Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here in this winter wonderland, among so many people who care deeply about youngsters.
Can you see me?
I know the usual question is "Can you hear me?" but even so, I'll ask again: can you see me?
Yes, of course you can. And yes, that's a trick question. The point, though, is that you can't really see ME any more than I can really see YOU.
Oh, I can see your faces, your clothes, that you're sitting down. I can see what you look like and what you're doing. But I can't really see YOU. I can't see who you really are.
We all make assumptions about each other, assumptions that prevent us from seeing each other, and sometimes that's fine. When I walk into a room, people see a middle-aged woman with a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. They assume therefore that I'm a heterosexual woman, married to a heterosexual man. But I'm not. I'm a lesbian woman, living in a life partnership with another lesbian woman.
If you're a single woman, you've probably been called Mrs. So and So -- whatever your last name is -- and have had to explain that Mrs. So and So is your mother, not you.
And if you're a man who doesn't follow sports, you may have found yourself bluffing or walking away during Monday morning quarterback sessions.
Of course those things are externals, at least partly. They do express aspects of our essential identity, but they're facts that are, at least under some circumstances, easily divulged.
But what of more internal secrets, less tangible invisibilities?
I'm sure there's someone in this room who is silently grieving for a lost loved one, someone who is quietly mustering the courage to face a terrible illness, someone who is deeply discouraged, frightened, or lonely. And I'm sure -- I hope -- there is also someone here who is bursting with a joy he or she isn't ready to share -- joy at falling in love, at having discovered some truth.
In our society, many of us tend to repress our strongest emotions or the most basic truths about ourselves for fear of exposure or ridicule or embarrassment or rejection.
How special it is, then, when we find our invisible selves in the characters we meet in books!
I write for the invisible reader.
I write for the invisible reader, and so do many other writers of books for children and young adults.
Virginia Woolf, who of course didn't write for children but who in many ways was invisible herself, speaks of invisibility in A Room of One's Own. In that famous essay, she describes how she once made her way toward a university library to do some research: "...but here I was," she says, "actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction."
Virginia Woolf was certainly a lady -- but more than that, she was an intellectual woman. Far better to that "kindly gentleman" that she remain invisible than upset or threaten the masculine order of things in the academic world. No wonder she needed a room of her own, for not only does one need a room of one's own in order to create, one also needs one in order to forge the courage and confidence required for moving from invisibility to visibility.
Later in the same essay, defiantly, Virginia Woolf says, "Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind."
I'm tempted to shout, "Right on, sister!" and leave it at that. And yet I know it is hard for young minds -- the minds for which I write -- to reach true freedom, with all that entails, if those minds' owners are invisible in life, and if their experiences and feelings are never reflected accurately in books, or if books that do reflect them are suppressed.
Since the tragedy at Columbine High here in Colorado, adults' suspicions and fears of adolescents, especially of those who look bizarre and seem alienated, have escalated. But even aside from that, many adults, when they see a group of teenagers, think of them as a barbaric pack who, even if they're not planning murder and mayhem, dress the same, talk the same, like the same music, and spend much of their time loafing, smoking, doing drugs, drinking, and performing other mindless activities. But that's not necessarily true, as those of you who work with young people know.
I teach a correspondence course in writing, and my students range in age from 14 to 80-something. Many of my teenage students write very touching descriptions of themselves at the beginning of the course when they have to write autobiographical sketches. "My friends think I'm a party animal," some of them say, or words to that effect. "But they don't really know me. I'm really quite serious. I think a lot about religion, and about the environment, and child abuse, and violence, and racism, and AIDS. And I'd like in my writing to show people that the world could be a better place if we'd all just stop hating one another."
It's too bad kids like that are invisible to some adults. It's also too bad -- tragic -- that kids like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are, for whatever reasons, so maligned, so disliked, so isolated that they feel invisible, and that the justifiable anger they feel at that sometimes explodes into hate. Soon after the Columbine tragedy, my life partner Sandy and I got a letter from a man we knew well as a child -- a man who in his middle and high school years was unmercifully teased and harrassed by his peers. No one, including teachers, could see the person he really was; no one saw his worth because he was "different" -- more musical than athletic, on the nerdy side, slight of build. He was invisible to his peers and to some extent even to his family. This man, now nearly 40, spoke in his letter of the Columbine tragedy and said that had he not known right from wrong and known how to relieve his stress in harmless ways such as basketball and music and talking with the few people who listened, his fury might have exploded in the same way as Eric and Dylan's.
