Interview: Children’s-YA Author Nancy Garden

Nancy Garden

Nancy Garden is a well-known author of books for children and teenagers. Her titles include award-winners like ANNIE ON MY MIND (Sagebush, 1999)(rebinding) and GOOD MOON RISING (FSG, 1996).

More recent titles are THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS (FSG, 1999) and HOLLY’S SECRET (FSG, 2000), a Lambda Book Award finalist for 2000 in the Children’s/YA category. She also is the author of numerous other works, including DOVE AND SWORD: A NOVEL OF JOAN OF ARC (FSG, 1995), the MONSTER HUNTERS series, and a few additional horror books such as PRISONER OF VAMPIRES (FSG, 1985).

Garden was also the recipient of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award for the year 2000 in recognition of her efforts speaking out on “how to quietly, strongly, and successfully defend intellectual freedom on behalf of young readers.” This interview was conducted via email in June 2001.

Tell us a bit about your writing background. How did you get started writing for children? What were your earliest influences?

I come from a family of book lovers, especially on my mother’s side. I was read to as a child, and my favorite Christmas and birthday presents were always books — well, maybe except for the Christmas I got my first puppy!

My favorite books as a child included A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, Beatrix Potter’s books, Robert Lawson’s RABBIT HILL, Kipling’s Jungle books, Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle books, Louisa May Alcott’s books — my favorites were LITTLE MEN and JACK AND JILL — and many, many others.

When I was around 8, I started writing for my own pleasure outside of school, and I never stopped, no matter what else I did or what else I was interested in. When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian, and when I was older I wanted to be in theater (and was for awhile), but I continued to write. I think I’m one of those people who has to write.

Why did you elect to write for children and teens?

Because I like children and teens so much and feel they’re important, special people. There’s something very exciting about a person who’s in the process of becoming, of forming his or her identity. I think another reason is simply my love of children’s books — and YA books, although there were no YAs as such when I was growing up. Some of the best, most exciting, and most innovative writing, I think, has always been in the children’s/YA field.

What encouragement helped you along the way?

My parents were always very supportive of whatever I did, and of course that helped enormously. English teachers kept telling me I was a good writer; I had an English teacher in junior high who said she thought I might become a writer, and a high school English teacher who tried to convince me to become a writer instead of an actress and all around theater person, which I was then in the process of becoming. When she saw me in a community theater play, she begrudgingly said she guessed it would be okay if I went into theater — but she turned out to be right after all about my becoming a writer!

Did you face any early challenges to finding success on this path?

The usual ones: rejection slips, periods of wondering if anyone would ever buy my work — or, later, in a couple of bleak periods, if anyone would buy my work again.

What draws you to write stories connected to gay and lesbian themes? Why do you feel such stories are important to young readers?

When I was growing up as a young lesbian in the 50s, I looked in vain for books about my people. There were none for kids, and the few I knew about for adults were always out of the library, which I later realized was probably a subtle (maybe backhanded would be a better word!) form of censorship.

I did find some paperbacks with lurid covers in the local bus station, but they ended with the gay character’s committing suicide, dying in a car crash, being sent to a mental hospital, or “turning” heterosexual.

Eventually I did find Radclyffe Hall’s THE WELL OF LONELINESS, written in England in the 1920s, and tried for obscenity there and in the US; as a result it was banned in England for years, but not here. It’s melodramatic and somewhat overwritten and it ends sadly — but it does have a healthy, honorable lesbian (or perhaps transgendered) main character and it shows that gay people are more sinned against than sinning. It does end sadly, but with an impassioned cry for justice and understanding.

I read that book many times as a teenager, and I vowed that someday I’d write a book for my people that would end happily.

Why do I feel such stories are important to young readers? I think kids in every minority need to see people like themselves in books; that’s an acknowledgment of their existence on this planet and in this society.

Minority kids often feel invisible in the world, GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) kids perhaps most of all, even though that, thank goodness, is changing. And straight kids need to see that GLBT people aren’t monsters and that we share many feelings and experiences with them despite our difference.

Likewise, what appeals to you about horror novels? Mystery novels?

