Tag Archives: Am I Blue?

Writing beyond the Pale

I knew “beyond the pale” was the phrase I wanted to use, but I had to check to be certain of its literal meaning. Pale, I discovered, means fence or barrier. The idiom is defined at Dictionary.com as “beyond the limits of propriety, courtesy, protection, safety, etc.” All of which fits what I intend to say.

7_1nancyAnd here is the phrase in context: Nancy Garden, who died suddenly and unexpectedly on June 23rd, is a writer who wrote beyond the pale. Beyond propriety? Depends on how you view her work, of course. Certainly beyond her own personal safety as a writer for young people.

Nancy was the author of many wide-ranging and important works, but she was best known for Annie on My Mind, a novel portraying, with respect and hope, a budding lesbian romance between two mature teens. Annie was published in 1982 to acclaim and criticism. In 1993, this book now on School Library Journal’s list of the 100 most influential books of the twentieth century, was burned in Kansas City, sending Nancy on a long path of speaking in defense of our First Amendment.

Annie on My Mind has also, I can guarantee, saved lives.

Here is part of the first review I encountered on GoodReads:

Just try to understand being 14 and every book you read involves a romance between a man and a woman. Every movie, every TV show, everyone I know is straight, nobody knows I’m gay, I barely understand it myself, and I pick up this book and suddenly it’s like I can breathe.

In 1982 it took courage to write a book like Annie, especially for someone like Nancy whose career—and income—were entirely based on being a known children’s writer. “Beyond the limits of . . . safety” defines what Nancy did very aptly.

Today there are many fine books with gay and lesbian and transgender characters. Books and films and television shows even include such characters without having to make their sexuality a problem, which is the real marker of social progress as reflected by the arts. But Nancy dared, when it truly was a dare, to speak to the young women coming behind her who found themselves loving outside their own and society’s expectations. And in doing so, of course, she exposed her own love, her own life.

7_1blueIn 1994, Nancy graciously contributed a short story, “Parents’ Night,” to a collection I edited, Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence. I couldn’t have imagined a gathering of original gay- and lesbian-themed short stories by outstanding young-adult authors without Nancy’s being part of the mix, and I am still grateful that she responded to my request.

My heart goes out to Nancy’s partner of 45 years, Sandy, and to the readers—all of us—who will miss the work that died so prematurely with this talented, prolific, brave woman. We are all a bit more whole because Nancy Garden lived.

I’ll conclude with a line from Annie on My Mind quoted in Lambda Literary: “Don’t punish yourselves for people’s ignorant reactions to what we all are. Don’t let ignorance win. Let love.”

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The Descending Side of the Bell Curve

Bell_shaped_curveSome thirty years ago I read an article which stated with firm conviction that the peak of short story writers’ careers comes in their thirties, the peak of novelists’ careers in their forties. Since I was past forty and just getting launched—I was 38 when my first novel for young people was published—I was appalled. Until that moment I had always envisioned my career as an ever-ascending line, not the bell curve they described in the article. After all, I would certainly gain in proficiency and knowledge as I moved through my life; why shouldn’t my writing improve endlessly?

And yet in recent years I have come to realize that my career is, in fact, taking the shape of a bell curve. And there is no question, I am on the descending side.

The descent has to do with freshness. No one can do something every day for half a century and still come at it entirely fresh.

It has to do with having a less intense connection to the world around me. What was so urgently important in my early years of writing, what is still urgently important to my readers, has, shall we say, mellowed for me.

It has to do with bringing a different kind of energy to my work. Instead of stepping off into the unknown as I did in my early work, I am arranging and rearranging the familiar to find new shapes.

Does it mean my later work is inferior? I hope not. Does it mean there is no longer a place for me out there in the world of publishing? I certainly hope not on that one, too. What it does mean, for certain—and this is something Norma Fox Mazer and I used to say to one another from time to time, wryly—is that I’m no longer the flavor of the month. Another book from Marion Dane Bauer is simply another book from Marion Dane Bauer. Nice, but no one gets very excited . . . including, I must admit, me. And it means that while I believe my work grows in richness as my life gathers riches and it grows in competence as my technique becomes more effortless, nothing I write will ever be “cutting edge” again.