One of the reasons I write for teenagers, I think, is because as a lesbian, I understand their invisibility; I've been invisible myself, and sometimes still am. And I know that the main thing I want to say to all my readers, gay and straight, is "You have a right to be who you are and to discover and follow your own true nature and your dreams."
"How unpleasant it is to be locked out," Viginia Woolf said of that unwelcoming library. Yes. And how unpleasant it is to be invisible.
Until after 1951, when Catcher in the Rye was published, and young adult fiction began to come into being, adults didn't realize that even kids who read and enjoy adult fiction sometimes need to read about and identify with people their own age who face some of the problems they face. When we finally did realize that, the "problem novel" was born. There's been a lot of criticism, as you know, about the literary quality of those books, but that aside, they pioneered in showing the invisible reader that his or her problems and concerns were shared by others. Judy Blume's books, for example, and Norma Klein's, were groundbreakers in helping many kids understand and accept their maturing bodies, their awakening sexuality, and the changing composition of the American family. And as YA fiction developed, other writers began recognizing and addressing the problems faced by racial and religious minorities, who had long been invisible in books because of omission. Those authors' books let invisible kids know that they weren't alone and that there was a place for them in the world after all.
I don't think I write problem novels in the usual sense of that term, but I do, in my serious fiction, write about kids with problems, often secret ones that tend to make their essential selves invisible.
In The Loners, a YA novel I wrote many years ago, the main character, Paul, is invisible to everyone in his family except his grandfather, who dies early in the story. Paul meets a girl to whom he becomes close and, though she has insurmountable emotional problems, she is able to help him move toward greater visibility. In the beginning of the book, though, this is how he feels:
Fourteen-year-old Lark in my 1991 book Lark in the Morning, a runaway from an abusive home, says this to Gillian, the book's main character, in partial explanation of her own suicide attempt:
Before she meets Gillian, Lark's essential despair had long been invisible to those who knew her. No one recognized it in time to help her find tools with which to face the sadness she saw around her and to combat the deep depression that led to her suicide attempt and to her resolve to repeat it.
There are many Pauls and many Larks, invisible kids with terrible hidden loneliness and pain. There are others with fierce dreams and strong ideals -- invisible, often, to all but those who know them best. One way, I think, to help ensure that at least some of those dreams and some of that idealism will last and to ensure that the loneliness and pain will be noticed and even eased is to reinforce and acknowledge their existence through fiction. The books of authors like Walter Dean Myers, Patricia McKissack, Virginia Hamilton, the Pinkneys, Mildred Taylor, and Jacqueline Woodson have made and are making tremendous strides at reducing the invisibility of black and mixed-race youngsters; Lawrence Yep, Milly Lee, Allen Say, and others have done and are doing the same for Asian youngsters, Gary Soto and Nicholasa Mohr for Latinos, Jamake Highwater for Native Americans -- and there are many more -- many wonderful authors helping to reduce minority invisibilities! Books of Katherine Paterson, Virginia Ewer Wolf, Lois Lowry, Bette Greene, Robert Cormier, Paula Fox, Cynthia Voigt, and again oh, so many others speak to other invisibilities. And you, as educators, are in a unique position to steer invisible readers to books that will speak to them.
Some of my books are about gay and lesbian teenagers, kids who are very close to my heart. In many ways they are the most invisible of all -- for most of them are the least easy for others to recognize.
Being part of a minority that is almost totally invisible, as mine can be, has its advantages, of course. Most of us can hide if we want -- or need --- to. All but the most obvious of us can avoid being laughed at, beaten up, fired, evicted, disowned and so on, simply by remaining invisible. And sometimes, I admit, that comes in handy.
But with it comes a loss of self-respect, identity, and fulfillment, and that's a terrible, terrible price to pay for anything -- even safety and security.
I'd like those of you who are straight to imagine something with me for a minute. I think it'll help illustrate what I'm talking about.
Imagine yourself as a kid, growing up in a topsy-turvey world in which just about everyone you know is homosexual.
Your family is gay -- your parents, your siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins.
