Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982)

Warnings: 

  • Homophobia: Written in the late 70’s, this book contains an expected level of homophobia from peers and teachers in a private, religious school system; there are allies in the novel seen in a few teachers, outside forces who influence the school, and in the protagonists family; an older couple faces employment discrimination and are fired for their relationship and described by other characters as “wrong” for that relationship
  • Sexual Content: very mild, non-explicitly detailed off screen scene that is referenced a few times after the fact in a negative light by characters trying to prove the protagonist is gay
  • Alcohol and Drugs: very few scenes of underage characters drinking alcohol in a relatively responsible manner; no mention of drug usage by any persons

Review:

Annie on My Mind is a story of young love in an unwelcoming society, often described as a landmark for LGBTQ literature. The protagonist, Liza, meets a girl in a museum and feels an instant connection to her. They spend more time together, eventually developing a relationship, all while Liza is attempting to keep her image clean as the student body president. The school is facing a tough time financially, and as one of the fundraising campaign leaders, she is implored to represent her school in the best possible light.

Because this novel was written and set in the late 1970’s/early 80’s, Liza does face some discrimination for her sexuality once she is found out. Despite this, the book ends with a happy ending, one of the first of its kind to do so.

I had the fortunate luck to receive a copy including an interview with the author, Nancy Garden. In this interview, she discusses the climate at the time she wrote the novel and the reception to it after it was released. The book is in the top 50 of the Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, since a lot of schools took issue with the same-sex relationship within it. I think the interview may have been my favorite part of the book, and I would urge any young queer people who want a firsthand account of growing up gay in the 50’s and onwards to look for it.

Overall, I think this book is a must-read for young LGBTQ individuals who want to connect more with their community history, or don’t know much about it at all. Despite the homophobia, it’s a relatively light and easy read with plenty of wholesome moments and love to combat the less accepting characters in the novel.

My favorite part of the novel was the (somewhat reluctant) acceptance of Liza’s sexuality by her family. Although her parents are hesitant and afraid of the societal backlash she may receive, they both stand up for Liza and offer her their unconditional love and support. Her younger brother, even more abundantly so, is the first person Liza comes out to outside of her girlfriend. He takes it with grace and is the first person to show her real support, in a string of heartwarming moments that give her the confidence necessary to begin to accept herself.

While I did love the book, and especially the impact it had historically as one of the first to show a lesbian relationship that did not end in tragedy or a heterosexual romance, from a solely literary standpoint, it was pretty average. The writing didn’t stand out much, and it traded a full plot for a syrupy sweet romance-focused novel that didn’t really go anywhere. I would have liked to see more of Liza’s character outside of her relationship with Annie and her struggle with being gay. Still, though, it was a sweet book, so I’d recommend.

Sincerely yours,

Nyla Linn (She/Her)

Rating: ★★★★ (4 stars)

Advertisements

Ask the Passengers by A. S. King (2012):

Warnings: 

  • Alcohol and Drugs: a parental character is depicted as an off-screen “stoner” (frequent user of marijuana/weed), multiple scenes of alcohol consumption by underage teens (ages 17-18)
  • Homophobia: depicted casually through negative comments from family members and non-violent bullying from peers
  • Family Relationship: questionable/unhealthy parent-child relationship between the protagonist and overbearing mother, perceived favoritism of one sibling over another, lack of familial support
  • Sexual Content: little to no graphic sexual imagery, pressure of one partner to pursue sexual acts (though they are not enacted)

Review:

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King is a story of maternal conflict, Grecian philosophy, and finding yourself, but primarily it’s a story about love and its complexities. Astrid Jones, the protagonist, is a big city girl stuck in a small town with even smaller minds. She’s gay—or pretty sure she is—but still wants some time to figure that out. Dodging questions from her two gay best friends and the girl she might be falling for, Astrid struggles to find a place to unload the weight of her complicated emotions. In place of a diary she sends her feelings into the sky, more specifically, to the planes that fly over her backyard. Her uncontainable love takes root in the hearts of the passengers, with small scenes of their struggles, fears, and hopes for the future inter-cut between Astrid’s own story.

