Jan Donley, Author of The Side Door

Cover of The Side Door, a novel by Jan Donley

Fifteen-year-old Melrose Bird, a.k.a. Mel, steps into high school and out of the closet, bringing her best friend Frank along for the ride. She wonders about Alex Weber—the guy who hanged himself behind Drift High School five years ago. She wonders why his mother haunts the park bench across from the school. In delving into the mystery of Alex Weber, Mel happens upon a pair of his pants—waiting to be donated. She tries them on. They fit. Mel and the pants become inseparable, and the contents of the pockets change everything. In learning the truth about Alex’s death, Mel uncovers a town secret that unlocks the school’s closet doors for good.

“There is magic in putting pen to paper,” their favorite English teacher tells Mel and Frank. But when this buzz-cut girl and football-hating boy start to tell the truth in their drawing and writing, the adults around them don’t want to hear it. And when they begin investigating the mystery of Alex, a student who killed himself five years earlier, they break a silence that changes everything. The Side Door is a story about a couple of Superman-loving kids who discover that it’s by revealing their secret identities that they come into their true super powers.

—Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For

About five years ago, I wrote a short story about a high school girl who develops a crush on another girl. That story was called Jell-O, and the narrator’s first person voice really stuck with me. In the original story, I did not name her. Nevertheless, she became a presence in my life, and I began writing more stories from her point of view. She soon informed me that her name was Mel, short for Melrose.

I decided to write a series of short stories; or more accurately, Mel decided to narrate her stories to me. I knew she had places to go and people to see, and it was up to me to help her realize her journey. Before long, I recognized that the stories were chapters in a larger context. In one of the stories, Mel discovers a side door entrance into her high school, and that led me to the novel’s title.

The novel went through several incarnations, but I knew all along that I wanted it to take place in the middle of America. I spent my childhood and young adult years between coasts. I did not move east until I was in my 30’s. In fact, as little kid, I rode my bike through the Wyoming prairie where I collected tadpoles and salamanders. I have always found the world between east and west coasts to be both harsh and comforting. I wanted to set my novel in that paradox:

“In New Moon Falls, a small suburb on the west side of Ohanzee City, in the middle of America, no one talked much about anything uncomfortable or sad or hard to explain.”

—from The Side Door


I looked in the fridge for something to eat. That’s what I always did when I got home from school. I noticed Mom had made a big bowl of Jell-O. “What’s the occasion?” I asked. Usually, she made vanilla pudding with bananas or just plain chocolate pudding. But there was this big bowl of orange Jell-O with those little canned orange slices caught inside, like they had been swimming and then got trapped when the Jell-O set. It didn’t help anything that orange Jell-O was Julia’s favorite.

“I thought I’d make something different,” she said. “Have some.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll vomit if I eat that.”

“But you were talking about Jell-O just the other day,” my mom said.

“Those days are long gone.” I shut the refrigerator door and found a box of cookies in the breadbox.

“You teenagers,” Mom said. “I can’t keep up. One month this, the next month that.”

I opened the fridge again and leaned in to grab a carton of chocolate milk. I thought it would go well with the cookies.

And then out of the blue after all that talk about Jell-O, my mom says, “Mr. Sand called.”

I dropped the carton. It spilled all over the blue tile my mom picked out especially for her kitchen. Mom loved the color blue. The whole kitchen oozed blue—the countertops, the curtains, even the paper towel holder.

“Mel! What a mess.”

I grabbed a paper towel and got down on my hands and knees to wipe it up.

“He told me about the locker,” Mom said.

I kept my head down, working on that spill.

“Melrose Bird. Why didn’t you tell me about that horrible word on your locker?”

I pushed myself up off the floor.

“C’mon, Mom. It’s no big deal.”

“What are we going to tell your father?”

“Why do we have to tell him anything?”

She and I both stared down at the tile, still wet from where I cleaned it up. I wondered if maybe she was actually considering my question. Mom brought her gaze from the floor to me. She pushed her hand through her blonde-streaked bangs, even held them there for a moment before letting them flop back like fringe onto her forehead.