Your teachers are gay.
Your friends are gay.
And although there are growing numbers of straight characters on television, in magazines and newspapers, books and movies, your family complains vehemently about them, calling them names, laughing at them, and saying they're disgusting and evil.
Your church condemns heterosexuality. So do most of the people you know.
But the older you get, the less comfortable you feel in this world. And gradually you realize you're attracted to the opposite sex.
At first you feel there's no one else like you, at least not in your hometown or family or school, and you try to hide your feelings. Or you're aware there are people like you, but you know they're often the butt of ostracism, ridicule, and violence. You read about people losing jobs because they're straight, or being thrown out of their churches, or being denied insurance coverage.
You're teased whenever you let down your guard and act according to what your inner self tells you is right for you. And so you laugh right along with the others at anti-heterosexual jokes, even though it hurts to do so, and even though you hate yourself when you do.
And eventually you fall in love.
You're scared to declare your love -- you're afraid of rejection. Of course everyone feels that way when they fall in love, but you know you could be rejected not only because the other person doesn't think of you romantically, but also because he or she finds you disgusting or thinks of you -- and your feelings -- as immoral or sick.
But finally you do tell the other person how you feel. And to your great joy, he or she feels the same way about you!
But that joy is bittersweet, for you and the other person know you have to hide your love in order to protect it.
You can't tell your family. They might disown you, throw you out -- or send you to a psychiatrist or a reparative therapy group to be cured.
You're afraid to tell your friends. They'll probably be shocked. They might turn against you -- or at least laugh at you.
You and your beloved can't go to dances together, can't hold hands in public without risking being stared at, harassed, or even beaten up. You can't legally marry Ð
And sometimes this depresses you so much you think of suicide -- as do 3-4 times as many gay kids as straight ones.
That -- in an even more extreme version -- is the world my partner Sandy and I grew up in. Although thank God it is changing, to a large extent it's the world most gay and lesbian kids, especially those who don't live in major cities or who don't have access to on-line chat groups for gay kids, still grow up in today. Our recent increased visibility has brought in its wake a severe backlash, threatening to drive some of us back into invisibility.
The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services estimates that anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 million lesbian, gay, and bisexual kids in the US run away from home or are thrown out of their homes annually.
28% of gay and lesbian kids drop out of school annually; that's more than three times the national average. No wonder, since every year, according to a Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior survey, more than half of them are threatened or injured with a weapon in school, or involved in a fight.
One in six gay kids at some point in his or her school life is so badly beaten up that he or she needs medical attention. I've already told you the drop-out rate, but aside from that, some 20% of gay kids stay home from school at least once a month because they're afraid to go. Most hear anti-gay comments many times each day. No wonder many of them remain -- painfully -- invisible.
Straight kids who don't fit the norm are targets of homophobic comments, too, like the man who wrote Sandy and me the letter I told you about, and like, according to some reports, Eric and Dylan. The expression "It's so gay" is used regularly as a pejorative, and the terms "faggot" and "dyke" are used daily as playground taunts -- and they can hurt no matter who they're directed to. Studies have shown that most boys would rather be physically assaulted than called "faggot." To a straight boy, that's an assault on his masculinity and to a gay boy, it's like "nigger" to an African-American child -- a denial of basic humanity. And yet "faggot" is the Number 1 insult in schools, according to child psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. As YA author Chris Crutcher says in Ironman, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will break my heart."
Back in the 50s when Sandy's mother found a letter I'd written her -- my pen got me into trouble even back then -- she suspected I was gay and told Sandy she couldn't see me any more. Like most young lovers, we defied that, and there followed a tense, unhappy time when we'd see each other, get caught, see each other again, get caught again, and so on. We tried to hide -- to remain invisible -- even from ourselves. For a long time we told each other our love was platonic, even as we kissed and held hands and hugged and touched. And one day, I was driving my mother's car, with Sandy in it, down a street that ended in a stone wall. I wondered what would happen if I didn't turn when I reached the end -- if I just crashed the car straight into the wall. Maybe we'll both be killed, I thought, and then at least we'll be together forever, and this terrible pain will end.
Well, I did turn when I reached the end of the street, and Sandy and I came through that terrible time and many others, and after being together and apart and together again, we've been happily together for the past 30 years -- pretty visible, too, although that took a long time to happen, and was -- and is -- a very gradual, difficult process.