She has dreams of becoming an editor in New York, but has to survive her war zone of a household before she can get there. Her uptight, workaholic of a mother swings from ignoring her to berating her, and her father has been distant since discovering the world of marijuana. Even the imaginary friend she’s created based on her vision of the philosopher Socrates does nothing but judge her and offer harsh but needed advice. With the help of “Frank Socrates” and the planes soaring above, full of her love letters, Astrid finds pieces of herself in those around her and shapes her path for the future.

Astrid, herself, is an easy character to identify with for me, personally, and I feel like her struggle is fairly common for all members of the LGBT community.  Just because her friends are gay and comfortable with their identities (albeit not “out”), it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s ready to open up to them about her questioning, and I think that’s important to show that. Discovering your identity and finding a label for yourself isn’t as straight a path as one might think (pun definitely intended), and that being a visible part of (but not necessarily the main conflict of) the story is a cool and refreshing take.

A lot of the conflict and tension within Ask the Passengers centers around Astrid’s home life, which, at first glance, isn’t “bad” by any means. She has two parents in a fairly stable relationship, and although her dad does struggle with unemployment, the family doesn’t seem to have any trouble staying afloat, finance-wise. She and her sister don’t get along and are in a constant fight for their parents’ attention, but what sibling-relationship doesn’t have those moments? And besides, there’s a few heart-warming scenes between the two that make up for that. Still, though, Cameron struggles with the great expectations her mother has for her, and the obvious bias she has for her sister. That, paired with her retreating father and homophobic sister make Astrid’s home a toxic place, and one that she spends a majority of the book trying to escape. A lot of teens will find comfort in this—knowing that even though a home might not be “as bad as it could” doesn’t mean it’s a place that fosters growth or understanding, and it’s okay to need a break. I think King balances the family dynamic well, having every member of the family work as an obstacle of Astrid’s, but also overall being a supportive, somewhat-functional unit.

One thing that wasn’t that appealing to me in this novel was Astrid’s romantic interest, Dee, or more specifically, Astrid’s relationship with her. Though Astrid is attracted to Dee and wants to be with her, she’s made uncomfortable frequently by Dee’s PG-13 advances, and I don’t think it was necessary for her to come on so strongly.  While it does add more depth to Astrid’s self-exploration journey, it does fall into the trap of assuming all someone wants from a relationship is sex, and might lead some readers to hesitate pursuing a same-gender relationship because of that misconception. I can see where King was going with the arc, but I have to admit it falls a bit flat for me, personally.

Overall, I think Ask the Passengers is a nice book, but not a life-changing must-read. I enjoyed the book, and connected with the protagonist and her plights, but nothing about the book makes it stand out from other YA lit, except for the fact that Astrid is queer. The style was clean and the narrative easy to follow, but it wasn’t very unique. Still, though, given the relative lack of books for young wlw (women-loving-women), I do think it’s worth reading, particularly for the high-school age range.

Sincerely yours, 

Nyla Linn (She/Her)

Rating: ★★★½ (3.5 stars)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (2012):

Warnings (some spoilers): 

  • Sexual Content: Two consensual semi-graphic sexual scenes between underage girls (ages 15-16 yo); a few light-hearted references to  sexual encounters both real and imaginary; brief, non-explicit recounting of a sexual encounter between an adult man and an underage boy acting as a sex worker
  • Drugs and Alcohol: Frequent use of alcohol by underage individuals (ages 14-16) as a social activity; frequent use of cannabis/weed by young teens (ages 14-17) for recreational purposes 
  • Homophobia: Overtly expressed homophobia within the context of Christianity throughout the course of the novel; teens are exposed to conversion therapy and made to deny their identity to serve the Christian God in an enclosed setting; this is directly questioned by the protagonist and other characters  
  • Depiction of Mental Health: homosexuality or fluid gender identity are treated as a mental illness by some characters in the novel and queer characters receive therapy to correct this perceived illness; the protagonist is not diagnosed but shows some symptoms of depression; a character who is not the protagonist self harms in a graphic but off-screen manner and is hospitalized as a result
  • Character Death: Two characters die in an off-screen car accident early in the novel