“This was bound to happen, you know.”

“What? Spilling milk?” Okay, she wasn’t talking about spilled milk. Still, I thought—-Mrs. Harper might be proud of me for thinking in metaphors—-the spilled milk of my existence. I should write that down on one of the index cards.

“I’m not talking about milk.”

I knew that.

“I’m talking about this…look you’ve got going on.”

Okay. Again with my look.

“Are you still seeing that Miller boy?”

Where was she going with this?

“Because your father feels a bit uncomfortable around him, and I’m wondering if he might be a bad influence.”

“What do you mean, uncomfortable? Frank’s my best friend.”

“A best friend doesn’t shave a girl’s head.”

“Really? Is there a rule about what best friends do?”

“Why can’t you just be—” she stopped herself from finishing that sentence.

“What, Mom. Say it. A normal girl. You want a normal girl instead of the misfit you got!”

Mom seemed all flustered then. She pulled a paper towel from its blue holder, held it under the faucet, wrung it out, and got down on the floor. Apparently, my clean-up job didn’t satisfy her.

“Melrose,” she said from the knees as she wiped the tiles.


Mom finished wiping, and then she looked up at me from her squat. “You don’t have to yell.”

“Maybe I do. Because it seems like NO ONE HEARS ME IF I DON’T.” I put my arms out to my side and screamed, “DOES ANYBODY HEAR ME? ANYONE AT ALL!”

That got her to stand up and take notice.

“Maybe you should just go to your room until your father comes home.”

Does anyone anywhere see something wrong with this picture? I got the word DYKE smeared on my locker. And now, the principal was blaming me, my mom was blaming me, and I was supposed to go to my bedroom, shut my door, and wait for my dad to come home and blame me?

Forget it.

I headed out the front door.

This dyke had places to go.

Follen Reads Series

Jan Donley speaks at the Follen Reads Series

On March 5, 2011, Jan was the featured writer at the first annual Follen Unitarian Church reading series. Jan read from The Side Door and talked about her process writing it.

Launch Party: September 13, 2010

Jan Donley and Diane Felicio recently hosted the launch party for The Side Door at Brookline restaurant Lineage, with special guest Greater Boston PFLAG.

View the crowd and Jan’s reading from the book below:

And check out a few photos from the event (hit refresh if you don’t see them):

What the night was all about...
Isn't this a great crowd?
Jane Kokernak and Jan Donley
Pam Garramone, Executive Director of Greater Boston PFLAG and Jan Donley
Jill Donley Klingenstein, Stone McShane, Robin Melavalin, Scott Campbell
Jan Donley, opening remarks
Mom Felicio, Jan Taylor, Doug Raymond, Paul Donovan, Philip Celeste
Jan Donley signing. Vaughn Sills waiting.

The Side Door made the American Library Association’s (ALA) Rainbow List!

The 2011-2012 committee of the Rainbow Project, a joint task force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table and the Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Queer Round Table of the American Library Association proudly present our 2012 Rainbow List. Titles appearing in bold are selected as part of the Top 10 titles for this year’s list.
A fully annotated list that has been sorted into age ranges will be posted in the forthcoming weeks.

The Side Door mentioned in The Authors Guild blog

The Eric Hoffer Awards for short prose and books honor the memory of philosopher Eric Hoffer by highlighting notable writing and honoring the independent spirit of small publishers. The winning stories and essays are published in an annual anthology. The 2011 winners included: Diana M. Raab, Writers and Their Note­books, Academic Press category; and Richard Jackson, Resonance, Poetry. The First Runners-up included Jean Naggar, Sipping from the Nile, Memoir; and Vicky Oliver, 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions, Business. Honorable mentions were given to Matthew Tully, The Chimera Seed, Commercial Fiction; M. M. Gornell, Reticence of Ravens, Commercial Fiction; Jan Donley, The Side Door, Young Adult; and Catherine Wanek, The Hybrid House, Home.