I was cutting edge once, in a small way. I embarked on a career as a middle-grade novelist—my novels about eleven to thirteen-year-olds were considered “young adult” then—at the beginning of what was being called “the new realism” in children’s literature. Because I came to my writing with a passion for truth telling, I broke through some barriers. In 1977 my novel Foster Child dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus, pretty heavy stuff. In 1994 I was the editor for and a contributor to Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, a book of short stories for young people based on GLBT themes. (Or it was just GL then. BT were not yet in most people’s consciousness.)

Today I am no longer breaking barriers, except, perhaps, some of my own and that rather quietly. For instance, writing a novel in verse broke an internal barrier for me, but it was only another of a long list of verse novels out there in the world. Writing my first animal story did, too, though nothing of what I was doing was unique. There is certainly no reason for me to bea smile and a nod to dear Norma here—the flavor of the month.

I admire the young writers coming behind me enormously, their energy, the freshness of their vision, their determination to change the world with their words. And oh, how beautifully those gifts are used. Long, long novels! Stories that probe worlds I can’t even dream. Picture books so fresh and innovative they take my breath away.

In the meantime, I plod on in the old ways. Some of them new for me. But I doubt anything is going to come out of me that the world hasn’t already seen and heard, much of it already from me.

I’m clearly on the descending side of the bell curve. And what’s amazing to me now is that I can realize that’s true and be content. The concept, when I first encountered it, infuriated me. No longer. I just keep on doing what I do, grateful both for the career I still have and for all the fine writers coming up behind me. 

I hope, for every one of you, that your writing gives you as much joy as mine has given me.

 

The Gift of Truth

9_3liesMy mother lied to me when I was a child.

Now, I don’t want to be hard on her. After all, I grew up at a time when lying to children was routine. Any topic that embarrassed adults was deemed inappropriate for kids—sex, bodily functions, adult foibles of all kinds, finances, birth, death . . . sex.

My mother, however, was probably better at lying than most. She not only lied with her silence on all those terrible topics. When asked a direct question she lied to my face.

An example: Not a word was spoken in front of us kids about my aunt Carol’s divorce. When it occurred to me one day to ask, “Didn’t there used to be an Uncle Kenny?” my mother said simply, flatly, “No.” And I was left to struggle with my memories of the man who had fathered my little cousin.

The result? Years later when I began writing novels for young people, I had one overarching goal. To be a truth teller. No matter what topic I took on, I wrote it straight. For instance, in 1977 I published a novel for middle graders that dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus. You’d better believe I had a reputation in my field, and I was proud of it.

I was not my mother. I could be counted on never to lie to my readers, either by my silence or by my words.

Life never happens in a straight line, though. About fifteen years into my career, a change came along, a deep one. I left my marriage of 28 years and formed a relationship with a woman. I was entirely open about who I’d discovered myself to be. I was open with my young-adult children, with my elderly mother, with my husband’s congregation as I left the marriage (he was a pastor), with my writing students, with my friends. Some accepted this new knowledge of me, some turned away, but being open was the only way I knew to live, so I hid nothing, except . . .

Have I mentioned that I am a children’s writer?

Have I mentioned that this all happened twenty five years ago?

Have I mentioned that a librarian in California said to me one day, speaking of a well-known picture-book writer, “We know he died of AIDS, but we don’t say it, because his books would stop selling instantly.”

Have I mentioned that publishing and speaking with a bit of teaching on the side is my only source of income?

Have I mentioned that I like to eat?

bk_honorJust as I was turning this corner in my life, my career was blossoming. My novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor Award. I was traveling all over the country, speaking to young people and to adults. I was still writing about hard topics, topics I cared about passionately. I was still a truth teller, except for this one small matter of who I was . . . and . . . well, I had to survive, didn’t I?

Then one day the inevitable happened. I looked at myself and asked, What kind of a truth-teller are you? You live in a world where young people are dying—literally killing themselves—for lack of support and information about their sexuality. They are dying because no one is willing to tell them that they can be who they are and still live a happy, productive life.

You, I reminded myself, are in a unique position to reach them. And you are choosing silence.

What else could I do? I had to come out professionally, but I needed to do it quietly, because I am at my core a quiet person, and I needed to do it in a way that would be useful rather than sensational.

My first thought was to go to other gay and lesbian children’s writers—there are lots of us floating around out here—and say, “Come out with me. Let’s put together a book of our own coming-out stories so gay and lesbian kids will know we’re here.” But before I’d extended the first invitation I realized I couldn’t do that. The decision to come out is always personal, and at that time it would have been more than personal. Coming out could have been career destroying for anyone writing for young people. A person can choose that kind of risk, but no one can ask it of anyone else.

