Rachel reviews The Year They Burned the Books by Nancy Garden

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Nancy Garden, author of the classic Annie on my Mind, wrote another poignant novel about lesbians. This time, she touched on controversy about homosexuality, censorship, and free speech. The Year They Burned The Books is that novel.

Published in 1999, this story still rings true today about how far censorship and prejudice can go. The story revolves around Jamie Crawford, a senior at Wilson High School, who is editor of the school paper, the Telegraph. She is coming out to herself as a lesbian. In her school, a new policy comes out, allowing condoms to be distributed in the nurse’s office. When Jamie writes an editorial supporting it, she is met with opposition, especially from Lisa Buel, a woman running for a position on the school board. Lisa wants to rewrite the entire school curriculum, including removing books on homosexuality, discussing abstinence, and omitting facts about cohabiting couples. When Jamie stays true to her views, other students begin to lash out at her, and the school paper. Soon, Jamie’s town comes under a huge censorship scandal, and she and her gay friends face discrimination.

The Year They Burned The Books nails it when it comes to discrimination and free speech rights. Nancy Garden based this book off a real-life event, when copies of her novel Annie were burned on courthouse steps in a town in Kansas, and the books were nearly banned from schools in the district. The Year They Burned The Books shows accurately how far discrimination can be taken.

The main conflict in the story starts out with the health curriculum, but as the novel progresses, the characters begin to spar over things like religion and homosexuality. Jamie is firm in her opinions, but there are a couple characters who are conflicted. Nomi, Jamie’s longtime friend, wants to stay Jamie’s friend, but the church she goes to says homosexuality is immoral. She must wrestle with her beliefs and come to her own conclusions. Then there is Ernie, the boyfriend of Terry, Jamie’s best friend. Ernie loves Terry, but his parents are completely against homosexuality. He feels he has to be straight, and feels loathing and disgust towards himself. He too must try and reconcile his beliefs with his sexuality.

Other characters were highly unlikeable, especially Lisa Buel. She promotes discrimination in the name of her religion, and her insults towards homosexuals are infuriating. As she campaigns for school board membership, she purposely deceives voters by not sharing her true intentions. She also resorts to extreme measures, one being checking out library books about gays and lesbians, burning them, and then lying about burning library books. These things showed her bad side.

This story can be heavy at times, with Jamie and her friends getting scary notes in school, the town’s narrow-minded side, and the school paper coming under fire because of Jamie’s editorial. Many students at Wilson High go to church one day, and the next day they launch hatred against the gay students. Nancy Garden wasn’t afraid to show this side of people, which I applaud.

I also loved how Jamie and her friends stuck with their beliefs and stood up to those who hated them. One of my favorites was Tessa, the new girl at school. She was dead firm in her human rights opinions and was not afraid to say so. She and Jamie made perfect friends, and balanced each other out. Terry was also not afraid to jump in to defend those he cared about, especially Ernie.

The Year They Burned The Books had its tense moments, and times when I got really angry. But there was still goodness and hope in the story. It was a satisfying read, and gays and lesbians should read this. Straight people should read it too, as it touches on all true subjects and challenges censoring people’s opinions. Some may disagree with the views expressed in this book, but that’s okay, as long as everyone can believe what they want without being hurt. That’s what this novel teaches; being entitled to your beliefs without being persecuted. I thought this story was amazingly told, and with a sympathetic, likeable heroine, The Year They Burned The Books should be a major classic as well.

Rachel reviews Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden

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Fans of lesbian young adult literature should really pick up Annie On My Mind, by Nancy Garden. First published in 1982, Annie was one of the first lesbian fiction novels to have a happy ending. Garden put so much care and love into her story, and it really shows.

