In her monthly column, YA of Yore, Frankie Thomas takes a second look at the books that defined a generation.
Here’s the mystery of Annie on My Mind, the 1982 young adult novel by Nancy Garden: I’ve never met a straight person who’s read it. As far as I can tell, only queer women have read it—and yet I’ve never met one who sought it out on purpose. It comes to us only by accident.
I’m generalizing, I know. But test it out for yourself. Ask your favorite lesbian how she first encountered Annie on My Mind, and you may well hear something like this Amazon review from the year 2001: “Someone gave me this book when I was 17 and wondering who the heck I was. I read it in one sitting, flipped it over and read it again.” Or this one, from 2009: “I was walking down a [library] aisle and just had this funny feeling to pull out this book. Call it crazy, but it felt like the book that I’ve never seen before wanted me to read it.” As if by enchantment, the novel finds its way, often in disguise, to those who don’t know they need it.
It found its way to me in the summer of 2000, when I was thirteen, via the Union Square branch of Barnes & Noble. Back then YA fiction took up just one small shelf, consisting mostly of Francesca Lia Block and the hoax diaries of Beatrice Sparks, so I was quick to notice a book I’d never seen before. The tagline intrigued me: “Liza never knew falling in love could be so wonderful … or so confusing.”
Why did I assume that Liza was in love with a boy, when the book gave no such indication? Its front cover depicted two girls holding hands, their eyes closed, their foreheads tenderly touching. Its back cover, which was a soft-butch shade of salmon pink, featured a short excerpt in which Liza’s mother asked, “Have you and Annie done more than the usual experimenting?” But these things have a way of hiding in plain sight from anyone not actively looking for them. We see what we expect to see. Annie was Liza’s best friend, I thought; the two of them were experimenting with boys. What else could they be doing?
The other possibility, of course, is that I did know. On some level, perhaps, I knew right away.
Case in point: if you don’t know what’s coming, the first seventy pages or so of Annie on My Mind are borderline unreadable. Their prose is Nancy Drew-ish (“Liza closed her eyes, absently running her hand through her short, already tousled brownish hair. Her shoulders were hunched tensely in a way that made her look, even when she stood up, shorter than the 5’3” she really was”). The narration makes confusing shifts between third person, first person, and epistolary. Worst of all, forty-three of those seventy pages—sixty percent of them!—are consumed with a mind-numbingly minor scandal at Liza’s high school involving amateur ear-piercing. If, for some reason, you want to hear your favorite lesbian groan with displeasure, remind her of this subplot.
The preliminary dullness feels perversely deliberate: the first third of the book is boring not because prep-school ear-piercing scandals are inherently boring (I would eagerly read an entire novel on the subject), but because it’s boring to Liza, who isn’t even directly connected to it. “It just seems ridiculous,” says one character, “to make a fuss about anything so silly,” and Liza agrees—yet the subplot keeps going and going, as if determined to lose all but the most committed readers. It reminds me of that viral tweet whose joke escaped me the first few times I saw it because it worked too well: “Ladies, what’s your makeup routine? I’m looking for a new foundation, preferably liquid but still matte and now that the men have stopped reading we riot at midnight.”
The midnight riot, in this case, is an Italian American public school girl named Annie. We first meet her, early in the novel, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Liza is drawn to “a wonderful voice,” like a sailor to a siren, in the otherwise deserted American wing, where the musically gifted Annie is singing to herself. “Don’t stop,” are Liza’s first words to her, followed shortly by “Do you come here often?” She doesn’t, so Liza gives Annie a guided tour of the museum, complete with a mock sword fight in the hall of arms and armor.
Despite this adorable meet-cute, it’s nearly a hundred pages before Liza even begins to examine her feelings for her new friend. Again, if you don’t know what’s coming, I don’t know how you make it through the first third of this book. I say this even as someone who did make it through—spellbound, no less—despite not knowing (not consciously, at least) what was coming. I no longer recall what I thought I was reading, where I thought it was going, why I endured the ear-piercing subplot in anticipation of whatever the turning point might be. I do remember that when it finally came, my eyes initially skipped over it—just as they skipped over “we riot at midnight” in that Twitter joke—because it, too, is hidden in plain sight, buried in the past progressive at the end of a long sentence:
Without thinking, I put my arm across her shoulders to warm her, and then before either of us knew what was happening, our arms were around each other and Annie’s soft and gentle mouth was kissing mine.