Books would have helped us when we were kids -- books about people like ourselves, going through what we were going through.
But back in the 50s, when young adult literature was slowly being born, there certainly weren't any YA books about being gay. I did find a few adult paperbacks with lurid covers, but in most of them the gay character ended up being sent to a mental institution, dying in a car crash, committing suicide --or, if she was a lesbian, being swept off her feet by a wonderful young man who carried her off into the sunset to live happily ever after as a heterosexual.
Books like that made me feel more invisible than ever, and made me feel as if there was truly no place for me and Sandy in this world.
I did find one book that helped: Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, written in England in the 1920s. The book is very emotional, sometimes melodramatic, and ends sadly, but on a note of brave determination, with a heartfelt cry for justice and understanding.
For all its faults, The Well of Loneliness was the only book I read back then that made me feel visible, and I vowed that someday I'd write a book about my people that would end happily, and might help some of my people feel less invisible.
That book, my tenth, was Annie on My Mind, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1982. It's a love story about two high school girls who fall in love with each other and realize they're gay. By the time it came out, there were still very few books for kids that talked about homosexuality.
And although Annie was well received when it came out, as some of you perhaps know, it was burned 11 years later on the steps of the Kansas City School District offices -- doused with gasoline, dropped into a metal bucket, and set on fire. Subsequently, officials in several school districts removed copies of Annie from their libraries, where it had been for many years. Despite protests by students and librarians, several school districts, including one in Olathe, Kansas, refused to reshelve those removed copies, so Annie was effectively banned in those districts. Then in Olathe several courageous students and their parents, one of whom is also a teacher in the district, sued the school board and superintendent for a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (that's the one guaranteeing due process). The suit, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, went to trial in the fall of 1995; the Olathe School Board members testified, as did the librarians, the student-and-parent plaintifs, and as did I. And in November the judge -- it wasn't a jury trial -- ruled that the book had been "unconstitutionally removed" from the libraries, and ordered it returned. We all rejoiced, both when we heard the judge's decision and when the other side decided not to appeal. But at the same time, the Olathe superintendent said that the school board was going to look more carefully at its book selection policy from then on, and one of the librarians commented, "That means they'll never buy another Annie. " I worried at the time that other schools boards might react the same way when they realized that they could get into legal trouble if they removed books that were already in school libraries -- that they, in short, would use selection as a thinly disguised censorship tool.
And sure enough, recently in Barron, Wisconsin, something similar happened. The school superintendent and school board there between them removed four gay YA books from the high school library. Last I heard one was still off the shelves, and the American Civil Liberties Union had filed suit in Federal District Court in Madison. But what's even more sinister is that apparently the school -- as happened in Olathe -- is re-examining its library selection policy, and the librarian has been ordered not to buy anything that might be considered controversial. Actions like that, of course, reinforce the very invisibility I've been talking about.
But despite that kind of thing, in recent years, I'm glad to say, there's been a fairly steady stream -- slow, but steady -- of YA and children's books that do speak openly to the invisible reader who is gay or lesbian, or who has gay or lesbian friends or relatives. Just as it's important for African-American kids, Latino kids, Asian kids, Native American kids, Jewish kids, Muslim kids to read about and identify with people from their minorities in order to counteract the invisible status to which they're often relegated, it's also important for gay and lesbian kids to read about and identify with people from their minority. That's especially important, because unlike kids from other minorities, gay and lesbian kids usually don't have families who share their minority status, so they often feel they must remain invisible to the very people who are in the best position to give them love, support, and guidance.
My most recent YA novel, The Year They Burned the Books, focuses on a controversy that erupts over a new health education curriculum supported by a small town high school newspaper. The controversy arises because the curriculum includes material about condoms, AIDS, and homosexuality. Jamie Crawford, the main character, who is the paper's editor-in-chief, and her best friend, Terry, the sports editor, are gay and must deal with their increased visibility at their school and with severe homophobia as the controversy escalates. I'd like to read you a scene in which Jamie emerges from invisibility to her own parents and her nine-year-old brother, Ronnie:
Judy Blume, who has worked tirelessly against censorship, has said, "Some parents are afraid of exposing their children to new ideas, ideas that are different from their own.... Censorship grows out of fear, and there is a tremendous amount of fear on the part of parents, I wish [says Judy Blume] that I could find a way to help parents learn to be less afraid and to trust themselves and their children more."
