Friday, September 12, 2014

Nancy Garden on My Mind

It's always bittersweet to turn to the "Obituaries" page of the Horn Book Magazine, listing the latest luminaries of the world of children's literature who have passed on to the next. The column in the HB that awaited me in my mail pile when I returned from summer vacation included profound losses in both the professional realm—legendary Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Frances Foster; disability advocate library professor Margaret Mary Kimmel—and in the creative—Eric Hill, author and illustrator of the Spot the Dog books; Mary Rodgers, the author of wacky middle grade novels A Billion for Boris and Freaky Friday; and Walter Dean Myers, the innovative and widely lauded African American writer whose legacy includes award-winning picture books, fiction for middle schoolers and teens, as well as outstanding works of nonfiction.

The novel's first cover, by (I believe!)
Trina Schart Hyman
But the obituary that hit me the hardest was that of Nancy Garden, best known for a novel published when I was still in high school: 1982's Annie on My Mind. Young adult fiction featuring gay protagonists were few and far between when I was growing up in the 70's and 80s; what little existed tended to be in either the "gayness is tragic and must be punished" mold, or, (in the few books with girls falling in love) "oops, sorry, just experimenting a little before taking up the heterosexual mantle" one. Garden, an out lesbian, wanted to tell the story—in many ways, her own story—differently.

As a tribute to Garden, I pulled my copy of Annie from the shelf this week and sat down to reread it. Garden's novel is a story within a story: in the frame narrative, a third-person narrator tells how Liza Winthrop, a first-year architecture student at MIT, begins writing a letter to her high-school love Annie, struggling to stop "thinking around" the very public revelation of their hidden relationship months earlier and come to terms both with her own sexuality and her feelings for Annie. The main narrative, in Liza's first-person voice, begins from the beginning, telling of the two girls' meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; their initial forays into a cross-class friendship; and Liza's growing awareness that her feelings for Annie are not those that her friends, family, or even she had expected. Brief passages jump from the past to Annie's present, showing how the memory of moments from her past with Annie are affecting Liza in the present.

My own 1992 edition
Garden's novel is not at all sexually explicit. There's no blow by blow descriptions of what parts touch what parts, no details of what the lips, or hands, or bodies of these girls do with, and to, one another. Perhaps this is why so many recent commentators and reviewers have called the novel "sweet." Yet for its day, Liza's narratives of her encounters with Annie are both frank and evocative in their depictions of the joys and possibilities of the wonders of discovering sex for the first time:

I remember so much about that first time with Annie that I am numb with it, and breathless. I can feel Annie's hands touching me again, gently, as if she were afraid I might break; I can feel her softness under my hands—I look down at my hands now and see them slightly curved, feel them become both strong and gentle as I felt them become for the first time then. I can close my eyes and feel every motion of Annie's body and my own—clumsy and hesitant and shy—but that isn't the important part. The important part is the wonder of the closeness and the unbearable ultimate realization that we are two people, not one—and also the wonder of that: that even though we are two people, we can be almost like one, and at the same tie delight in each other's uniqueness (146).

It was new every time we touched each other, looked at each other held each other close on the uncomfortable living-room sofa. We were still very shy, and clumsy, and a little scared—but it was as if we had found a whole new country in each other and ourselves and were exploring it slowly together. Often we had to stop and just hold each other—too much beauty can be hard to bear. And sometimes, especially after a while, when the shyness was less but we still didn't know each other or ourselves or what we were doing very well—once in a while, we'd laugh. (150)

The most recent cover
Horn Book Magazine's obituary suggests that Annie was "the first LGBTQ novel for young people with a happy ending" (Sept/Oct 2014, 140). Happy may be stretching it a bit; much of the second half of the novel depicts the fallout from the discovery of Annie and Liza in flagrante delicto at the house of two of Liza's teachers (Liza's been cat-sitting for them over spring break), fallout which has presumably led to the estrangement described in the opening frame narrative. The "have illicit sex then immediately get punished for it" trope is present and accounted for. Yet through the reflective frame narrative, and Liza's decision in the book's final scene to reach out once again to Annie, the book ends with hope and reconciliation, rather than punishment and rejection of a lesbian identity. In the words Liza's teachers: "Don't punish yourselves for people's ignorant reactions to what we all are.... Don't let ignorance win.... Let love" (232).