It’s true that I’ve never met a straight person who’s read this book—but I cannot discount the possibility that the book turns you gay. If any book could, it’s this one. There’s something Edenic about it, with Liza and Annie as the Adam and Eve of homosexuality, kissing “without thinking” and “before either of us knew what was happening.” Ignorant of gay culture, unacquainted (or so they believe) with any other gay people, they’re innocent of all knowledge except what they know in their hearts. “Annie, I think I love you,” Liza exclaims seconds after that first kiss (lesbians move fast), and in the narration she reflects, “The moment the words were out, I knew more than I’d ever known anything that they were true.” Naming their feelings as Adam named the animals, Liza and Annie invent love.
And what a love it is! To this day I’ve never read anything that rivals Annie on My Mind for sheer romantic gratification. The middle third of this book is like one big movie montage: Liza and Annie go on chaste dates to Coney Island (in wintertime!), the Cloisters, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Bronx-based New York Botanical Garden. They ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth. They dine at a fancy Italian restaurant in the West Village, where Liza has to be “convinced” to “try a wonderful pastry called cannoli, and after that we had espresso” (italics in original)—more like a wide-eyed country girl than the native New Yorker she really is. Their love renders them dazzled tourists in their own hometown; I’m reminded of the movie Enchanted, in which a fairy-tale princess is transported to modern-day New York City and, rather than being corrupted by it, makes it a sweeter, lovelier place simply by existing in it. Even the gruff museum guard melts when Liza and Annie stage their sword fight in the Met: “His eyes didn’t look angry. ‘Darn good fight,’ he grunted. ‘Ought to do Shakespeare in the Park, you two.’”
And how sure of each other they are! You never get the sense that the feelings are stronger on one side, or that either of them suffers under the strain of being so excessively adored by the other. So perfectly matched is their love, in fact, that they unknowingly buy each other the same Christmas gift: a gold ring with a gemstone (“pale blue” for Annie, “pale green” for Liza). Many of us might react to an unexpected ring exchange with anxiety or uncertainty—does it imply some sort of formal permanent commitment?—but not Liza and Annie:
Annie flung her arms around my neck and kissed me, even though there were four kids galloping down the snowy path from Clark Street to the Promenade, showering each other with snowballs.
“If you don’t put that ring on this minute, I’m going to take it back,” Annie whispered in my ear … She leaned back, looking at me, her hands still on my shoulders, her eyes shining softly at me and snow falling, melting, on her nose. “Buon Natale,” she whispered, “amore mio.”
“Merry Christmas, my love,” I answered.
Eventually they have sex—or, as they put it, become lovers—in a scene written in the prose equivalent of soft focus. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who studied the passage intently in the hope of understanding what, exactly, two girls do together:
I remember so much about that first time with Annie that I am numb with it, and breathless. I can feel Annie’s hands touching me again, gently, as if she were afraid I might break; I can feel her softness under my hands—I look down at my hands now and see them slightly curved, feel them become both strong and gentle as I felt them become for the first time then.
Nor, I imagine, am I the only reader who spent a lot of time experimentally curving her hands into the air, wondering what that part was for.
But I’m generalizing again. What I really mean to say, I suppose, is that the book turned me gay. If I wasn’t fully conscious of this on my first reading, or my second, or my third, or my ninth—well, at some point I had to admit to myself that straight girls probably don’t read Annie on My Mind ten times in a row. Throughout my eighth-grade year, to help me process their ongoing divorce, my parents were sending me weekly to a child psychologist on the Upper West Side; she was the first person I told. “I think,” I said, “I’m a lesbian.”
She frowned. “You’re too young to know that,” she replied. “Really, you’re too young even to be thinking about it. Keep it to yourself for now, all right? There’s no need to share this with anyone else.”
I felt foolish for having made such a major claim without proof. I decided not to tell anyone else until I found an Annie of my own—or, preferably, she found me. When that didn’t happen in the eighth grade, I waited for high school. When it didn’t happen in high school, I waited for college. And when it didn’t happen in college …
Here’s the heartbreaking paradox of Annie on My Mind: it awakens you to a very specific desire even as it forecloses you from it. If you’ve read about Liza and Annie, you can never have precisely what they have. You know too much. You can’t sit on a park bench with your pretty friend and then, innocently, without thinking, before either of you know what’s happening, just happen to find yourselves kissing each other—not when you have Liza and Annie on your mind. Their Eden is your fall.
Conflict arises in the final third of the novel when Liza and Annie are outed against their will. Scandal ensues at Liza’s school, where lesbianism is an infraction nearly on the level of unlicensed ear-piercing. Liza is made to feel ashamed of her sexuality, and for several months she refuses to speak to Annie.