The Side Door nominated for ALA’s Rainbow List

The 2011-2012 Rainbow Project Committee is proud to present the 2012 Nominations List!
This list will be discussed during meetings at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting being held in Dallas, Texas, January 20-24, 2012. Our meetings are open to those registered for the Midwinter Meeting, so feel free to join our discussions!

The Side Door reviewed in Lesbian News December 2010

Click on the link below to see Teresa DeCrescenzo’s December review of The Side Door
I was finally able to track down a pdf of this review so that I could share it.

Lesbian News clipping December 2010 (3MB)

The Side Door reviewed in Piercing Fiction: Straight Arrow Reviews

The Side Door is a well-written story because it captures the way a fifteen year old sees the world with great accuracy. Mel has the conviction of someone with a limited world view because of her age. From her perspective, she is the only one who is seeking the truth, anyone who disagrees with her is wrong, anyone who won’t help her is a coward. She faces situations with great bravery, but also with a total disregard of the feelings of other people, just like a fifteen year old. No one will keep Mel from doing what she thinks is needed, even if she’s wrong.

The Side Door discussed in Blog Book Picks by jrblack

Another book from this year that I love is The Side Door, a novel by Jan Donley, a friend of a friend whom I also know from Facebook. The story focuses on two high school students who come out (one as lesbian, the other as a gay man) during the mid-80s. Jan contrasts the characters’ experiences, emphasizing how the parents’ responses affect the kids. Furthermore, their coming out stories are overshadowed by the suicide that occurred five years earlier; it’s an open secret that the boy killed himself because he was bullied. I’m impressed by the honest and unflattering portrayal of the parents (of the main characters and of the boy who committed suicide). Jan honors their difficult situations without letting them off the hook. The book is a great accomplishment, plus it’s a great read.

The Side Door reviewed in The US Review of Books

A poignant and touching read that will engage and entertain everyone from teenagers to their grandparents alike, The Side Door is a book that all readers can enjoy and each take away something that is personal and exclusive for themselves.


The Side Door won a Goldie!

The Golden Crown Literary Society voted The Side Door winner of Dramatic General Fiction.

The Side Door reviewed in Just About Write

New Moon Falls is a place where people like conformity and secrets are to be kept. Fifteen-year-old Melrose Bird has trouble with all of that. With her bristle haircut, baggy cargo pants and androgynous appearance, Mel certainly doesn’t conform to the image most people have of a girl and there’s a secret she just won’t leave alone.

On her first day of high school she sees the mother of Alex Weber sitting on a bench just staring at the school. Alex hanged himself five years before, but no one in the town wants to talk about it. Mel and her friend Frank become obsessed with Alex, his grave, and why no one seems to care about what happened to him. As Mel and Frank struggle to come to an awareness of themselves, they come to expect little help from their peers or the adults who surround them.

The Side Door is a well-written story because it captures the way a fifteen-year-old sees the world with great accuracy. Mel has the conviction of someone with a limited world view because of her age. From her perspective, she is the only one who is seeking the truth; anyone who disagrees with her is wrong; anyone who won’t help her is a coward. She faces situations with great bravery, but also with a total disregard of the feelings of other people, just like a fifteen-year-old. No one will keep Mel from doing what she thinks is needed, even if she’s wrong.

This book isn’t a typical coming out story. Mel doesn’t find her true love and experience her first sexual encounter. Instead it’s a picture of kids discovering the uglier side of being gay, trying to change that against great odds and being partially successful. It also has an interesting contrasting character in a teacher Mel turns to for support. She represents a generation of women who created the atmosphere where Mel can be herself, but didn’t experience it themselves. The book misses a real chance to be richer by exploring that character a little more.

The Side Door is not the type of book to give to teenagers to help them figure out why they feel different and it doesn’t speak to the experiences of all young gay people. Instead, it’s a book that might help an adult understand better what it means to be one type of those kids and how adults appear through their eyes.
Reviewed by Lynne Pierce

Eric Hoffer Award Honorable Mention

Young Adult Category

Goldie Finalist – Golden Crown Literary Society

Dramatic General Fiction
and Debut Author

Eric Hoffer Award – Montaigne Medal

The Side Door made the short list!