The story is told in the voice of Liza Winthrop, a seventeen year old high school senior looking to get into MIT. At a museum in New York City, she meets Annie Kenyon, also a high school senior, who is kind and musical. The two become good friends, and together they explore their city and get to know each other well. Soon, their tender feelings turn into love, and Liza grapples with the idea of being gay. She and Annie harbor their secret romance, and when Liza is discovered by her friends and family, she must decide whether to continue her relationship with Annie.

This novel is written in a kind of dreamlike quality that makes it beautiful. The characters of Liza and Annie are wonderful with each other. They have their faults, dreams, fears and insecurities. Annie especially sees the world in an imaginative way, which shows in her talks with Liza about the future and things in the present. She and down-to-earth, level-headed Liza, balance each other out really well.

The supporting characters were great too. I especially loved Liza’s art teacher, Ms. Stevenson. She has a strong sense of justice and is not afraid to say so. The headmistress at Liza’s private school, Mrs. Poindexter, is prim and proper, while Annie’s grandmother, Nana, provides some laughs with her easy going manner. In all, each character in the book enhanced the storyline and added to the plot nicely.

Garden also sent powerful messages about homophobia, intolerance, and same-sex love. When Liza is outed, the reactions around her range from disbelief and disgust to sadness and questioning. Most infuriating was Ms. Baxter, the headmistress’s aide, who was very judgmental to Liza, Annie, and other gay characters. Anyone reading Annie can easily recognize the homophobia and hatred that homosexuals still face today. The best of all messages, though, was that same-sex love is not a bad thing. That love is love. “Don’t let ignorance win, let love”, one of the novel’s quotes, really sums up the idea of love.

On a personal note, Annie is a very special book for me. This was the first lesbian novel I ever read. Sadly, Nancy Garden passed away in June, but she left a legacy of love and acceptance. A wonderful writer and advocate for gay rights, she and Annie On My Mind will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Rachel reviews Good Moon Rising by Nancy Garden

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While most fans of lesbian literature will recognize Nancy Garden for her classic romance Annie on my Mind, there are still plenty of other books she has written that young lesbians can relate to. Good Moon Rising is one of them. It has a combination of lesbian lovers, theatre and acting, and intolerance and ignorance of homosexuality.

Seventeen year old Jan Montcrief, a budding young stage actress, returns to her school after a pleasant time at a summer acting program. The theatre coach, Mrs. Nicholson, is putting on The Crucible, a play about the Salem Witch Trials, and Jan auditions for the female lead, Elizabeth Proctor. She is soon shocked to learn that she will not be playing Elizabeth; she will be a stage manager. The new girl, Kerry Ann Socrides has gotten Jan’s part. At first upset, Jan grows to enjoy her new role, and to befriend Kerry as they work on Crucible together. Soon, Mrs. Nicholson is in poor health, and Jan must take over as director. She and Kerry fall deeply in love, which their classmates pick up on pretty fast. And some are determined to use that against the girls.

Good Moon Rising does a wonderful job with the characters, making Jan and Kerry likeable. Also Jan’s wondering “Am I gay?” will strongly resonate with any lesbian doing her own soul-searching. The supporting characters add to the story. Ted, Jan’s lifelong best friend, has his own feelings for Jan that complicate their friendship. Kerry’s eccentric and silly Aunt Elena provides some laughs, though she has her reservations about homosexuality. Perhaps the most conflicted and prejudiced character is Kent, a classmate playing John Proctor. He is openly gay-bashing and always trying to prove himself as a “real” man. But Jan soon suspects that Kent is hiding his own homosexuality. It’s ironic; Kent, a homosexual himself, actually does the most bullying in the book.

The prejudice Jan and Kerry face parallel to the hysteria and ignorance of those who participated in the Salem Witch Trials. All over school, signs saying “I saw Jan Montcrief with the devil, I saw Kerry Socrides with the devil” are posted, sounding like the lines used in The Crucible. Kerry and Jan are thrown Bible quotes alongside threats and prank phone calls. Their classmates are going out of their way to ruin the two girls and break them apart; all because of their own fears and hatreds, much like Crucible and the Salem trials.