This is by far the least erotic section of the novel, so I tended to skim it in my rereads. It was only while drafting this essay that I was struck by a scene in which Liza’s chemistry lab partner, “a very intense, brilliant girl named Zelda, who was going to be a doctor and who hardly ever smiled,” approaches her before class. Zelda says “in an odd, sort of choked voice, ‘If you’d like to talk about it any time, Liza, I’ll be glad to listen.” Liza tries to dodge the offer, but Zelda persists:
“Liza, may I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I said reluctantly.
“Well—I think you know me well enough to know this isn’t out of any prurient interest or anything, right?”
The icicles in my stomach got colder; I shrugged, feeling trapped.
“Well,” Zelda began, “since I’m going to be a doctor and all … I just wondered,” she said smoothly, “if you could tell me, from a scientific standpoint, of course, just what it is that two girls do in bed …”
The scene breaks there. Zelda has never heretofore appeared in the novel, and she’s never mentioned again; I had no memory of her character until this most recent reread. We’re meant to understand her as a dirty-minded homophobe, sharing with Liza’s religion teacher an inappropriate obsession with lesbian sex:
Ms. Baxter gave this incredibly lurid account of what she’d seen. It was awful. It made us sound like monsters, not like two people in love … It was as if everyone were assuming that love had nothing to do with any of this, that it was just “an indulgence of carnal appetites”—I think Ms. Baxter actually used those words … I wanted to stand up and shout … We love each other!
Ms. Baxter is a noxious bigot, of course, and Zelda is tactless. I can’t help thinking, though, that as a vindication against sexual shame, Annie on My Mind sets the bar rather high. What if Liza and Annie weren’t in love? What if, as Liza’s mother assumes, they really were just “experimenting”? What if you don’t have an Annie in your life but still desire, as Zelda does, to know what two girls do in bed?
I did eventually figure that one out. (Pro tip: dating women turns out to be much easier if you tell them you’re interested.) Of the women I’ve gone out with, most were nice enough, some were deeply disagreeable, and a few became lifelong friends—but none ended up being my Annie. When I finally fell in love, it was with a man; we’re happily married now, so the entirety of my lesbian experience could conceivably be rounded down to “an indulgence of carnal appetites.”
I don’t really think that way, or at least I try not to. But I still feel a certain ache when I think of Annie on My Mind and the purity of its romance. Sometimes I feel less like Liza than like Zelda—that unwelcome interloper in someone else’s story, with not Annie but sex on her mind.
Liza ultimately reconciles with Annie (who has no hard feelings, apparently, about being ghosted for months), and the novel ends with the implication that our heroines will be together forevermore. I’ve always struggled to suspend my disbelief for this happily-ever-after, so I was surprised to learn recently that it’s autobiographical. The 2007 reissue of the novel includes an interview with the author in which she recounts falling in love with her best friend, Sandy, in the fifties. “From high school on,” Garden says, “Sandy was the most important person in the world to me and the person I wanted to be with forever … And in 2004, because we live in Massachusetts, we were able to get legally married—after thirty-five years of living together.” They were still married at the time of Garden’s death in 2014. Serves me right: I never imagined that the true story could be more romantic than the novel.
That interview also solves another mystery, one I’d never considered before: Annie on My Mind was published in 1982, so what was it doing at Barnes & Noble in the year 2000? At the time I didn’t question what felt like fate, but it turns out the novel wasn’t just hiding in plain sight for eighteen years. In 1993 it made national news when a Kansas City school district not only banned it from libraries, but held an actual public book burning to destroy all donated copies. It wasn’t until 1999 that the book was returned to the libraries on the order of a federal judge.
I had no idea, when I first picked up that salmon-pink paperback, that I was touching such an inflammatory object. But I don’t think I’d have been shocked to learn that some adults feared it enough to burn it. That fear, that fire, was in the air in the summer of 2000—acrid enough that an eighth grader could sense it. It’s still in the air today. Fortunately, though, Garden’s Eden is always open to visitors: even after all these decades, Annie on My Mind has never gone out of print.
Annie on My Mind begins with a dedication: “For all of us.” I don’t know if Garden meant to include me in that category, but I believe her book really is for all of us—the lovestruck Lizas, the curious Zeldas, even the ones who haven’t thought about it yet. This Pride Month, I toast you all. Here’s to finding, if not your Annie, then at least a good book. Or, better yet, to the book finding you.
Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.