I had the wonderful good fortune to meet Nancy Garden at the New England Regional SCBWI conference in May. Her groundbreaking book Anne On My Mind, published in 1982–the year I was born–was the first book for teens that actually showed what it felt like for two girls to fall in love. I read it just out of puberty (and cried and cried) and felt like I suddenly had a right to exist. Nancy Garden has written around 35 books, many about being gay. Her books have been burned and challenged, but she keeps at it. The interview below was conducted via email.
Why have you chosen to spend your life writing for children? Have you ever considered a career change?
My first career goal, when I was very young, was to be a veterinarian. My second, when I was around 14, was to be an actress. By then, though, I had been writing for my own pleasure for years–since I was 8–so writing was definitely something I wanted to continue doing. I was in theater for a number of years, as an acterss, lighting designer, and jill of all trades; my ultimate goal was to direct. But jobs in theater are hard to get, and I was still writing. I had several office jobs in order to support myself, got a degree in teaching, and taught speech and theater for a few years, and eventually got a job with a bogus literary agent. That led to a few jobs in publishing–and again, I was still writing and by then also trying to sell my work.
I loved reading as a child, and I loved children’s books and children, so although I did try writing an adult novel when I was still in college, I concentrated mostly on writing for children and adolescents. And no, I’ve never considered a career change. I can’t imagine not writing! Writing is something I have to do.
Do you consider yourself an idealist? And if so, has your idealism been tempered at all over the years?
H’mmm–I’ve never thought of myself that way, but I suppose in a way I am–although I’m also a pragmatist.
There are many more books for GLBT youth than there were when you were a kid–thanks in large part to your pioneering efforts. Are there any holes that you still see today in the books that these kids need?
We need more books focused on bisexual kids and on trans kids–and more about LGBTQ kids of color.
The suicides of Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi brought GLBT issues and harassment into the national spotlight, but GLBT youth have long been one of the highest at-risk demographics for suicide. But these tragedies spawned the national “It Gets Better” campaign which has over 10,000 videos now of GLBT adults and allies basically telling their stories. What do you think is the power of story-telling? Have you ever had a sense that your stories might help save kids?
I think story-telling is tremendously powerful tool in helping people understand people who are not like themselves. It has often been said that when straight people get to know us as individuals, they realize that we aren’t all the bad things they’ve been taught to believe we are–and that we’re very much like themselves. Stories can show that, too.
I’ve been told my books have saved lives, and I get very moving letters from kids–adults, too!–who tell me my books have helped them.
Was there ever a time when you needed to know that “it gets better”?
Sure–when I was a teen and my girlfriend’s parents forbade her to see me.
Access to GLBT books is often a big issue–especially in communities where harassment is most likely to be an issue. How do you think we can create a meaningful dialogue with teachers, librarians, and community leaders in these places to help them see what’s at stake?
The first answer that comes to my mind will sound flippant–but I mean it seriously: Any way we can! I think we can spark dialogue through personal relationships, articles in professional and popular perodicals, letters to the editor of local papers when issues arise about our books, speeches and appearances in libraries, schools, and bookstores and at conferences–again, any way we can!
The internet is a wonderful resource for kids who are living in uncompromising families and communities. Are there any other ways that we can reach out to kids in areas where censorship might be an issue?
All the ways above, but especially school and library appearances, and of course through our books–and being sure to answer fan mail, which in our situation often involves being supportive of kids who are going through horrendous problems with coming out and with bullying.
How do you feel about Lambda Literary‘s decision to stop giving their awards to Allies? And since ALA has started the Stonewall Awards, does it matter?
Actually, Lambda has been a bit vague about that. On the one hand, they’ve certainly indicated that their policy, to put it bluntly, is not to give awards to straight people. But on the other hand, they’ve said that when a book is nominated for an award (books are nominated by their poublishers and their authors), they assume that the author is LGBT. (See The Horn Book Magazine, July-August 2010, “Too Gay or Not Gay Enough” by Ellen Wittlinger, and my letter and Thomas Crisp’s letter in the Sept-Oct issue for more on this controversy.)
In answer to your second question, though, yes, I do think it matters, because wonderful as it is that the Stonewall Awards have recently expanded to recognize LGBT kids’ books, the Lammies are important, too.The more awards there are, the better! Our books are doing well in the world, but awards are very helpful for the public’s awareness of our developing canon and for the recognition they give to our books and their authors.
Switching gears a little, how do you write a book that is deep and true and honest?
By avoiding manipulation of plot and character, for one thing. That’s a lesson all writers have to learn, and it’s especially difficult when one is writing about something about which one cares deeply.
Is there any advise that you would give to anyone writing for or working with kids who are really hurting?
The situations are different–writing for kids and working with kids. When working with such a kid, be honest, kind, and supportive. Share your knowledge and experiences if they relate to the kid’s situation. Direct the kid to resources that may be able to offer pratical or more professional help than you can offer.
When one is writing, one doesn’t know who’s going to read one’s work. One assumes all kinds of people in all kinds of situations may read what one has written. Some will be hurting and others won’t; one needs to concentrate on the story one wants to tell and the characters who people it. If the story and the characters strike a chord in a kid who is hurting, the kid will probably be helped, and one can certainly hope for that. But one can’t really plan on that, since one doesn’t know who one’s audience is going to be.