9_3amIblueAnd so I came up with a different approach. First I found a courageous editor who accepted my plan. Then I approached other writers in my field without regard to their sexuality. I chose people whose names would be noticed and whose work would be fine—I wanted librarians to feel obligated to put the book on their shelves—and asked them each to write a short story for me. My only requirement was that the story center on a gay or lesbian character. The collection came to be called Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, and it was published almost 20 years ago to more acclaim than I could have dreamed.

And that would be the end of this story except for one thing. I was working with two editors at the time. One happened to be a gay man, the other a lesbian. When they learned what I was doing, the man supported me—in fact, he contributed a story to my collection—but the woman was very concerned. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was afraid she would never be able to publish me again.

When Am I Blue? was almost completed the editor who had been my supporter asked a question: Are you going to come out in your personal essay attached to the short story you’ve contributed to the collection? I told him I was, that coming out was, for me, part of the point.

9_3QHis support vanished.

I was thrown off balance. Should I revise my essay? I still had time, but just barely. People were going to guess anyway because my name was on the collection as the editor. Was it better to leave them guessing?

Then my other editor, the one who had never wanted me to do the book, asked the same question. I gave her the same answer and held my breath, waiting for the inevitable response. What I got was silence, a long silence. Then she sighed and said something I’ve never forgotten. “Well,” she said, “maybe for every door that’s closed another will be opened.”

That, I said to myself, sounds exactly right, and I let my essay stand.

In case you haven’t guessed, I am still eating.

I’m proud that Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence has played its small part in the revolution we’ve all witnessed these past 20 years. I’m grateful for the letters I’ve received telling me how those stories changed lives, even saved lives. And I’m delighted to say that last year I contributed an essay to a book called The Letter Q. The book is comprised of essays from 64 different gay and lesbian writers for young people, all of us acknowledging our sexuality and offering advice to our younger, less certain selves.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the impulse is that sends us on our journeys. It matters only that we set off, taking each step with as much conviction and self-honesty as we can muster.

Who knew that my mother’s well-intentioned lies would give me the gift of truth?

The Forbidden Topic … Religion

stained glass windowLast week I took on same-sex marriage. While I’m on a roll, I might as well talk about religion, too.

There aren’t many topics forbidden to those who write for young people these days. Especially if the audience is defined as young adult, writers can take on sex, violence, racism, social taboos, war . . . you name it. And sometimes we can even tiptoe into religion.

Religion has long been a topic of passionate interest to me. And not just because I was married to an Episcopal priest for 28 years. Being a clergy wife doesn’t necessarily bring a person closer to religion, only to the inner workings of the institutional church, which is a very different thing.

I spent decades trying to locate God in books. I read philosophy and theology, of course. But there was something about most books advertised up front as being about God that sent me away still searching. Most of the authors, even when they seemed to be asking hard questions, were still defending an institution, a creed, a professional retirement plan. And especially as a clergy wife who understood too well the inner workings of that kind of commitment, I was seldom impressed.

So I set out instead to search for God in novels. I didn’t look for novels about God. That would be an impossibly short list. A suspect one, even, were it to exist. Rather I read serious, interesting, moving fiction and waited for characters to drop a word here or there about their perception of God. When that happened, I was mesmerized, as though a deep secret were about to be revealed. And some of those passing comments have stuck like burrs.

In a Saul Bellow novel—I no longer remember which one—a character says, “God isn’t sex, but . . .” And he left his musing—and me—to dangle. That phrase stills bubbles up in my mind from time to time. “God isn’t sex, but . . .” What was he saying? That the deep experience of sexual love is one way of approaching God? (Wow! That’s an idea that would set our Puritan foreparents spinning!)

Fiction has always seemed to me the perfect vehicle for struggling with hard questions: about our families, about our social norms, about our purpose on this earth, about God. And fiction intended for those who are just growing into those kinds of questions themselves has the perfect audience. The only problem lies in a writer’s inevitable awareness of the adults peering at the book over those young, inquiring heads.

I never write with the intention of offending. I want only to talk honestly about what feels important to me. But the reality is that honest talk about what is important inevitably will offend someone.

