy Garden, author, editor, LGBT activist, former theater maven and teacher, died suddenly on the morning of June 23 of a massive heart attack. She was 76.

Garden was that rarity: the consummate children’s book author. It was her metier and she had refined it to a soaring art. There was no sub-genre of the children’s book Garden hadn’t mastered. She did picture books, middle-grade books and books for teens and the work ranged from humorous picture books, serious literary fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction to non-fiction.

Her work had been translated into many different languages, including Chinese, Korean and Italian and even as far-reaching as Slovenian, Swedish and Danish.

Some of her books had been turned into TV and radio programs, like What Happened in Marston, which was an ABC After-school Special in 1981 and 1982 and which was also shown later on HBO and Showtime. She wrote several series and even published a novel that was serialized in newspapers across the country.

Garden’s books were published by many of the top publishers–Knopf, Houghton-Mifflin, Holt, Harcourt, Lippincott, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Putnam, Random House, Dell, Farrar, Straus, Giroux and Bantam. But she was also published by smaller independent publishers including Bella Books.

She won dozens of awards, major and minor, and if the American Library Association (ALA), the New York Public Library and the Children’s Book Council each had a “watch for the latest from this children’s author” list, Garden would have been at the top–nearly all her books received awards and/or listing from all of them. Over a ten year span, Garden was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award every year.

Look again at that list of publishers and awards and remember that Garden was an out lesbian writing solely for the children’s market (her one adult romance novel was published by Bella in 2002). That made her an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind trailblazer for LGBT writing. From the time she published her first book in 1971 when she was 43, she wrote at least a book a year, but usually several. Her most recent book was published in 2012.

In a 2001 interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith for Children’s & Y/A Lit Resources, Leitich Smith asked Garden why she chose to write for children and teens. Garden said, “Because I like children and teens so much and feel they’re important, special people. There’s something very exciting about a person who’s in the process of becoming, of forming his or her identity. I think another reason is simply my love of children’s books–and Y/A books, although there were no Y/As as such when I was growing up. Some of the best, most exciting, and most innovative writing, I think, has always been in the children’s and Y/A field.”

Garden was right, of course. And in 2014, as she passes on, young adult fiction has become the most popular genre after romance, due in part to a coterie of top-selling women writers, notably J.K.Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins. So popular, in fact, that in the past month several major articles have been published about why it’s okay for adults to read young adult books.

In her own literary biography Garden writes of her childhood filled with being read to by her parents and having her father tell her tall tales of fishing excursions and anthropomorphized animals, some of which he wrote down for her.

This charming and winsome backdrop propels Garden into writing, but while she began at eight and never stopped, as an adult she struggled to find a career path, spending years working in the drama field, teaching and editorial work.

Garden writes, “In 1971, my first two published books, What Happened in Marston and a nonfiction book called Berlin: City Split in Two, came out. I was working as an editor in New York then, but soon afterward, my partner, Sandy, and I moved to Massachusetts, and I got a job as an editor in Boston. By then I was very serious about writing.”

At the end of her autobiographical sketch Garden says, “Now I write as close to full time as possible, and visit schools and conferences to talk about books, writing, censorship, bullying, and other topics.”

Before her untimely death, she and Sandy, their two cats and dog divided their time between “small town Massachusetts” and “coastal Maine.”


News of our literary losses spreads quickly via social media. Within an hour of receiving the first email about Garden’s sudden death, I had heard from a dozen other writers who had seen messages on Facebook and Twitter and wanted to know if I had heard, was it true.

It was. Nancy Garden, that institution of LGBT kids books was unexpectedly gone, leaving a hole where her vibrancy and acuity and prolificity had been.

I thought immediately of her partner of 45 years, Sandy. How empty and broken is the world after you’ve spent that many years with the same person? And one with a spirit like Nancy Garden had?

Garden’s birthday was just last month. Next month she would have received the 2014 Lee Lynch Classic Award from the Golden Crown Literary Society at the GCLS conference in Portland for her 1982 novel of teenage lesbian love, Annie on My Mind. GCLS cited Annie on My Mind as “one of the most important classics in lesbian literature.”

Liz Gibson, associate executive director of GCLS, expressed her own personal sense of loss to me at Garden’s passing. She said Nancy hadn’t yet written her speech for the award ceremony. Because Nancy wasn’t planning on dying. Nancy was going to live forever.

Didn’t we all know that? Her first generation of readers now have children–and grandchildren–of their own. Her work had spanned that much time and touched that many people.

Gibson submitted this statement on behalf of GCLS: “The Golden Crown Literary Society is devastated to hear the news of Nancy Garden’s death. Annie On My Mind is a novel that many of us grew up treasuring, and a book that even saved a few lives at a time when we could not be ourselves. Our Trailblazers selected Annie On My Mind to receive the 2014 Lee Lynch Classic Award, which will now be awarded posthumously. The lesbian community has lost a valuable treasure, and our hearts and prayers go out to Nancy’s partner, Sandy.”