Before I was a blogger, I was a children's literature professor. And before that, I worked in children's book publishing. Though most of my publishing work was in an administrative capacity, there were a few short years during the mid-1990s when I had the opportunity to acquire and edit new projects. Spurred by a piece in one of the trade journals about the lack of books for gay young people, I decided to move beyond being a fan, and wrote to Nancy Garden, asking if she might be interested in working together on a book. Garden, who, like me, lived in Massachusetts, agreed to meet, and we talked about a picture book story she had written,  which featured two princesses who ended up together. Her other publishers had not been interested in publishing it—might I be? I looked forward to reading the story with eager interest, but the actual manuscript she sent was less a story and more a heavy-handed lesson. With great regret, I, like the other editors with whom she worked, declined it. I left publishing soon after, and did not stay in touch with Garden, but I couldn't help thinking of her when picture books King and King (2000) and Tango Makes Three (2005), which featured gay males as protagonists, arrived on the scene. I'll bet she was smiling, but also wondering when we'd see a similar picture book with lesbians as the romantic protagonists (rather than just the parents of the protagonist child). As far as I know, we're all still waiting...


  1. I was very interested to see that you considered Annie on My Mind worthy of a post under the topic of Romance Novels for Feminists. I go back and forth between two conflicting questions: "Is a lesbian romance inherently more feminist than a hetero one?" (after all, it mean no preoccupation with men, no emotional need for them, and less potential for the power issues that might come from the genders' different roles in society, namely, the boy trying to dominate the girl.) You alluded above to how lesbian experimenting has been considered a stage of adolescence and falling in hetero love as maturity; can we look at always having stronger love for women than for men as the ultimate in evolving?

    Or, does a book like Annie depict girls as too preoccupied with romance to the detriment of strength and independence? Today, I suspect that Liza and Annie's level of seriousness (and intimacy) at age 17 would be more controversial than their both being girls. There are lots of advice columnists and such urging young people to develop themselves in other ways and have other goals and not let love get in the way of that.

    I go back and forth about Liza and Annie specifically: since they are both depicted as "outsiders" - could they be clinging to each other, (and perhaps moving too fast), to overcompensate for feelings of isolation from everyone else? But, in fact, that is not really the impression they give off. We really don't get the sense, before they meet, that they have been lonely and looking to fall in love for the sake of falling in love. They do, in fact, have many other goals in life. Now, there is some indication that the relationship is distracting Liza from her goals - after she meets Annie she leaves the museum without studying what she went there to study. And of course, there is that missed meeting, on that fateful day.

    But overall, it seems like the career goals remain important, and particularly for Liza, remain the basis for her identity. There is never any discussion about changing their college plans to be together during college.

    And, did you notice that Liza and Annie seem to have very few of the usually-depicted teen-girl insecurities? Liza doesn't seem worried about being in a man's field, or that being too smart makes her uncool. If anything, she worries about being smart enough. And both seem pretty comfortable with being outsiders. At least, they don't try to change themselves to fit in with people whose standards they don't agree with. They worry about whether it's bad that they're gay, but not about each other finding someone prettier. And there are no rivalries with other girls, no backstabbing behavior like we see in so much teen media - even when they're fighting.

    On the flip side, you referred in your post to their "estrangement," namely, Liza goes several months without answering Annie's letters because she is, apparently traumatized. And there are other times in the novel when Liza seems like she's pulling away, or trying to, because of her confusion. If a male did that to a female, it would be seen as treating her badly, and the female would be seen as. Do we make allowances for gays behaving that way, just because of the extra angst caused by internalizing homophobia?
    Indeed, it is often said that cutting off contact for months is the ultimate mean way of breaking up. And their conversation with the teachers, when the teachers said "let love win," (which, for us, comes at the end and feels like a resolution), actually took place before they left for college. And remember, right after Liza went back to school after spring break she argued with her homophobic ex-friend, defending the relationship? So, right AFTER the trial, in the immediate aftermath, she is still seeing Annie, and they have that conversation with the teachers that is supposed to resolve everything, and then Liza goes to college and THEN months later she feels too traumatized to write to Annie? Like a delayed PTS thing?

  2. I see a kind of paradox in this book: you have all this narration about the confusion and angst which leads to hesitation, holding back, etc. But then, look at the pace at which the relationship actually progresses. We are told that awkwardness over intimacy led to a rough patch, with fighting...but it doesn't seem to have lasted very long. In fact, they purport to go through many phases and stages that could be found in a relationship, but they all feel very rushed through.