OUT FM audio interview

In this live interview from NYC, Tricia Spoto talks to Jan Donley about her novel The Side Door. Go to minute 43:53.

OUTTAKE VOICES audio interview

In this exclusive audio interview Emmy Winner Charlotte Robinson host
of OUTTAKE VOICES™ talks with author Jan Donley about her must-read
debut novel The Side Door, which addresses LGBTQ teens and the high
school coming out experience…

OUT FM radio show

The Side Door is mentioned as one of Tricia Spoto’s “favorite things” from 2010. Click Play and then slide the black bar to the 40 minute mark (approximate). Or just listen to the whole show. It’s good.

Mention in the Jamaica Plain Gazette

The Side Door nominated for a Lambda Literary Award


Jan Donley’s debut novel, The Side Door, has been nominated for a 2010 Lambda Literary Award in the LGBT Children’s/Young Adult category. The book, published in July by Spinsters Ink, has received attention in recent months for its sensitive portrayal of gay teen suicide and empowering message to LGBT youth and allies amid a flurry of national news reports of suicide among gay teens who had experienced bullying and harassment due to their sexual orientation.

The Lambda Literary Awards are presented each year by the Lambda Literary Foundation to “nurture, celebrate, and preserve LGBT literature,” according to the Foundation’s official website. The “Lammy” is the “most prestigious, competitive, and comprehensive literary award offered specifically to LGBT authors.” Awards are based on the LGBT content and literary merit of the work and the sexual orientation of the author. Winners are announced in May.

A fabulous review in the November issue of Just About Write

Starting high school always brings new challenges. In this young adult novel, Melrose Bird (called Mel), discovers there are plenty of things to learn, like dealing with peers in the “in-crowd” when she strives to be different from the status quo, and finding out that her best friend is straddling a very dangerous line as he comes to grips with his sexuality.

In the midst of all this, Mel embarks on a journey to bring truth to a town that prefers to pretend that uncomfortable things never happen around them. As Mel struggles to discover her own sexuality, and looks for her own voice, she also battles with giving voice to the cries for help from a young man who died tragically years before Mel ever knew of him.

This story deals with teen issues on a deep level. The main character is fully realized with profound emotional struggles and a strong desire to be herself, while bringing truth to the larger community. If you know a teen who struggles with sexual issues, suicide, or harassment, do them a favor and give them a copy of this book—but whether you do or not, read it yourself to gain a great deal of insight into what teens might be going through today. The Side Door is a stunning read and a timely topic in today’s world.
Reviewed by Anna Furtado

Lambda Literary

Scroll down to “Book Buzz #23 November 2010”

Ten Books that Tackle Teen Suicide and Bullying

A lot of us feel like books saved our life during our teen years; also, though, sometimes books can actually save your life! A list of ten YA novels that deal with the themes of suicide for gay youth.

Janet Mason’s Review and Commentary

Click here to download radio broadcast

(Go to the October 18 episode, scroll down, and click on the “download” arrow.)

What I found perhaps most interesting about The Side Door is that the story could be taking place anywhere – in any nondescript small town – and in any time period. The story is set in a conservative small town – but is near a place called Ohanzee City, a fictional setting with a gay section, complete with a diner, a gay bar, and rainbow flag. Ohanzee City – Oz-like with its rainbow flag beacon – is also the place of the just started Gay Straight Alliance that Frank and Mel find salvation in toward the end of the book. The first Gay Straight Alliance was formed in 1988 and this is when the story takes place.
—Janet Mason

Part 2 of The Examiner

I’m hearing from readers of all ages who believe the message of the book is important. Some have said that they think it should be a high school and first-year college text because it creates room for discussion about bullying, teen suicide, coming out, parents and teachers’ responses to gay/lesbian kids, etc. Phrases such as “it’s a good read” have also come my way.