I fell into the horror genre by accident toward the beginning of my career. A few years after I’d become intrigued with Bran Stoker’s DRACULA in both play and novel form, and had seen the movie THE WOLF MAN, a good friend who was at that time working as an editor in New York said she was starting a nonfiction line of kids’ books called THE WEIRD AND HORRIBLE LIBRARY. I said, “Why don’t you do a book on vampires and werewolves?” and she said “Why don’t you?” I kind of gulped and agreed — and I found so much information on both subjects I had to make it two books. One subject led to another as research often does, and I also wrote WITCHES and DEVILS AND DEMONS.

After a few years, I decided to try to write fiction using the reams of notes I still had, so I wrote PRISONER OF VAMPIRES, which turned out to be a mystery as did the other “horror” novels that followed.

Kids are fascinated by the supernatural, and I think it’s an intriguing form of fantasy. I know these creatures don’t really exist — but somehow they almost could. Historically, in many cases people invented them as explanations for phenomena they couldn’t understand. It fascinates me that people wanted answers so much that they made up explanations in the days when science was almost nonexistent!

As to mysteries — although I’m not a big mystery reader, I think they’re great fun to write. It’s fun to make up puzzles and their solutions.

How did you go about researching DOVE AND SWORD: A NOVEL OF JOAN OF ARC? What about her story especially interested you?

I’m going to answer the second part of your question first. When I first heard about Joan of Arc as a child, I was fascinated with the idea that a teenaged girl had actually led an army!

I grew up during World War II, and was pretty militaristic as a child (although I’m pretty much of a pacifist now), and I guess that had something to do with my admiration of Joan.

Then, when I was in college at Columbia School of Dramatic Arts in New York, the great Irish actress Siobhan McKenna appeared on Broadway in Shaw’s wonderful play, SAINT JOAN. A friend of mine somehow got to sit backstage during several performances, and she wanted very much to play Joan; she did a scene or two from Shaw’s play for one of our acting classes, and asked me to direct her. I did (in exchange for fencing lessons; my friend was Connecticut State Women’s Fencing Champion). At some point I also saw McKenna’s Joan, although I saw it in Boston, not New York — and I still remember one or two moments from it vividly.

Years later, when I began thinking about writing a historical novel, I remembered all this and wondered if Joan’s life would be a good subject.

When I started reading about her life, I became hooked; everything about her and her story fascinated me, as did the mystery of what she was really like and what she looked like — for no one really knows those things for sure. What to do about her voices — the voices of saints whom she said asked her to make sure the Dauphin (prince) became king and who directed her on her military campaigns — worried me. I was afraid that if I made Joan the main character of the novel, I’d have to decide, at least for myself, if the voices were real or the products of mental illness or of Joan’s imagination. Modern science would probably say the voices were hallucinations, and I didn’t want to imply that, so I decided to tell the story through the eyes of a fictional character, a girl in Joan’s village, who would, like many of her contemporaries, believe the voices were real. (Hearing the voices of religious figures wasn’t considered as odd in Joan’s era as it would be today.)

Researching this book was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had professionally. When you write a historical novel, you have to learn everything about the period in which your story is set: food, clothes, religion, architecture, morals, medicine, child rearing, education, agriculture, politics, warfare — you name it.

My partner, who used to teach history and is a real history buff, helped, especially with the political details. We went to New York and spent hours in the Metropolitan Museum’s Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library sketching and making notes about people’s clothes — peasant clothes, armor, clothes of the nobility. We went to an armor museum in Worcester, Massachusetts — the wonderful armor section at the Met in New York (which I’d also used in ANNIE ON MY MIND) was closed for renovations. And I spent hours in the Boston Public Library’s Joan of Arc Collection — a Massachusetts bishop (later cardinal), John Wright, had revered Joan since he was a boy and had collected books, maps, and memorabilia about her all his life; his entire collection eventually ended up at the Boston Public Library. I also bought and borrowed tons of books about the period and about Joan, photocopied pictures, and took notes on literally hundreds of index cards. I transferred notes about Joan’s life and battles to sheets of paper, for my partner and I were going to France to follow Joan’s route and I wanted to have information about her life and her military campaigns at my fingertips while we were there.