I wish I could find a way to do that, too.
I wish I could communicate to frightened would-be censors who fear that writing about homosexuality amounts to promoting it that writing about something -- presenting it -- isn't promotion, it's simply showing part of life as it is. I wish I could show them, also, that straight kids don't become gay because of reading about gay people any more than gay kids become straight because of reading about straight people -- which, after all, they do all the time. And I wish I could convince the school administrators who, in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, disciplined or even suspended kids for wearing black or being different or talking or writing about violence that that's a simplistic approach to a complex problem -- a problem that certainly won't be solved by forcing already invisible kids to be more invisible.
"How unpleasant it is to be locked out," as Virginia Woolf said. Worse than unpleasant -- dangerous and cruel. Books, of course, can't make homophobia -- or racial or religious or other forms of prejudice -- go away. But I wonder if, had they been able to see themselves in books, two young women who live near me would have come closer to finding peace instead of the torture that led them to attempt suicide. I wonder, if they had known more about what it's like to be gay and what homosexuality really is, if a group of boys in Maine might have thought twice before harassing and then murdering Charley Howard, a gay man -- or if a pair of boys in Wyoming would have left Matthew Shepard alone instead of beating him and leaving him tied to a fence to die. And if more straight kids knew from books, as well as from other sources, that homosexuals are not subhuman, I wonder if the pejoratives that have apparently helped push some kids, whether straight or gay, over the edge into murderous violence, might be heard less frequently on school athletic fields and playgrounds and in school halls.
Books alone can probably neither save lives nor validate them. But because they can offer solace and reinforce dreams and make the invisible, visible, they can buy time for troubled young people, no matter what the source of their invisibility. Without Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, my life would have been bleak indeed. I would have been painfully invisible for longer, and would have taken longer to develop the resolve to write about homosexuality myself. Ask any YA author who's gotten a letter from a kid saying things like, "Your book changed my life," or, "Your book made me feel good about myself for the first time," and you'll find someone who feels there's good reason to go on writing and to go on trying to appeal to the invisible reader -- as, I think, most YA and children's authors do.
As teachers and others who work with kids, you are in a unique position to lead invisible readers to books in which they can find validation and support, no matter what their invisible selves are. You are in a unique position to recognize those kids who are different, who may be troubled, alienated, alone -- or those kids who need to understand that people unlike themselves are human, too. You may also be on the front lines of censorship issues, of attacks against books and ideas and information that others want to force into invisibility. I recognize how difficult that last position can be, and I admire and am eternally grateful to those teachers and librarians who have courageously stood up for the First Amendment against great odds, sometimes even risking their jobs.
With apologies to Virginia Woolf for altering her words slightly, I say emphatically: There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that should be set upon the freedom of any child's mind -- or upon the freedom of any child to achieve and enjoy visibility, both through books and in life.
The scene is Wilson High and the editorial staff of the Wilson High Telegraph takes on a battle of epic proportions and universal truths.
In this quiet New England community, our heroine, Jamie Crawford, high school senior and editor-in-chief of the Telegraph finds herself in a battle that pits fundamentalist conservatives against voices of moderation. Jamie wants her high school newspaper to publish responsible articles about sex education, contraception, homosexuality, AIDS, and other cutting-edge issues. This young editor believes that knowledge of the facts will shine light on the truth.
Much to the high school journalists' dismay, their clear voices are drowned by a conservative action group, Families for Traditional Values, who challenge these juniors and seniors right to publish such radical views. As tensions flare, the novel builds to a horrific Halloween climax --- the Salem witch trials meets Nazi Germany --- which forces this quiet New England community to grapple with these long ignored issues.
Once again, Nancy Garden, the award-winning author of the controversial novel Annie on My Mind (1982) (about young lesbian love) takes on the complexity of human relationships in the face of difficult and sensitive social issues. Teaching this book to students requires teachers who are bold and brave. Reading this book yourself might inspire you to make the first move.
Reference Citation: Morgan, Peter E.(2000) "A Review of The Year They Burned the Books by Nancy Garden." The ALAN Review , Volume 27, Number 2, 46.