Good Moon Rising, compared with Annie on my Mind, is somewhat darker in tone, as the prejudice the girls face is bolder, and Jan must come to terms with Mrs. Nicholson’s terminal illness and eventual death. The book has a few sadder scenes, and Jan and Kerry are dealt a lot of homophobic blows. For a while, things between them are uncertain. And the story is set in late fall, giving a dreary atmosphere.

But there is still hope for Jan and Kerry. With help from Jan’s gay friend Raphael, the girls begin to come out and take braver steps in telling their families and remaining together. Though some questions are left unanswered, Good Moon Rising ends on a happy note. Jan and Kerry’s love for each other seems stronger, and both feel more comfortable as lesbians. And they do have the support of friends to pull them through. While Good Moon Rising is a more somber read, it is a masterpiece in its own right, and should be remembered as one of Nancy Garden’s best novels.

Erica Gillingham reviews Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden

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“Have you ever felt really close to someone? So close that you can’t understand why you and the other person have two separate bodies, two separate skins? I think it was Sunday when that feeling began.”

Let me give you a little background on me before I tell you how awesome Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden really is: I research love and romance in LGBT YA novels. Which means that I read a lot of love stories about gay teenagers. Which really means that I’m a big ol’ sap. A novel with a sweet, compelling love story makes me swoon faster than you can say, “Kiss me.” Which is basically to warn you that this post may contain a large amount of gushing.

The other thing you need to know about my review of Annie On My Mind is that I avoided reading it for, well, a long time. My dismissive thinking went a little something like this: ‘it was published in 1982, two years before I was born! C’mon, it can’t be that exciting now. Really, how good is this “classic” going to be? A YA novel published in the 1980s must have been so censored that reading it will be such a chore—you don’t even get explicit scenes in YA published in 2012!’ (Yes, sometimes my inner monologue does remind me of the teenage characters I read about, but in the spirit of being with you honest with you on the Internet, I was thinking stuff like that.)

Which is why I feel it is so important to admit that I was being a big ol’ AGEIST when it came to actually cracking the spine on my 25th anniversary edition copy.

I want to stand up in front of all you lovely Lesbrary readers, own up to all of scathing prejudice and snarky disbelief, and admit: GIRL, I WAS SO WRONG.

Annie On My Mind is an incredible young adult novel with a sweet, sweet love story. It blows my mind that it was published in 1982—amongst so much fear and misinformation about homosexuality—but it boggles my mind even more that there aren’t MORE YA novels like it published by now.

To set up the story, Liza and Annie meet in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Annie is singing her heart out in a deserted wing and Liza, an architectural student, has come to take a look around the museum. They come from different socio-economic backgrounds and very different school situations and yet that does not pose any significant issue to their relationship. The attraction is instant and their friendship builds swiftly.

The major drama of the story revolves around the strict rules and image of Liza’s private school as it is in danger of closing for financial reasons. As you can imagine, all of the students and faculty (hint hint: there are more lesbians than meets the eye) must be on their utmost behaviour during such a funding crisis, i.e. any bad news is all bad news for the school. The other barrier to their relationship is Liza’s coming out process. To be fair, though, I have read much more tortured and dramatic coming out stories. Liza’s, in contrast, feels real in the time it takes for her to accept herself and open herself up—fully—to her relationship with Annie.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of page space given over to the sexual desires and acts between Liza and Annie. Sure, it’s not explicit sex scenes, but no one can argue that those two seventeen year old girls don’t have a healthy sex life! Some teenagers do have a high sex drive, especially when they fall in deeply in love for the first time, and it was refreshing for me to read that in a YA novel.

When reading it, I do think it is relevant to remember that it was published in the 1980s. Some of the references and ‘ways of life’ are no longer as common today—who has recently pierced their ears with a needle and a potato instead of going down to the mall?!—but the story itself isn’t dated. The relevance of a love story never ages, and this one really does deserve the title of ‘classic.’