There are many beloved books in our literary canon, but within the young adult category I personally cannot think of another novel that resonated with so many lesbians of every age as Garden’s charming teen romance has over the past 30 years. If you read it as a teen, it was your story. If you read it as an adult, it sent you back to reminisce over your own complicated gay adolescence.

As Katherine Forrest said to me after she heard the news, “Annie on My Mind is an all-time classic young adult novel that all these years later remains as essential and relevant to young LGBT lives as it ever has. Nancy Garden leaves us her great and wonderful spirit, a spirit reflected in the life-saving affirmation in her pioneering book. I join all our LGBT nation in mourning her.”

Gay mystery novelist and editor, Greg Herren, who has won the Moonbeam Award twice in three years for his own trailblazing gay Y/A novels, said simply, “Oh it’s not true, is it? Nancy Garden is dead?” Herren had long been a champion of Garden’s work, particularly when he was editor of Lambda Book Report. In 2007 Garden was inducted into the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival Hall of Fame. An international literary festival celebrating lesbian and gay authors, S&S was co-founded in 2003 by Herren and his partner Paul Willis.

Later, after the reality of her death had set in, Herren told me, “I loved Nancy and her work. She was such a comfort and help when I went through my own banning in Virginia. I read from Annie on my Mind at Banned Books readings all the time. My heart is broken.”

Garden’s death brought the same responses again and again because she was such a mainstay in the LGBT literary community, no one could imagine her gone. The shock at Garden’s passing, obviously, resounds throughout the LGBT writing community.


I was an adult when I first read Annie on My Mind, but it catapulted me back to my lesbian girlhood as it did so many other women, right down to the expulsion of one of the girls from her high school. The tale of Annie and Liza, two 17 year olds who meet by happenstance at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and become lovers is only slightly dated now, but that’s mostly due to the lack of electronics and the device of letter-writing Garden uses. The thematic structure is timeless–as when Liza discovers her true feelings for Annie, “The first day, I stood in the kitchen leaning against the counter watching Annie feed the cats, and I knew I wanted to do that forever.”

Pitch perfect.

Liza and Annie’s friendship turns romantic and eventually sexual. The story delves into the issues of coming to terms with sexual orientation, coming out and the general adolescent angst that plagues every teen regardless of sexual orientation. It also addresses the role older gay people, in this case, teachers, play in providing both role models and safe space supports for LGBT youth to come out.

Garden wrote dozens of books, some gay-themed, some not, but it was this book, Annie on My Mind, which was a first of its kind, before Y/A was even a sub-genre within the catch-all children’s books genre, that was Garden’s best-known work. Farrar Straus Giroux had taken a chance on the novel and it paid off–the book has remained in print throughout the past three decades.

The 25th Anniversary Edition features a full-length interview with the author by Kathleen T. Horning, Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. In it Garden talks about why she wrote the book, how and when she knew she was a lesbian, censorship of books and what kind of impact the book has had on readers, both when it was first published and at the 25th anniversary.

As a landmark book, Annie on My Mind garnered numerous accolades beyond the scope of GCLS. Garden received the 2003 Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association recognizing her lifetime contribution in writing for teens, citing Annie on My Mind. Of Garden and the book, the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee said, “Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending. Using a fluid, readable style, Garden opens a window through which readers can find courage to be true to themselves.”

The American Library Association designated the book a “Best of the Best Books for Young Adults.” The School Library Journal included the book in its list of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century. It was selected to the 1982 Booklist Reviewer’s Choice, the 1982 American Library Association Best Books, and the ALA Best of the Best lists (1970–1983).

An avid opponent of censorship, Garden was also the recipient of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award in 2000 in recognition of her work speaking out on “how to quietly, strongly, and successfully defend intellectual freedom on behalf of young readers.” Garden believed strongly in the right of young readers–especially teens–to choose their own books.

Annie on My Mind has had its own battles with censorship, although it’s difficult to imagine a book so charming as this story of first love ending up on lists of banned books. The book is 48 on the top 100 most frequently challenged books during the period 1990 to 2010, according to the American Library Association, despite–or perhaps because of–its classic status.

The National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union have both addressed controversies with Garden’s classic novel, the most dramatic of which occurred in 1993, more than a decade after Annie on My Mind was first published.

An LGBT organization, Project 21, had donated both Garden’s book and Frank Mosca’s All American Boys to 42 high schools throughout the Kansas City, Kansas metropolitan area. But parents objected to the books’ gay themes. Some parents were so angry about the books they burned them.

