Nancy Garden, at 76; her young adult books with gay characters broke mold

Midge Eliassen

Midway through Nancy Garden’s young adult novel “Annie on My Mind,” high school friends Liza and Annie walk along the beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., and into Queens, their mutual attraction as yet unexpressed.

As they watch the sun set, Liza recounts, “without thinking I put my arm across her shoulders to warm her, and then before either of us knew what was happening, our arms were around each other and Annie’s soft and gentle mouth was kissing mine.”

So began a romance that would be tested by the often unkind scrutiny of their school and friends. When the novel was published in 1982, fictional same-gender romances among the young tended to end poorly, and often disastrously. Charting a new path, Ms. Garden allowed the girls’ story to end on a hopeful note. Far apart at different colleges, they profess their love in a phone call in the final sentences.


Though the book’s groundbreaking nature led it to be banned and burned in Kansas, touching off a federal court case over censorship, the novel and novelist prevailed. “Annie on My Mind” went back onto high school library shelves and is now a much-honored classic.

Ms. Garden, a prolific writer who deftly captured the uncertainty and longing of her young lesbian and gay protagonists, died of a heart attack June 23 in her Carlisle home. She was 76 and also had a home in Tremont, Maine.

“She wrote the book all lesbians wanted to have as teenagers,” Victoria Brownworth said in a tribute posted on the Lambda Literary website. “She wrote the books kids of lesbian and gay parents needed to read. She was an icon and a treasure and every other overused cliche about writers who are larger than life — except of course in her case it was all true.”


Over the past four decades, Ms. Garden published about 40 books. Best known for her young adult novels, she also wrote short stories, nonfiction, children’s picture storybooks, and a novel for adults. Since 2000, her work has been often honored, including for the Kansas censorship battle in the early 1990s when a minister publicly burned “Annie on My Mind” and a school board in Olathe ordered it removed from school library shelves.

“Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending,” Rosemary Chance said while chairing a Young Adult Library Services Association committee that gave Ms. Garden the 2003 Margaret A. Edwards lifetime achievement award.

Three years earlier, Ms. Garden received the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. The award website noted that after the Kansas First Amendment case she “became a high-profile spokesperson on behalf of intellectual freedom.”

“Although the book was ultimately returned to the library shelves after a successful civil lawsuit brought by a group of parents and students, Garden continues to volunteer her time to speak at libraries and conferences in an ongoing demonstration of how to quietly, strongly, and successfully defend intellectual freedom on behalf of young readers.”

The American Library Association placed “Annie on My Mind” 44th on its list of the 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990 to 1999, ahead of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and the “Harry Potter” series.


“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,” Brownworth wrote in her tribute. “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.”

Antoinette Elisabeth Garden, who always went by Nancy, was born in Boston. Her family moved a few times during World War II, while her father worked for the Red Cross. When she was young, her parents read aloud to each other, and Ms. Garden wrote on her website that she “started writing for fun” when she was 8.

The family ended up in Providence, and at Lincoln School “she was interested in theater and was considered the best actress in her class,” said Sandy Scott, Ms. Garden’s life partner. The two met in high school, and did not become a couple until they both were living in New York City in the 1960s. They married in 2004.

Ms. Garden graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree, and received a master’s from Columbia’s Teachers College. She worked as a teacher and in various theater pursuits until 1971, when her first two books were published. One of those, “What Happened in Marston,” was made into an ABC Afterschool Special.


She took an editing job in Boston and moved in 1972 to Carlisle with Scott, who recalled that they encountered no difficulties getting a mortgage and buying a house together. “Both Nancy and I have been accepted in Carlisle,” she said.

Before long, Ms. Garden was able to write full time. Her many other books include “Endgame,” which grew out of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo. “I decided to write a novel focused on bullying and the tragic consequences it can have on both bullier and bullied,” she wrote on her website. “ ‘Endgame’ is the result.”

In 2007’s “Hear Us Out” she collected her short stories and grouped them into sections for the decades from the 1950s to the 2000s, introducing each decade with an essay.

In an interview that year with Cynthia Leitich Smith that is posted online, Ms. Garden said that “we’re in a transition period as a genre, from the early days when our books were — understandably — dark and gloomy to a time when not only can we concentrate on queer kids who aren’t particularly downtrodden, even when they face homophobia, but can also, I think, join other YA authors in experimenting with literary forms.”

A private service has been held for Ms. Garden, whose only immediate survivor is Scott.

After “Annie on My Mind,” Ms. Garden wrote other books that examined life and love among lesbian and gay teens in high school. “The Year They Burned the Books,” published in 1999, wove in her experience with the Kansas school board, though she set the story in a fictional town in New England.


That book provided a literary haven for characters like her protagonist, high school newspaper editor Jamie Crawford, who at one point writes in her journal: “Everyone assumes everyone is straight. WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE LIKE US who aren’t sure, who might not be straight? I know they’re somewhere. . . .”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.