The first lesbian book I ever read was Nancy Garden's unparalleled Annie On My Mind and it was like seeing sunlight after days of gray. Fellow Chicagoans will know this feeling, we who spend months in a kind of illuminated grayscale: it's never quite dismal enough to make you miserable, but certainly not bright enough to warrant joy. I was fourteen and it was the summer before high school and our library was under construction. They'd moved the collection in its entirety to a former grocery store, and it was there, beneath buzzing, flickering lights, sat cross-legged on ripped linoleum in a too-narrow aisle, propping the book up on a spare shelf, that I read it. It was the only book in the world, at least to my knowledge from the limited scope of our card catalog, that featured a pair of young girls who were in love with each other.
(Incidentally, I miss card catalogs. Ours was already obsolete by this point, but they waited until we were in the new building to launch the digital catalog. I miss crouching around the cabinet to find the right drawer and carefully sliding out the drawer. I miss the cards, notched on the bottom, dog-eared on the top. There's something wonderfully personal about card catalogs that digital ones, for all that they bring the world to us, simply can't replicate. When I pulled out the card for Annie On My Mind, I didn't even have to check the slip at the back to know that someone else had read it, that there was someone else like me in my little town. I could tell from the way the edge of the card was gently rounded that there had been other hands like mine flipping furtively through the cards, rushing through the stacks and wondering if they might be seen.)
It's easy to see books like this through a nostalgic lens - to remember the story for how it made you feel rather than for how well it was told. I remember exactly how it felt to read Annie On My Mind: it felt like utter relief. Here were two girls, one who was just like me, one less so, who managed to meet against all odds, and fall in love. Of course, I didn't know then that a dozen years later, against all odds I'd meet a girl an ocean away, and fall in love. At fourteen Annie On My Mind was a romance I could get behind, a story in which I could so very easily, so very desperately, picture myself.
In short, Annie On My Mind is the story of a smart, studious, rule-abiding private school girl who falls in love with a girl named Annie whom she meets quite by chance. Their unexpected friendship turns sweetly into love, until a hefty dose of reality - Annie and Liza would be well into middle-aged by the time New York celebrated equal marriage - threatens their relationship. And yet, there's a hopeful ending - not quite a happy one, but a hopeful one, and when I was a teenager, sometimes I liked those best.
The novel also addresses homophobia and denial of civil rights, in a gentle but no less effective way. Annie and Liza house-sit for two of Liza's teachers, whom they quickly discover are not actually roommates at all, but partners carving out a private life together by living a life of public spinsterhood. I'm certain you can guess how the story unfolds.
Independent of my own, emotional attachment to the novel, I think Annie On My Mind is a beautiful book, one which deserves rereading in adulthood. Perhaps it's because so many of the girls my age or older who read it as teenagers had the same reaction as I did - you only need to browse the reviews at Goodreads to see that. I think the story holds up, wears its age well. In a way it's a kind of urban fantasy: you have to accept that there is a seventeen-year-old girl who dances around New York City imagining all sorts of things. But when I was fourteen, I didn't just accept that, I celebrated it. By the time I closed the cover of Annie On My Mind, I was fairly convinced that I was Liza, and I hoped against hope that somewhere in the world, a whimsical Annie was waiting for me.
Annie On My Mind was black-and-white proof that there were not only girls like me, but that there were girls like me who fell in love, who fell in love and went off to college and did everything else that their straight peers did. And yet, for a girl in an affluent area with a spectacular library collection, it was the only such book I could find. It was the memory of this loneliness that inspired Iris's founding. We wanted LGBTQ+ youth to always be able to find writing in which they found resonance. For many LGBTQ+ young adults, the lack of representation of characters like them leads to hopelessness, to a persistent, insidious belief that the kind of happy endings that exist in heteronormative romances just don't exist for people who aren't straight. It's simply not true. I know that now, but I didn't then.
Tonight as I write this, I'm twice the age I was when I first read Annie On My Mind. My byline is a name that was not always mine but which first belonged to the woman I love. There is a diamond ring on my finger, a gift on a day of brilliant sunshine from the whimsical girl who is more than I ever dreamed and all I could ever want.
I first wrote about this book - briefly - as part of our Queer Reading Challenge on Tumblr.