Review: 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Cam Post)is a novel by Emily M. Danforth about the young protagonist, Cameron, struggling with her sexuality in the midsts of the early nineties with the added complications of the death of her parents and her religious community. The novel follows Cameron from middle school to high school, documenting her relationships and growth as a teenage lesbian in Montana, and her eventual relocation to a school dedicated to leading her away from a life of homosexuality to one closer to God. Despite the grim setting and subject matter of the story, Danforth keeps the overall tone relatively light and fills the story with the sarcastic and lovable voice of the protagonist while creating a perfect portrait of youthful nostalgia. Full of old video rentals, not-quite-over-exaggerated religious practices, and teenage rebellion, The Miseducation of Cameron Post presents a fresh take on the story of a person finding herself in a world where nothing seems to fit.

The copy of Cam Post that I own is well-worn and weathered, many pages bent at the corners and some wavy with water damage from the rain. Most of this can be chalked up to the book being one I bought used, but some portion of its rough (loved?) condition is due to my own hands rifling through the pages for the past few years. Rereading the novel this most recent time only cemented something I already knew: The Miseducation of Cameron Post is my favorite book.

With a delicate quill dipped in badassery, Danforth masterfully connects with and navigates the teenage experience, talking through Cameron with just the right touch of sarcasm, humor, and angst. Like many teens, Cameron is finding her identity and place in the world, and more specifically, like many queer teens, this identity isn’t exactly what is expected of her and is constantly being compromised by the girls she falls for.

The most standout element of Danforth’s style, in my opinion, is how effortlessly she weaves in concrete, juicy, speaking-directly-to-the-senses details that bring her readers into the story, into the moment, and into Cameron’s head. Although I was a decade too late to grow up in the early 90s, Danforth slips me into 1989 Miles City, Montana, with ease from the first page onward. The nostalgia for childhood summers that don’t belong to me seeps into my skin, inked in by Danforth’s hand.

Emotionally driven, Danforth manages to capture feelings I, myself, can never put into words and takes the too-big-to-explain concept of what it’s like to grow up as a lesbian in a conservative area and makes it tangible for those who haven’t experienced it. I never feel more connected to my identity, history, and community as I do when I read through Cameron’s story.

Throughout The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the lead character, Cameron, faces harsh obstacles. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Cameron remains resilient, strong, and even retains her dark sense of humor throughout the book, and it is because of this that the book isn’t overwhelmingly depressing. Cameron goes through a lot (a lot), but the reader is spared the brunt of the heaviness due to the voice Danforth cultivated for Cam. She is a stubborn, witty, sarcastic character who takes the time to notice the small things that make life a little less bad: a loose strand of Christmas lights, cheesy movies, pretty girls—and pissing her aunt off. Even when she’s subjected to the exhausting tearing away of her personhood by God’s Promise Christian School and Center for Healing, she continues to rebel in both her actions and mind, never forgetting herself no matter how lost she feels.

Her perseverance and “screw you” attitude is what makes Cameron Post as a character. She’s so realistic, so tangible to me. She never apologizes for liking girls—her only regret is being found out. Danforth makes it clear through Cameron’s story that the adversity we might face in life doesn’t mean we’re wrong for being who we are and loving who we love.

Overall I think The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a worthwhile read for anyone, but most specifically for teen/young adult queer/gay girls looking for someone to understand them, because I think that necessary understanding and comfort through similar circumstances is exactly what Cam Post provides. Like Danforth quotes on her website, “when anyone asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story” (Mystery Manners, Flannery O’Connor), and so, I urge anyone with an interest in coming-of-age stories, LGBTQ experiences, or great works of fiction in general: pick up a copy of this book and have a look for yourself!

Sincerely yours, 

Nyla Linn (She/Her) 

Rating: ★★★★★ (5 stars)