Annie on My Mind and I grew up together. Published twenty-five years ago in 1982, this now-canonical lesbian-coming-of-age novel was one of the first books I ever reviewed. Sally Holmes Holtze was then assistant editor at School Library Journal’s book review section, working with Pam Pollack, and I was a new SLJ reviewer. I was interested in gay-themed books and earlier in the year had reviewed Larry Hulce’s Just the Right Amount of Wrong, whose depiction of homosexuality resembled a combination of “That’s the Night That the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and Deliverance.
Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind was different, and you could tell right from the start. Its editor, Margaret Ferguson, herself also at the beginning of her career, was so enthusiastic about it that she got Sally a copy of the edited manuscript; Sally in turn was so excited that she called me to arrange a quick review. Later, I remember Zena Sutherland phoning me about it, saying her graduate students were passing it along to each other like kids with Sweet Valley High (the “it” books of the era).
We were excited as readers first, I think, and then as professionals. Annie’s effect on young adult literature is now manifest. The book had the first unequivocally happy ending in a YA novel with a gay-themed plot or subplot. It was the first to show two generations of gay people: narrator Liza and her girlfriend (more on that later) Annie; and the two teachers, Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer, whose careers are ended á la Hellman’s Children’s Hour, exposed in this case by the younger pair’s indiscretion. (Okay, so maybe the ending wasn’t happy for everyone.)
This was new. By 1982, everyone was heartily sick of the gay-themed problem novel, with its preachings of tolerance, its unabashed servings of information, and its de rigueur, epiphany-producing car accident. (The fact that car crashes were such a significant trope offered particular hilarity. Point taken, but let’s not forget that lots of YA problem novels of the 1970s wrapped themselves around a tree in service to cheap thrills and a chastening ending.) Annie wasn’t a problem novel. While it has more than its share of sometimes-clumsy preaching, it rarely feels informational. The characters aren’t examples of anything beyond themselves. The book’s antecedents lie more in the tradition of we-too-must-love lesbian paperback adult romances of the 1950s than in that of instructive novels for the young. The dedication — “to all of us” — has ardency and high-mindedness in its unspoken declaration. It also signals a sense of community between author and readers, at least among those who can decode the “us” to include themselves.
So all of this — a happy ending, a non-problem novel, a book that was about “us,” not “them” — was new and a cause for celebration, but it never would have gotten off the ground had Annie on My Mind not been such a blissful soak of a read. It was as if Garden was working in complete ignorance of the problem novel formulae: girl, or more likely girl’s friend, has problem, goes to the library/finds a pamphlet in the cafeteria and learns about problem, resolves to fix problem, backslides, has a car crash, and looks to tomorrow. Instead, the author favored a simpler, classic structure: girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl. Her style, too, was restrained in a way that some of today’s voice-trumps-all YA novelists might want to take a look at. The emotions were earnest and the dialogue sometimes extravagant, to be sure, but the narrative voice itself was unassuming.
In this way, Annie was in line with the teen romances that were simultaneously beginning to dominate the YA market, but even those books, rebounding from the problem novel, were more fantasies of an idealized but resolutely ordinary way of life. The heroines of those books did not aspire to stand out from the crowd. They were not the kind of girls who, like Annie and Liza, would enact chivalric flourishes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or be headed to Berkeley and MIT, respectively (Annie to study music; Liza, architecture). Sweet Dreams romances were not about what it’s like to be different.
The story is told as an extended (and periodically interrupted) flashback, recalled by Liza, now a college freshman, ignoring her studies to write yet another letter to not send to Annie. The two, we know, have parted, although we don’t know in the beginning just what they were to each other. In fact, the love story is itself a good long time coming, their first kiss clocking in on page 92 of the latest edition, their First Time, very discreetly described, not until fifty pages later. Garden makes of the courtship a lovers’ guide to New York City, as Liza and Annie savor the heady romance of the museums, the Botanical Garden, the Cloisters, and the Staten Island Ferry. A romantic dinner in a candle-in-the-Chianti-bottle Italian restaurant recalls Angie Morrow’s first encounter with then-exotic pizza in Maureen Daly’s 1942 romance classic Seventeenth Summer. Studding the progression of the relationship with the interludes of Liza in her dorm room gives the novel well-paced suspense and makes it feel appealingly grownup as well: technically, this is a book about a college girl.
And, oh, the complications: dramatic, clear-cut, and satisfyingly melodramatic. Not only do Liza and Annie have to sort through the feelings every novice-to-love encounters, but they are also beset by prejudice when the nosy and self-righteous school secretary, Ms. Baxter, discovers and exposes their relationship. Closet case is not a term Garden uses to describe Ms. Baxter; refreshingly, she also eschews the term homophobia to evoke the shocked reactions of Liza’s family and classmates. It’s here that the book most firmly fixes itself in another era. Certainly, young people still struggle with coming out and facing derision and worse; equally certainly, a teacher can still lose her job for being gay. But these adversities occur today in a far broader context: Annie on My Mind was published in the same month that AIDS, with all its subsequent impact on the acceptance of homosexuality in America, was named. In July of 1982, there was no Will & Grace; no gay-straight alliances in high schools; no gay marriage; and no articles in the Horn Book about transgender themes (see page 519). (There was no review of Annie in the Horn Book, either, and the reasons for this seem lost to history.)
Gay and lesbian teens today are in a very different world than Liza and Annie’s Brooklyn. They are less likely to refer to themselves as lovers, a term that in its gay and lesbian usage has been replaced by partners. I’m guessing that the Lizas and Annies of today would most likely call themselves girlfriends. They would also, I think, be prone to a more nuanced perspective on sexual orientation, automatically adding the initials B (bisexual), T (transgendered), and Q (queer or questioning) to the L and G posited in Annie, a book that is adamant in its categories of gay and straight. Equally, Liza and Annie would probably be horrified by all of today’s talk about butch and femme and tops and bottoms — the lesbian feminism of the early 1980s declared itself to be role-free.
But the butches of today, such as M. E. Kerr’s Evie, owe their freedom to girls like Annie and Liza. That we left these two finding happiness in each other — the last sentence is “I love you, too!” — challenged YA literature to embrace a broader mission than the provisioning of stern morality tales. Forget the gay angle: that Annie on My Mind was a love story is possibly the true breakthrough here. It’s enlightening to contrast the cover of the original edition (which depicts Annie and Liza on the Staten Island Ferry, all very intense in shades of red and amber, Liza in a down vest and Annie in flannel) with the latest (a magenta-accented girly-girl photo of the two protagonists, hands entwined amidst a flurry of snow). The first is truer to the spirit of the book; the second, so sleekly conformist, to the spirit of our times. But it was Annie’s publication twenty-five years ago that helped make the modern cover possible.
From the September/October 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.