I also decided to make a calendar of the real events in Joan’s life and the fictional events that would be in the book, but I was frustrated to discover that my sources differed when it came to dates. One source, for example, might say a certain battle took place on May 8, and another would say it was on May 9 or 10. Then I realized that the calendar used in Joan’s time was different from ours, so I had to decide which set of dates to use. I made an itinerary, too, for Joan and for Gabrielle, the main character, so I’d know where they both were at all times.

In France, my partner and I followed Joan’s route, and Gabrielle’s when it differed from Joan’s, and visited museums, churches, libraries, and battlefields that had to do with her life. Later, after we got back from France and I was actively writing the book, I sketched ground plans of battlefields on plywood and moved different colored push pins around on them so I could keep track of the action. I had so much fun researching the book that I almost had to force myself to stop so I could actually write it!

Your breakthrough young adult novel, ANNIE ON MY MIND, has been challenged in schools and libraries. This spring when you spoke at the Texas Library Association convention, you mentioned the importance of engaging people who would ban books in proactive conversation. Would you care to expand on this thought for those who weren’t there?

Sure. Although attempts at censorship may be power plays when initiated by political leaders, many of the ordinary people who try to ban books do so out of sincere religious or moral conviction — for example, most of the attempts to ban the Harry Potter books are the result of a sincere belief that sorcery is truly evil and that reading about wizards is genuinely harmful to children.

In the same way, many attempts at banning books that are about homosexual characters and issues are also motivated by sincere beliefs that such books are harmful — that they will encourage young people to “become” homosexual, and that homosexuality itself is evil, dangerous, sick, etc.

Nothing is served, I think, by demeaning those who truly believe that books should be banned, or by arguing against them in a hotheaded way.

Conversely, everything is served by reasonable dialogue when that’s possible, and by making the point that although parents have every right to control what their own children read, they have no right to control what other people’s children read.

Everything is also served, I think, by pointing out the importance of the First Amendment and the danger of eroding it. In a society without the protection the First Amendment gives us, sure, you’d be able to ban books that I like but you don’t — but there’d be nothing to stop me from turning around and banning the ones you like. It’s important to remember that, and also that one of the first steps toward Nazi control of Germany was book burning.

In the case of people who would ban books with homosexual content, I think it’s also important whenever possible to try to inform those people of what homosexuality really is and isn’t, and of the fact that one doesn’t “become” homosexual because of reading a book. After all, gay kids read books about straight people all the time and they don’t “become” straight as a result!

Could you tell us about the connection, if any, between efforts to ban ANNIE in Olathe, Kansas, and your novel, THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS?

There is a connection, but it’s perhaps a little more tenuous than it seems.

The problem of censorship engaged me long before ANNIE got into trouble, partly just in general, and partly because a YA book, NO PLACE TO RUN, by an acquaintance of mine, Barbara Beasley Murphy, was challenged in Alabama; Barbara courageously traveled there to support her book and, as far as I know, was the first children’s or YA author to do that. I admired her greatly for it and still do. I tried running a couple of workshops on censorship for a writers’ organization to which I belong and was disturbed by the fact that only a few people signed up for it. And another book of mine, WITCHES, was challenged before ANNIE (although I didn’t know about it till later); in fact it was also actually removed from a Texas junior high school only a couple of years ago.

During the ANNIE case, I collected tons of material — press clippings, legal documents, etc. — and during the trial, I took extensive notes. In the back of my mind was the idea that I might write a book — nonfiction — about the experience one day. But when it was over, although I did write an article or two and I’m still happy to talk about it, I found I didn’t have the energy to relive it to the extent that would be required for writing a book.

But I did want to use what I’d learned in any way possible, and that, plus my concern about battles over sex education in various parts of the country and the presence of stealth candidates on school boards led to BURNED BOOKS.

How can those of us in the children’s literature community combat efforts to ban books like ANNIE?