The book-burning incident turned Garden into an activist against censorship. She was stunned by the news her book had been burned, replying to a reporter who asked her what she thought about her books being burned–it was the first she had heard of it–she said, “Burned? I didn’t think people burned books anymore. Only Nazis do that.”

She would repeat the Nazi line again and again over the next two years as a long, complex and shocking series of court cases played out over her sweet teen romance. Garden had been captivated by the obscenity trials for Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and found it hard to imagine that 70 years later her own book was on trial as unfit for the very audience for whom it was written.

As described in a series of articles written for the School Library Journal, the ALA and the National Coalition Against Censorship, the story seems incredible in 1993.

On December 13, 1993 Olathe school district superintendent Ron Wimmer said Annie on My Mind must be removed from the high school library. His decision followed the book burning. Wimmer said the controversy was disruptive and the best way to deal with it was to remove student access to Garden’s novel.

This included copies of the book which had been on the shelves for a decade–long before the gift from Project 21.

This incited more controversy. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union–founded by lesbian activist Jane Addams) sued the school district for censorship. A teacher and several families were part of the lawsuit.

It took two years for the case to go to trail and two months for it to play out. Then in November 1995 U.S. District Court Justice Thomas Van Bebber ruled on the case.

Van Bebber found that no school district could be forced to purchase any specific book, but at the same time it did not have the authority to remove a book from library shelves unless that book was “deemed educationally unsuitable.”

Van Bebber asserted that Garden’s novel was indeed “educationally suitable.” He determined that removing Annie on My Mind from the school libraries was “an unconstitutional attempt to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

The school district decided not to appeal the court’s decision and Annie on My Mind went back on the library shelves. The total cost to the school district for the court case was nearly $200,000.

Nancy Garden

Nancy Garden

After the ordeal was over, Garden–mild mannered, jocular and generally soft-spoken–gave as many speeches and talks on the First Amendment as she did on writing books for children. She asserted that children–especially teens–had the same constitutional rights to read as adults.

Garden spoke about these issues often, but not in a rabid, angry way. Despite the disruption of those years during the Kansas event, Garden continued to write and publish. Her tone about censorship was always the same: respectful. It was important to engage people in dialogue, she said.

She told Leitich Smith, “Many attempts at banning books that are about homosexual characters and issues are also motivated by sincere beliefs that such books are harmful–that they will encourage young people to ‘become’ homosexual, and that homosexuality itself is evil, dangerous, sick, etc. Nothing is served, I think, by demeaning those who truly believe that books should be banned, or by arguing against them in a hotheaded way.”

But there is an obligation for writers and thinkers, Garden argued, to maintain the pristine nature of the First Amendment. “Everything is served by reasonable dialogue when that’s possible, and by making the point that although parents have every right to control what their own children read, they have no right to control what other people’s children read. Everything is also served, I think, by pointing out the importance of the First Amendment and the danger of eroding it. In a society without the protection the First Amendment gives us, sure, you’d be able to ban books that I like but you don’t, but there’d be nothing to stop me from turning around and banning the ones you like. It’s important to remember that, and also that one of the first steps toward Nazi control of Germany was book burning.”

Toward the end of her interview with Leitich Smith, Garden explained why it was she wanted to write for LGBT youth. She said, “When I was growing up as a young lesbian in the 1950s, I looked in vain for books about my people. There were none for kids, and the few I knew about for adults were always out of the library, which I later realized was probably a subtle–maybe backhanded would be a better word!–form of censorship.”

Like all of us who searched for lesbian books before the birth of LGBT presses in the late 1970s, either as teens like I was or adults like Garden was, she found “some paperbacks with lurid covers in the local bus station, but they ended with the gay characters committing suicide, dying in a car crash, being sent to a mental hospital, or ‘turning’ heterosexual.”

It was, of course, as it was for thousands of lesbians, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, written in England in the 1920s and banned everywhere that was the book that changed her life. “I read that book many times as a teenager, and I vowed that someday I’d write a book for my people that would end happily.”

Why did Garden write for LGBT kids and their families, despite the censoring? Why did she feel stories for “her people” were so important to young readers? Garden said, “I think kids in every minority need to see people like themselves in books–that’s an acknowledgment of their existence on this planet and in this society.”

Garden brought so much truth and honesty and dailiness of being gay and lesbian to her books. She changed the landscape with Annie on My Mind and all the books she wrote after it. She wrote because she loved writing and she wrote for us–for her people–because she didn’t want any LGBT kid growing up alone, without the books that have been and continue to be lifelines for so many.

As she wrote in Annie on My Mind, “Don’t punish yourselves for people’s ignorant reactions to what we all are. Don’t let ignorance win. Let love.”

Nancy Garden’s legacy will forever be that: She never let ignorance win. She always, always let love.


 Image via
Victoria Brownworth photo

About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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