Nancy Garden on my mind

Hi, all–

Sad news in the world of writing.

Acclaimed author Nancy Garden died yesterday at the age of 76. She was the author of Annie on My Mind, the 1982 novel in which a high school senior from an upscale neighborhood falls in love with another girl from a poorer neighborhood and from a very different family background. The two hit it off, but they have to contend with a few obstacles.


Many of you have no doubt read this now-classic young adult lesbian novel. If you read it when you were a teenager, no doubt it made you feel somehow better about being different. If you read it as an adult, it probably took you back to your teen years, when you were trying to figure out your feelings and who you might be. And might just have made you feel better about who you became.


Victoria Brownworth wrote this remembrance of Garden over at Lambda Literary. I don’t have the words in this instance, but fortunately, Victoria does:

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.

As Brownworth says, Nancy Garden was a rarity. “The consummate children’s book author.” She wrote dozens of books, Brownworth notes, “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.”

But she wasn’t just an author. Garden was an avid though kind and respectful opponent of censorship (she ended up on banned books lists and her work was actually burned) who received the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award in 2000 in recognition of her work defending intellectual freedom for young readers. In an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith that Garden did in 2001, Garden stated,

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.

Conversely, 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.

She told Leitich Smith that she wanted to write for LGBT youth because “When I was growing up as a young lesbian in the 50s, 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.”

I did not have the good fortune to meet Ms. Garden, though I might have had the chance. She was the recipient of the Lee Lynch Classic Book Award for Annie on My Mind through the Golden Crown Literary Society and as GCLS associate executive director Liz Gibson told Victoria Brownworth in a statement, Nancy hadn’t yet written her acceptance speech, but no doubt she would have been prepared by July 9th, which is when the GCLS conference is scheduled to kick off this year in Portland. The GCLS echoed the sentiments of so many upon news of Garden’s death: devastated. “The lesbian community,” the GCLS statement to Brownworth read, “has lost a valuable treasure, and our hearts and prayers go out to Nancy’s partner, Sandy.”

Yes, we have indeed lost a treasure. An indomitable spirit whose tireless advocacy in different quarters provided hope and guidance to so, so many. Small comfort in the midst of such a loss, but we can also take comfort in the legacy she left. Let us not forget, and let us honor her work and spirit by continuing to advocate for voices that lack a platform.

Victoria Brownworth’s remembrance
Cecelia Leitich Smith’s interview
Nancy Garden’s website