SchoolPost submitted by Kim Westheimer, former Director, Welcoming Schools

Annie on My Mind, a young adult book about two high school girls who fall in love, was published in 1982.

No one died in the book.  No one was physically assaulted. While there were coming out, relationship and family struggles, there were no tragic figures.

This story line was a big deal 30 years ago, when there were no gay/straight alliances in schools and little chance that an LGBT student would hear anything positive about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Most young adult books that did have lesbian and gay characters rendered them victims.  (Bisexual or transgender characters were nowhere to be found.)  Teenagers struggling with their own sexual orientation would have been unlikely to find books that had positive portrayals of lesbian or gay characters

Nancy Garden, the author of Annie on My Mind, changed all that - with some help from those who fought vigorously to keep the book out of the hands of young people.

That is why this year’s Banned Book week (Sept. 21 – 27), is a good time to remember Garden, who died this June at the age of 76.

Not only was Annie on My Mind removed from school libraries – in one instance a Kansas City minister led a mob of people in burning the book.

As controversies often do, these actions raised the profile of the book and actually contributed to more young people seeing the book.  The challenge in Kansas City led to a court ruling that said schools did not have the authority to remove books from libraries unless the book could be shown to be “educationally unsuitable.” 

Garden, a passionate spokesperson for first amendment rights, saw the heated disputes about her books as opportunities for dialogue among those who disagreed.  She welcomed this dialogue as a way to build bridges.

Annie on My Mind has had a lasting impact over the last three decades.

In the wake of challenges to the book, school librarians rallied to support it.  Many ordered multiple copies for their libraries because they realized that some students would slip the book into their backpacks without checking it out.  These students feared that being associated with Annie on My Mindwould brand them as lesbians.

I met a student in the 90’s who was one of those who furtively snuck a copy of the book out of the school library’s side door.  This student, now a teacher herself, later donated multiple copies of the book to the school to make up for her transgression!

In 2000, The School Library Journal named Annie on My Mind as one of 100 books that shaped the 20th century

It’s a fitting tribute to a woman who repeatedly told reporters that her desire to write young adult books with LGBT characters stemmed from the lack of such books when she came out as a young lesbian in the 1950’s.  She wanted to make it better for new generations of LGBT youth.

Garden’s life’s work is a testament to her determination expressed by the main character of Annie on My Mind:  

“Don't punish yourselves for people's ignorant reactions to what we all are. Don't let ignorance win. Let love.”

Check out Welcoming Schools up-to-date list of recommended picture and chapter books for students that portray LGBT characters.


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