Editor note: Also check out Danika and Ana’s conversation about this book, and Danika’s notes about this book!

Erica is a MPhil/PhD Student researching love and romance in LGBT YA literature. She is currently running an Indiegogo campaign, “Made with Love,” to fund the second year of her program. More info can be found on her website.

Jill reviews Hear Us Out: Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress, and Hope, 1950 to the Present by Nancy Garden

 

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Written by Nancy Garden of Annie on my Mind fame, Hear Us Out is essentially three quarters short story collection, one quarter history lesson. The stories are divided into decades of time, covering the 1950s through the 2000s. Each section begins with a brief essay about the events and atmosphere of the time in gay history, followed by two short stories full of characters and places that could fit into that time frame, although many of the stories could definitely cross into timeless places, as well. Before I even started this book, I thought the entire idea and organization of it was brilliant: covering a smorgasbord of real political issues made personal through Garden’s fictionalized worlds, this book is a little hard to classify. And typically, I adore books that are hard to classify. The library where I found it, interestingly, had it classified as non-fiction. But while it is in one way very much a history text, it’s also a clear work of literary fiction at the same time. The blurb on the jacket actually sums it up much better than I just did: “This unique approach gives not only the facts but the feelings, too.”

One thing that’s certain, though, is that it is geared towards youth, and the non-fiction historical essays are definitely written in a relatively simplified and straightforward manner, which is only negative if you’re overly opposed to reading books for youth as a whole. I happen to love non-fiction geared towards youth in particular because it can often simply be more enjoyable than the adult stuff, while still enlightening when done right, as Garden does. It’s clear and engaging, while avoiding being derisive. And one of my favorite parts was that in each historical essay, after the main events of the time were described, she made sure to focus on what that decade meant for youth in particular, or how youth helped to galvanize change for themselves and for the community, an aspect that’s often wanting in other historical queer texts.

As for the stories themselves, there are many tropes that we have seen before, to the point that they’re often looked on as conclusions we should be moving away from now: that being gay necessitates rejection, violence, running away, death. Yet in light of the point of this project, I think they make sense: that was how many people experienced gayness in the 50s, and many of these things do still even happen today, too, amidst all the progress. And importantly, one thing is true in all the stories, even the darker ones: even if the characters feel like giving up or face enormous odds, none of them deny who they are, or believe that they should.

Some of my favorite stories included both of the stories from the 60s: “Cold Comfort,” a classically Southern-feeling tale of two girls in a small town, and “Stonewall,” documenting when one man got to lose his virginity and witness the birth of a movement all in one night. I also found “My Father’s Buddha,” from the 80s, particularly moving, touching briefly on both the ghosts of Vietnam and the all-too-present horror of AIDS, and the search for solace in the pain of both. Another highlight as a whole was being that Garden was at the helm, the majority of the stories, other than these two I just mentioned, do in fact deal with lady love. And in my own experience with queer short story collections, the scale is normally tipped towards the dudes, so it was refreshing to experience the opposite.

While rejecting gender norms, particularly by women, was addressed in many of the stories, I did wish that there could have been at least one specifically trans story included (although she does include them in the essays), but I suppose one author and one book can’t be everything for everybody.

Short story collections can also often be a strange beast in terms of the ratio of wins to disappointments, but when they’re all from the same author, it feels consistent enough to be steadily satisfying, while the plots and writing styles still vary enough with each story to keep it interesting.