Article in The Examiner

Boston-area writer, Jan Donley, has recently published The Side Door, a novel for the young adult market. In Part 1 of her interview below, she discusses her writing background and the plot of her novel.
—Lynette Benton

Article in Boston University Daily Free Press

Jan Donley, a former Boston University writing professor, discussed her new book “The Side Door” before 10 attendees at the Women’s Resource Center, covering topics from homosexuality in the 1970s to a recent string of suicides among gay teens.

Donley said that social constructs have long dictated how a girl is “supposed” to be and how she ought to look or behave. These conventions make it practically impossible for people who are different from the crowd, she said.

“How many times have you said to somebody, ‘Just be yourself?’” she asked the audience.

These issues inspired Donley to write “The Side Door,” she said.
—Meaghan Kilroy

Video of Jan Donley at Candlelight Vigil in Burlington, Vermont

October 4, 2010. University of Vermont.

Mention in Lambda Literary Book Buzz

Jan Donley explores related issues in her new young adult novel The Side Door (Spinsters Ink), which speaks to the “fatal silence around adolescent sexual orientation and gender identity.” To help the cause, Jan launched her book with an event to benefit the Greater Boston area PFLAG (www.pflag.org). Bay Windows, “New England’s Largest GLBT Newspaper,” covered the event.
—John Morgan Wilson

Mention in the October issue of Just About Write

“Nan Dunne presents Just About Write Reviews”
In The Side Door, Jan Donley has beautifully captured the angst felt by many gay and lesbian teenagers. Her characters, young Melrose (Mel to all who know her) and Frank, must face their parents and their classmates as they struggle with defining who they are. Mel and Frank are freshman at Drift High. Five years ago, coincidentally on Frank’s birthday, a student named Alex hung himself on the school’s grounds. His death is never discussed in either the town or at school. Mel and Frank take on the personal crusade of finding out why Alex killed himself.

The Side Door is told in the first person by Mel. As she uncovers layers and layers of secrets she muses, “How many of those walking secrets did we pass every day, thinking they were just mild-mannered people going about their business?” And, as the school year progresses, Mel and Frank discover many secrets.

The Side Door is an engrossing story, with well-developed characters, and some surprising twists.
Reviewed by RLynne

Mention in Bay Windows

“JP author launches book to benefit Greater Boston PFLAG”
“I know that I would have loved to have read a book like The Side Door when I was in middle school or high school,” Garramone said. “It would have helped me to see myself in the main character, to see that I existed in print, to know that what I was feeling was real. …The Side Door touches on the heart of Greater Boston PFLAG’s mission: the importance of parental acceptance, a safe and welcoming school climate, and supportive friends.”

Mention in Outlook Magazine

Though it’s set in 1988 – when teens still scribbled phone numbers on napkins rather than synching their smart phones – the parallel themes in Donley’s debut of queer self-discovery and the destructive power of secrets pack a contemporary punch. Melrose Bird – she really, really prefers to be called Mel – and her artistic pal Frank are 15-year-old outsiders coming to terms with the truth that she’s a dyke and he’s a fag. Their realization coalesces around the hushed-up suicide five years earlier of a boy named Alex, whose heartbroken mother’s sad vigil in the park across from their high school leads Mel to dig into his death. What she discovers – a closeted football jock who rebuffed him and a closeted school counselor who ignored him – galvanizes her own coming out. Donley’s young adult novel touches all the relevant bases: parents whose emotions evolve from anger to understanding and fellow students whose attitudes range from intolerance to acceptance – in a story that nicely balances humor and emotion.

—Richard Labonte

Mention on Lee Wind’s blog

“I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?”

This was one of those books where the synopsis from the publisher and author was so good, I had to give it to you in their words!

You can also check out a good interview between Jan and her editor at Spinster’s Ink here (far right column.)

—Lee Wind

All writings © Jan Donley 1985-2019
Printed from http://www.jandonley.net/the-side-door