Look Back In Pride

by We Need Diverse Books

In this first post in our LOOK BACK series, I shall focus on two LGBTQ YA authors/books. Of course, back in the 70’s and 80’s it was mainly L and G. B, T, Q, I, non-binary characters etc. rarely appeared, but more on that in later posts. (Note, Malinda Lo has compiled some interesting statistics of LGBT YA novels from 1969 to 2011 in a post on her website​.)

If I had known about and been able to lay my hands on ​Annie On My Mind ​by Nancy Gardner when it was published by Farrar, Strauss Giroux in 1982, I firmly believe my coming out story could have been different! I also want to acknowledge the important role of early LGBTQ ​publishers like FSG, who took quite a risk on these controversial and marginalized themes at the time.


This was not the first modern lesbian YA novel but it was groundbreaking as the first happy ending in a YA novel with a lesbian theme. It was also unusual in including two gay generations: Liza, the protagonist, and her
girlfriend Annie; and the two ‘spinster’ teachers who ‘shared’ a house, Ms.Stevenson and Ms. Widmer. Okay, so the ending is in fact not so happy for these two adults whose teaching careers at the private girls school, which Liza attends, are cut short by the young lesbians’ rash behavior. After a couple of decades of tragic endings to gay novels (mostly adult romances), often through car crashes, the hard won and optimistic conclusion for Annie and Liza broke a mold in the gay problem novel trend of its day.

Also, as Roger Sutton points out in a 2007 Horn Book article on the subject, it is most definitely an “us” not “them” story, “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.” My Fosters Academy style school in Cambridge (UK) contained no gay YA novels (though looking back it may have had some Ms. Stevens and Ms. Widmers!) and while I came to Annie ​much later than high school, my identification with Liza was immediate and life-changing. While the story is dated with regards vocabulary, e.g. “lovers” rather than girlfriends, and the more closeted nature of the two couples’ sexuality, it still reads as a wonderful rollercoaster first romance between two adolescents. While many teens still struggle with coming out; some face intense bullying and discrimination; and gays do not always have equality in the workplace, it is important to note the different social milieu in Liza and Annie’s Brooklyn. As of this year’s supreme court ruling, two lesbian eighteen year-olds in NYC can marry and it is quite likely they would have attended a gay/straight alliance club at school, whereas ​Annie on My Mind was published at the same time AIDS was beginning to make international headlines and fuel the already existing homophobia in many nations.

The School Library Journal included ​Annie On My Mind on its list of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century. And according to the ALA​, it was number 48 in the top 100 most frequently challenged books during the period 1990 to 2000. It has been banned in many school libraries over the years and was publicly burned in Kansas City. It remains a classic lesbian coming-of-age story and Nancy Garden, who died last year, was a trailblazer.

IGTIGTWhile ​Annie ​is still in print and still garnering regular readers and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the first gay YA novel​, I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan had been out-of-print for years until Flux Books brought out a “40th anniversary” edition in 2010. It was published in 1969, just six months before the Stonewall Riots. It is more humorous and cynical than ​Annie​, and definitely more ambiguous. I think it is also worth noting that the main characters in both novels as well as their authors and the authors of are white.

The protagonist of Donovan’s novel, a thirteen-year-old named Davy Ross, is forced to move to an unwelcoming Manhattan apartment to live with his estranged alcoholic mother after the tragic loss of his grandmother who was his rock. About 1/3 of the way into the story, at his private school in New York, he meets another boy called
Altschuler, who treats him like dirt at first. But the two start to explore a confusing romantic relationship. Any physical scenes take place off stage and are referenced obtusely. The slow pace of the novel and unresolved ending might lose some 21​st century teen readers, but like Annie, ​it is historic in that it isn’t a tragic and coming-of-age story undermined by hopelessness. Davy hasn’t the self-confidence of a modern gay teen character like Tiny from ​Will Grayson Will Grayson, but Tiny and we owe a debt to Davy’s tentative exploration of his homosexuality and Donovan’s courage in writing this novel.
I would love to hear your first LGBTQ YA reads and how they
impacted you.

Joanna Marple