I have never met a child who felt he was damaged by one of my stories, though it’s true that I have met only a small fraction of my readers. (I have met a number, at least through teacher-required letters, who told me they were bored or otherwise poorly served by something I’d written, which is a different matter entirely.) I have, however, had encounters with adults who found a story of mine damaging to young minds. And sometimes those adults have ordered an entire class of children to write to tell me, for instance, that my use of bad words, damn and hell, in On My Honor offended them deeply. So I’m well aware that it is the adults who hold power here, not the kids I’m writing for.

Can I challenge traditional religious thinking, truly challenge it, and not find myself on the black list I barely escaped when I chose to let Am I Blue? bring me out as a “practicing” lesbian? (I’ve always loved that word, “practicing.” I wonder if one day I’ll get it right.)

I only know that I enter each of my stories with my soul bared, asking the hard questions, foregoing the easy answers. And after all these years of searching for God in other people’s stories, it seems time to see what I can discover in my own.

Hate Enshrined

In this new and sometimes bewildering world of blogging, bloggers are advised to stake out a territory. Define who you are, what your topic is, where you have credibility, what will draw your audience to your words and stay there.

That hasn’t been difficult for me. I write for children and young adults. For years I have also taught those who want to write for children and young adults. Writing my own books and teaching developing writers forms the core of my experience and thus the lens through which I approach my blog. But occasionally when I sit down to tackle the next blog, I find myself drawn to a topic that isn’t about a recent book or about craft or even about children, and then I pause, not sure what to do. I’m in just such a pause today.

I live in Minnesota, have lived here for nearly forty years. Minnesota has been a good home for me.  I love having four dramatically changing seasons. I love the wilderness that has been so carefully preserved, especially in the far north of the state. I feel both supported in my own work and challenged by the commitment to the arts that exists here. And there was a time when I could have said that I loved the feisty politics in Minnesota that have kept a continual tug-of-war going between those of different views.

Vote No Amti-Marriage AmendmentMinnesota politics are harder to love these days. And with the upcoming election, I find my admiration for my state stretched pretty thin. We have an amendment on the ballet to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, in other words to write into our state constitution a prohibition against same-sex marriage. Apart from the serious question of whether such a matter should be defined by the constitution at all, apart from the fact that millions of dollars are being spent in an attempt to pass/defeat this amendment that are desperately needed in other pockets, even apart from the fact that same-sex marriage is already outlawed in our state so that the amendment is entirely redundant, the whole shibboleth is both maddening and impossible to ignore.

I am a children’s writer. That is the face I bring to the world. But I am also a lesbian in a committed relationship. In the early 90s I edited and contributed to a collection of young-adult short stories on gay and lesbian themes called Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence.  I used that book to come out professionally, despite solemn warnings from editors that such an acknowledgement could end my career. But I was acutely aware that young people were dying—quite literally—because of lack of support and information about their sexuality, so how could I make any other choice? I also knew that by being open about my own life I could demonstrate that being lesbian or gay doesn’t stand in the way of being an ethical, productive, normal human being. 

Am I Blue? made its way into the world and did its good work, and to this day, I am more proud of that book than I am of any other that has passed through my hands and my heart.

But here I am facing a public question concerning sexuality again, and what is my responsibility now? Thousands of children in Minnesota have gay or lesbian parents who are forbidden to marry. Many more thousands are discovering or will discover that they are themselves lesbian or gay and will find themselves looking out at a landscape of laws designed to impede their lives. Something more than stories is needed this time. 

I have attended church services and rallies where we are urged to go out and knock on doors to defeat this restriction on same-sex marriage, to bring up the topic with grocery store cashiers, to make phone calls. But I am not a knocker on doors, a converser with strange cashiers. And while I’m glad to receive phone calls, I don’t like making them even to people I know. (My daughter complains that I never call, though I e-mail often.)

I am a writer. And a blogger. Only that. And so I bring my thoughts to this page.

We should on every level of society and government be supporting commitment, not standing in the way of it. We should be nurturing love, not shaming it. 

In this world of climate chaos, of war, of sexual slavery and rape, of starving children, of homelessness, the issue of same-sex marriage shouldn’t have to be the center of anyone’s attention. There is so much more we need to be doing. But, nonetheless, in Minnesota we have a very public choice to make. 

Do we want to enshrine hate in our constitution?

For whatever it’s worth, my small voice says NO!