By reacting actively whenever such attempts occur. Support the librarians and teachers who are on the front lines of such cases. Write letters to the editor; go to school board meetings; speak out in public about the importance of the First Amendment. Argue reasonably with those who would ban books — but know that there are some people whom you’ll never convince; listen to their views politely and calmly and tell them yours, equally politely and calmly. If you’re a librarian, if you’re in a position to do it, offer to provide a book in the library to counter the views in the book you’re protecting. (Remember that the First Amendment protects — and must protect— ALL views, not just those with which you agree.)

If you’re a teacher, school administrator, or school board member, perhaps consider allowing individual kids to opt out of reading books to which their parents object — remember, parents do have the right to control their own children’s reading — but still firmly support the books you’ve chosen as educationally worthwhile and strive to keep them in the curriculum.

If you’re a publisher, avoid rejecting a manuscript solely because it might be challenged; if you’re a writer, try not to censor yourself solely because someone else might try to.

These are hard issues, and my answers will probably seem simplistic to some people. There is no easy overall solution; each censorship case has to be handled individually. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and People for the American Way all stand ready and willing to help with censorship battles. Step One is to contact them if you have a book in trouble!

For those who are unfamiliar with such dynamics, why is this so important?

I think it’s important because, as I implied above, one of the first steps to dictatorship is thought control, and one of the first steps to thought control is censorship. One of the greatest strengths of this country is our freedom to express our individual ideas and to be exposed to those of others so we can make up our own minds what we think about all issues.

Without that, we’d be in danger of following charismatic, persuasive leaders blindly and letting other people do our thinking for us.

I just finished HOLLY’S SECRET, which is about a young girl who moves to a new town and doesn’t want her new friends to find out that she has two moms. In closing the book, I imagined how validating a read it might be to a child who, like Holly, has two moms (or two dads, for that matter). I wonder if you could share some of the feedback you’ve received from young readers over the years—not just related to how your work touches on gay and lesbian themes but also more broadly?

I haven’t received any mail about HOLLY yet, but I still get lovely, moving letters about ANNIE, from both straight and gay readers, both adult and young adult. Some of the straight ones say that to them ANNIE is one of the best love stories they’ve ever read, which is very gratifying to me! And many of the gay ones—even now, when more and more books with gay themes are being published—say they’ve never read a gay book before and are excited to have found one that reflects their lives and experiences. They feel it validates them, lets them know there are others like themselves, and that they can lead “normal” lives. Similar letters come from readers of GOOD MOON RISING.

The most moving ones are those who tell me ANNIE or GOOD MOON has helped them feel better about themselves and has given them hope that they’ll find a love one day, as Liza does in ANNIE, and as Jan does in GOOD MOON.

One teacher wrote me that he was sure ANNIE had kept one of his students from suicide—that’s perhaps the most moving comment of all.

I’ve gotten a lot of letters from younger kids about my monster books saying things like “This is the best book I’ve ever read!” and asking questions about monsters—and pointing out mistakes, too. Kids have very sharp eyes and are quick to find flaws and things that don’t quite make sense. That’s one of the many reasons why I love writing for them!

My serial novel, THE SECRET OF SMITH’S HILL, brought in quite a bit of mail — including some very polite, well-thought-out letters from a sixth grade class pointing out that the ending wasn’t exciting enough. That got me thinking about the unique structure of serial novels in general, and has led me to think very carefully about the final chapter of my next one!

Many of the letters I get about both my serious and not-so-serious fiction ask questions about writing and about becoming a writer. And of course they ask personal questions as well.

How would you describe the current status of gay and lesbian related children’s and young adult literature? What are the bright spots? What makes you crazy about the whole thing? What might be slowing down progress?

The biggest bright spot is that there’s been a slow but steady stream of kids’ books dealing with homosexuality for the last 20 years or so. For a number of years, I’ve been keeping a list of gay YA fiction, starting in 1969 with the late John Donovan’s I’LL GET THERE, I BETTER BE WORTH THE TRIP, the first kids’ book with homosexual content; the list includes more than 100 titles (a few are anthologies in which there’s a single gay story). There’s been a steady stream of nonfiction, too, especially in the last few years.