    I like the idea that an intense friendship can easily "cross the line" but in fact, they don't really have much time to build a friendship before they start thinking of themselves as a couple...they make romantic gestures like exchanging rings pretty soon after meeting, but don't really angst a lot about being gay until the question of physical intimacy comes up.

    Do you think some of the awkwardness they have with intimacy is due to being afraid that if they do it, that will mean they're really and truly gay? Or is it just the awkwardness that is normal with any two people that inexperienced? I find it interesting that they never talked about whether maybe they should NOT do it for the reasons that hetero teens are taught: to wait until they're older, know each other better, are out of high school, etc.

    I suppose the clumsiness would be to be expected given their inexperience, and to have everything go totally perfectly right away would be unrealistic...but knowing that Garden wanted to advocate for lesbian relationships, I found myself wishing that she had depicted them having an EASIER time communicating what they wanted from each other, and figuring out "what to do," compared to a hetero couple, DUE TO both being female, and therefore, NOT conditioned to not communicate, and also, having an understanding of what each other wanted.

    More recent lesbian media has been more explicit...I think the lack of explicitness contributes to a feel of romance. Liza and Annie come across as emotional and romantic - focused on each other's qualities as people. Lusting after each other's bodies does not seem to be the main focus. For Liza it's about Annie, and for Annie it's about's not just about wanting sex. On the other hand, in a way, given the ignorance and fear about homosexuality at the time, being more explicit might have helped to, well, educate people.

  3. Male writers are sometimes accused of writing their fantasy women; I think Annie is the lesbian version of that, in a way. She's a bit too good to be true - performing artist, quirky, free-spirited, imaginative in a child-like way, yet mature - and she kind of sits by the phone waiting for Liza, and is ready to jump back in as soon as Liza is ready.

    Given that she seems to have made some progress towards coming to terms with being gay even before meeting Liza, you could say that her "growth" is perhaps not as much coming to terms with herself as gaining a better understanding of how traumatic the whole thing has been for Liza, and learning not to see Liza's confused behavior as a personal rejection? Then again, Annie does say she thought she would hate the teachers' house the next time she saw it (which I didn't understand, because she wasn't publicly humiliated the way Liza was, and it doesn't seem like anyone's really punishing her for being gay), but perhaps we should read that comment as saying that being caught was traumatic for her, too? Or, maybe she meant it was traumatic to have Liza pull away after that?

  4. I confess that I also would have liked (and I know I am perhaps beginning to sound as contradictory as Liza herself) to have seen more of them having good times together, and/or kind of being dreamy over each other, without angsting getting in the way. Any mention of good times felt rushed. I would really have liked to hear more details of the dream Liza had while suspended from school...and if they dreamed about each other any more.

  5. When I read that Garden really was a lesbian, it added to the book's "credibility" for me, like, ok, this is an actual lesbian writing about lesbians, not someone writing about a group who doesn't know what it's like to be a member of that group.

    And I wondered if Liza and Annie are based on Garden and someone she actually was involved with...did you know that her real given names were Antionette Elisabeth?

    Garden was about 76 when she died and had been with her wife for 45, doing the math, they were actually more the generation of the two teachers. They were already together, and in their 40s, when Annie was published. And doing more math, they got together in the 30s, not in their teens.

    Liza and Annie are depicted as having a choice between letting homophobia win and letting love win...but in fact, there are many reasons why, and ways that, two people who are very sincerely in love as teenagers can end up drifting apart, without society being against their relationship, or prejudice being involved, particularly if they go to colleges far away from each other!

  6. I always felt like, in a way, Liza should have discussed feeling conflicted about falling in love AT ALL...about whether she really wanted to consider a long-term future "with" someone and lose a little independence. And I was surprised her dad didn't say something about focusing less on Annie and more on her goals (everything he actually says is about his conflicting feelings about the gay angle.)

  7. Early in the book I was struck by how secure overall and comfortable with being different both girls seemed, especially when I got to the parts where they're freaking out about being gay, that seemed like a contradiction...but I did like that being "bad" in the eyes of adults and perhaps being blacklisted from colleges was a greater concern than what their peers would think...again, the career goals remained important, even though following them would mean being physically far apart.