Overall, this entirely accessible volume reaches out to youth to not only bring comfort about a variety of situations readers might relate to in one story or the other, but to show the hope in how far we’ve come. The hiding and the rejection and the injustice in some of these stories are all very real parts of our history and parts we can’t forget, and parts that youth need to know about, as well. This book was published in 2007, and even reading through the introductory essay for the 2000s decade (the one essay that seemed a little overlong to me), it felt slightly surreal in terms of all the gains we’ve made just in the last five years since its publication. Accordingly, while that section by itself is easily outdated, a fact Garden acknowledges to be inevitable, the rest of the book could stand the test of time forever. While being up to date on queer books for youth is sort of my thing, I feel this one has flown under the radar a bit: I hadn’t really heard of it before I stumbled onto it in the library, and I wish that was a different story, and that it was widely available to youth (and just people) everywhere. (An updated, slightly more hip cover wouldn’t hurt, either.) Highly recommended.

Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden

I’ll try not to repeat myself too much, but look at the diligent notes I took! I had to do them justice! But I don’t think I have enough to do  coherent review that wasn’t already covered in the discussion Anna and I had. So instead, I’ll just post the thoughts I didn’t already express. These random snippets will be full of spoilers, so I’m not going to bother making you highlight for them. Consider yourself warned.

  • Annie is a reader! Pg 75 of my copy, she says “I read a lot.”
  • It was odd, after we got introduced to Annie’s grandmother, I was steeling myself for the inevitable awfulness of when she found out that Annie is gay. That… never happened.
  • AOMM was good for seeing into Liza’s strange, sheltered little world. I come from a very different environment, and not just because it’s several decades later. For example, Liza makes her whole high school time revolve around her getting into her university of choice. I don’t think that’s quite as prevalent in Canada, or at least not in the schools I went to. Getting into a “good” university was sort of a bonus, but most of the kids from my “gifted”/whatever program ended up at one of the universities we have here, which is good, but not huge on the international  map. I never gave a second thought to what university I wanted to be in when I was in high school, but maybe that was just me.
  • Also, Liza had a very privileged life. I couldn’t believe that she got suspended and then didn’t get grounded. Especially since her dad was so mad at first. What’s the downside to being able to not have to go to school and not be grounded? That’s not a punishment! But that was about as far as punishments went in her case, and she was devestated. I’d be celebrating, and I wasn’t even a bad student.
  • I liked the idea of how her school was supposed to run, though, obviously, it would have to be without the corruption. The sort of democratic system of running it seemed like a fair way to do it.
  • I loved when Liza literally played knight in shining armor. That’s such classic lesbian-in-love.
  • Liza and Annie, but especially Liza, are very odd. The make believe, the singing at the museum, and then at some point Liza growls at a homeless person. This is not normal high school senior behavior.
  • Baxter and Poindexter are so very pathetic.
  • There are actually a lot of points in the novel that I thought were foreshadowing, but didn’t really lead to anything. “Oh no, her brother is getting suspicious! … No, no, he’s over it.”
  • Sally takes a nose dive as a character. By the end I had a seething hatred for her.
  • AOMM has a great passage that describes exactly why I’m so into lesbian lit. “I felt as if I were meeting parts of myself in the gay people I read about. Gradually, I began to feel calmer inside, more complete and sure of myself […]” My favourite part of AOMM is the literature references.
  • I got absolutely furious in my notes when Annie and Liza get caught and lectured. Some excerpts: [to Baxter] “You absolute scum”, “**** you, Sally/Walt!” “How dare you!” and later: “Suck it, Poindexter!” … I swear I’m not usually like this. It was a very emotional part of the story.
  • Another example of Liza’s strange little life: she had never lied to her parents before the whole gay thing. Never. About anything.
  • Near the end of the book, Liza writes down “Running through my head – running through my head”. Am I the only one who couldn’t help thinking of the tatu song?

Have you read Annie On My Mind? What did you think of it?

General Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with Lesbrary (queer women) reading, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first Lesbrary book you read. If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. Once upon a time, any books that had queer content had to demonstrate that they were not actually advocating for queerness, so they had to either go straight, die, or go crazy. Often a combination of these three. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgendered, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Teen

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia BrownriggPages for You

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumoured to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.

Memoirs/Biographies

1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully). Just click on Guest Lesbrarians at the top.

Thanks for reading!