Frances Ann Day has written a wonderful book—an annotated bibliography published by Greenwood called GAY AND LESBIAN VOICES—that includes fiction and nonfiction at all levels from picture book age through YA, plus a section of authors’ biographies. (I suppose I should confess that I had the honor of writing the foreword.) The mere fact that such a book has been published is a sign that gay literature for kids has become a bone fide genre.

In the early years, very few gay YA novels had gay or lesbian protagonists; the gay character was usually the (straight) protagonist’s best friend, parent (only one parent), or other relative. That, I’m glad to say, is changing, and I hope it continues to do so. I also think we need books with GLBT protagonists in which the main issue in the book isn’t sexual orientation. After all, in many YAs, love and sexuality are present, but more as background than as the focus of the story. I tried to address that need in my novel LARK IN THE MORNING, which has a lesbian protagonist, but the focus of the story is her helping two young (straight) runaways, one of whom is suicidal. But straight reviewers tended to ask “Why does she have to be gay?” and gay ones seemed to want the book to be a coming-out story. Consequently, LARK hasn’t done very well.

Picture books have led the way in books for kids with gay or lesbian parents; there’s a shortage of them for older kids. There’s a growing need for recognition, too, that gay kids are recognizing their homosexuality at increasingly younger ages; it’s perhaps time for some young YA or old middle grade books with protagonists who are questioning or discovering their sexual orientation.

I’m not sure if progress is slowing down or not. In 1999, I counted 12 YA novels, the most published in any year since 1980 (and probably the most in any year since gay YA fiction began). Most years in that time period saw between 1 and 5 new titles. I’m not up on the latest figures—I’ve been a bit lax with my list lately, I’m afraid—but they’re certainly still coming!

The annual Lambda Book Awards, which include a Children’s/YA category, certainly helps, as does recognition of the genre by such professional magazines as Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, VOYA, and Horn Book.

Gay characters—secondary and minor—are appearing more and more frequently in books for adults as well as for kids, and that’s a very good sign, I think, in that it reflects the fact that gay people are part of society. (Well — it’s also trendy, I guess, to include a gay character!) But adult books that focus on the GLBT experience seem to be going out of style a bit, where there isn’t as much of a crossover—e.g., straight—audience as there perhaps is in kids’ books.

How have you seen your writing evolve over the years?

Wow, that’s a tough one! I think—I hope!—I’m less prone to what I used to call “soapboxing” than I was when I started out. In my first attempts at writing a gay book, I tended to get up on my soapbox and preach instead of telling a story. I think I’m better now at curbing my soapboxing, although reviewers of my gay books sometimes speak of my “agenda” in a somewhat disparaging way.

I’m better at cutting than I was when I began writing professionally; my stint working for Scholastic Magazines helped with that enormously. I learned there, when I often had to write to a character and line count as well as a word count, that there are many ways of saying the same thing, some of them shorter than others!

I had trouble plotting when I started out as a writer; in fact, I wrote my fantasy novel FOURS CROSSING as a plot exercise. I don’t find that especially difficult now.

I’m no longer as drawn to nonfiction as I used to be, and recently I’ve been doing some writing for kids younger than YA. YA’s my first love, though; I suspect I’ll always write YAs.

What new directions are interesting to you?

I’d like to do more historical fiction—in fact, I’m working on something historical right now, a serial novel (that’s a book that appears in installments in newspapers nationwide) that I hope I’ll be able to expand into a “real” book. And I have an idea for a “regular” historical novel that I’d like to pursue one day in the not-too-distant future. For a long time I’ve been mulling over a new fantasy, also; it seems to be evolving into a book set in the future, and I’m not sure if it’ll remain a fantasy, technically. I don’t think it’s sci-fi either; I’m not sure what it’ll turn out to be. I’d like to experiment more with form, too; I’m fascinated with some of the innovations in form and style in some current YAs.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read, read, and read! Read everything and anything; read the kinds of things you’d like to write, sure, but read other things as well.

