Author and activist Nancy Garden, most widely known for her groundbreaking YA novel Annie on My Mind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982) died on June 23 of a heart attack. She was 76.
Though she crafted works in a variety of genres and formats from picture books to nonfiction, Annie on My Mind, which focuses on the story of two high school girls who fall in love with each other, remained her most popular book. It created significant controversy in its day, and has spent a good bit of time on the ALA’s list of most commonly challenged books. In 1993, a school district in Kansas removed the book from its high school library shelves and sparked a First Amendment federal court case in which students, parents, and teachers filed suit over the removal. In 1995, a judge ruled that the removal was unconstitutional and the book reappeared in the district’s libraries. The incident was a key motivator for Garden to become an outspoken anti-censorship activist.
In a 2001 interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Garden related why she gravitated toward writing stories with gay and lesbian themes: “When I was growing up as a young lesbian in the ’50s, I looked in vain for books about my people,” she said. “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.” She continued, “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.”
On the occasion of the book’s 25th anniversary in 2007, Garden spoke with the Lambda Book Report about how reaction to Annie had changed over the years. “I still get letters from kids and adults of all sexual orientations about Annie,” Garden said in the interview. “They’re not very different from those I got back in the ’80s, with two exceptions: many of the kids who write me today are more accepting of their sexual orientation than kids were years ago, and more of them are younger. They thank me for Annie and tell me that it makes them feel less alone, has helped them with coming out, given them courage and hope, etc. Most of the older folks say they wish Annie had been available when they were growing up; straight ones often say that Annie’s a fine love story.” That same year, she published Hear Us Out!: Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress, and Hope, 1950 to the Present (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), a collection of essays and short stories that explore the experiences of young gay people over the past 50 years.
Garden was born in Boston, Mass., in 1938 and grew up in New England and New York as an only child. In the biography she posted on her author website, Garden credits her parents with introducing her to the joys of books and storytelling from an early age. She recalls beginning to write “for fun” when she was just eight years old, and it was an enjoyable hobby she kept up all through her schooling and her early career in the theater in New York. A master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University led to teaching positions, but it wasn’t until she took a job working for a literary agent that she began to focus on writing as a serious pursuit. Her efforts intensified as she embarked on a career in publishing, working editorial jobs, largely at Houghton Mifflin, in the early-to-mid 1970s. Her first book for children was never published, but proved important in her development as an author. Aloysius P. Bookworm was a picture-book collaboration with her best friend, author, illustrator, and editor Barbara Seuling.
In 1971, Garden saw her first two officially contracted children’s books published: What Happened to Marston (Four Winds) and Berlin: City Split in Two (Putnam). She went on to write fantasy novels as well as nonfiction and realistic fiction, including Annie on My Mind. Among the numerous accolades she received for her books are the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Lambda Book Award, and the Robert Downs Intellectual Freedom Award. Garden once expressed her passion for her work in an interview with Contemporary Authors, “I write for young people because I like them, and because I think they are important,” she said. “Children’s books can be mind-stretchers and imagination-ticklers and builders of good taste in a way that adult books cannot, because young people usually come to books with more open minds. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to that in a small way.”
Margaret Ferguson, publisher of her eponymous imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, and Garden’s longtime editor, shared this tribute: “I had the privilege of working with Nancy Garden on many of her children’s books, most notably Annie on My Mind – the first young adult novel about two girls who fell in love that had a happy ending. A book that was groundbreaking and is still in print over 30 years later and still speaks to readers today. At the time, I was a young editor just starting my career and she took me under her wing, teaching me much about editing and friendship in the lovely, kind and generous way that was what Nancy was all about.”