  8. The use of Liza's memories to tell the story as a flashback is somewhat problematic in that it can create confusion about what's happening when and when one thing ends and another begins. First Liza says that just seeing Annie made her giddy "all that winter." Then she says they felt so awkward and stressed about trying to get more intimate that they started fighting, and "the worst fight was in March." So there had to be some other ones that were in February...still winter. And I kind of wondered if there was really only one major sexual encounter, in the bedroom, where they got caught, and Liza was just remembering out of order, to remember that without remembering getting caught...but I don't THINK sounds like they were at the house for several days, and had encounters in the living room on earlier days.

  9. I agree with you in second-guessing the designation of a "happy ending." I did find one person commenting somewhere who said, well, maybe Annie will be upset about Liza's ambivalence and the months without contact and will reject getting back together. Now, I don't think the ending supports that interpretation...Annie is thrilled to hear from Liza, and talks about trying to get up the nerve to call her, so she never totally gave up...and she doesn't give Liza any grief about the months without contact, and when Liza kind of starts to try to explain it, Annie says something like "I know" or "I understand." As I said, maybe where Liza was coming to terms with being gay, Annie was learning to understand Liza (and that kind of struggle) better.

    BUT, I do agree that the ending remains ambiguous, because even if they're in a better emotional place now about being gay, they can't really, in the most literal sense "get back together" because now they're at colleges on opposite coasts of the country. And while, as I've said, the fact that the stick to their original career goals makes them seem more independent, physical distance is a whole other obstacle to be dealt with, and many high school sweethearts (and friends) lose touch just by being apart. In fact, it feels odd to be reconciling over Christmas of freshman year, because many high school couples are over each other by then, anyway.

    Even in the 80s, California, and particularly San Francisco (which I think Berkeley, where Annie goes, is near) was known as kind of a "gay" city. I can't believe Annie, at least wouldn't meet other lesbians there. She certainly would today, and I could imagine some of them being into her. But again, the book always brings it back to either standing up to homophobia or being overcome by it and hiding...the possibility of being gay yet moving on to other relationships is never brought up.

    As for "having illicit sex and getting punished," I am used to adults who are opposed to TEEN sex regardless of genders or sexual I found it funny that Liza's parents didn't seem that concerned about the sex, per se. They didn't say anything about the girls being too young, or risks like STDs (well, I guess, pregnancy is not an issue, so perhaps they didn't think of it as "real" sex?)

    As for the homophobic teachers and principal - some religious people will say, "Well, I'm against men and women having premarital sex too, therefore I'm not bigoted." So I liked how the principal was shown to be against boy-girl sex, and yet she WAS still bigoted because she said she knew the temptation to have hetero sex - she and her husband had to fight it as teenagers - yet she referred to the lesbian relationship as "unnatural" sex.

    The principal and her husband, as well as the lesbian teachers, were couples as teenagers...again, it is assumed that high school relationships can last forever.

    1. Wow, lots of fascinating observations here, Jessi. In what context did you read ANNIE? For a class? Or on your own?

      For me, it's an important book, because of the role it played in the history of Young Adult literature: the first YA book featuring a lesbian relationship. Because of its groundbreaking nature, it almost had to focus more on the problems surrounding Annie and Liza, rather than on the joy and pleasures of A&L's relationship itself--it, like lesbians themselves, had to justify its very existence in the face of everyone who wanted to ban it. Today, with far more lesbian YA books available on the market, there's more room to show different types of relationships (including ones that do and ones that don't last). ANNIE can definitely feel dated as compared to more recent books. But it's still a valuable read, I think. Do you?

  10. It definitely occurred to me that Garden had to show the relationship as a little idealized, in order to promote the cause...but she did't quite do that when it came to depicting the physical side. On the one hand, I think to be actually realistic, the awkward "rough patch" when they wanted to start a physical relationship but were scared should have lasted longer if it was to be realistic (I felt like Liza and Annie went through very abbreviated, rushed versions of many relationship stages.) On the other hand, there was ENOUGH of a problem with the physical that you didn't go, "Hey, it's easier with lesbians because it's easier for two women to talk about it and understand each other's needs than with a woman and a man." But maybe the fact that it seemed to be resolved relatively quickly WAS a little bit of idealizing? And, while that awkwardness seems like it would be likely to happen with any two people that inexperienced, I think it's kind of implied we're supposed to blame even that on the homophobia...they're mostly afraid of it because that will mean they really ARE gay.

  11. If we weren't rooting for Liza and Annie against the homophobia, we might say it's too early to tell if their relationship can last (looking more closely at the actual time they knew each other between their first meeting and getting caught.)