And write, write, write! Write what you enjoy writing, but write other things, too: poetry, stories, essays, plays, journals; how-to articles, travelogues, history; do journalism if you can. Write about what moves you, what makes you angry, what makes you laugh. Carry a notebook and jot down ideas as they come to you—but don’t rely on inspiration; make yourself write every day. Self-discipline is vital to writers; I’ve seen many a good writer fizzle because he or she hasn’t carved out time to write (it’s hard to do, but essential).

Beginning writers who are trying to sell often ask if they should try to tailor their work to what market listings and surveys say publishers want, or if they should write what they themselves want and then try to find publishers that fit.

My feeling is that it’s better to write what you want and then try to find a market for it, for I think the resulting work is likely to be better and more honest—and more satisfying to the author, too. But I have to admit that some writers have a lot of success with the opposite approach, so you should probably try both approaches and see which works for you.

Do you have any particular suggestions for 2SLGBTQIAP+ writers?

Oh, yes! First, remember that writing is a form of coming out; make sure you’re ready to do that if you’re going to try to be published. Try not to soapbox; write stories, not sermons. Don’t try to pack every kind of injustice and every gay issue into a single novel or story; focus on the plot and the characters and the theme; and concentrate on one issue or idea and matters related to it. Decide on your audience: gay, straight, or both?

Write honestly from your heart—that most of all.

Where do you turn for instruction and inspiration?

Virginia Woolf, certainly, but I find that reading any well-written work of fiction makes me want to write, teaches me, and gets my creative juices flowing. Walking in the woods and sitting by the sea often restore me; ideas, sentences, characters often come to me in quiet moments. I used to run, and found that running was a good time for me to work out specific literary problems; walking does that, too.

I’m lucky in that I get ideas easily, more than I can use, and I don’t seem to have writers’ block, although there are times when I find it easier to write than others. But my magazine training taught me that it’s possible (necessary!) to write something even if one doesn’t feel like it and even if the writing isn’t going well. One can always rewrite later, after all (and one usually should anyway!).

What are your favorite books as a reader today? What qualities in them appeal to you?

Like most people, I like a well-written novel that tells a good story and is peopled with engaging characters. When I find an author I like, I try to read a lot of what he or she has written. I love reading YAs, naturally, and, as I think I said above, I think some of the most exciting writing being done nowadays is in the YA (and children’s) field. I only occasionally read current best sellers, and the only mysteries I like are those that are more like regular novels than mysteries.

I don’t much like sci-fi or horror (despite my vampire books!), and I like historical novels about eras and people that interest me, although that’s a fairly recently acquired taste.

I don’t read many short stories. I read nonfiction for research purposes and to learn about things I need or want to know. For example, when my partner and I were building our log cabin in Maine, we read tons of carpentry books. (No, we didn’t build the whole thing, but we did do most of the finish work inside.) In fact, the first thing I do when I want to learn something is read a book about it.

What do you do outside your writing life?

I wish I had more time for many activities that I enjoy, but every year I seem to have less and less! I do grow vegetables and flowers; that’s a hobby that I’ve stuck with for many years. I used to weave, and I’d love to go back to that, but right now I don’t seem to have time.

I enjoy walking and hiking — most of my walking these days is with our dog, Pippin, but I’d like to do more walking on my own for exercise; I do at least do stretching exercises and lift weights. Day-to-day cooking kind of bores me, but I enjoy special cooking and making up recipes. I used to be fairly active on various committees and on the newspaper in my small town; right now my community service is pretty much limited to Prism, a support group affiliated with our local high school’s gay-straight alliance. Off and on, I get involved in gay issues and try to brush off my activist hat. But time, time, time — won’t someone please invent a 48-hour day?

What’s up next for your fans?

Let’s see. I have a picture book, MOLLY’S FAMILY, and a middle grade or young YA novel, THE MELANEY SUMMER, coming out within the next year or two, from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, plus a story in a new collection from Knopf.

In the works are a middle grade mystery series called the Candlestone Inn Mysteries, from Two Lives Press; an adult novel whose contract is in negotiation; the new serial novel I mentioned, and a new YA.