Flashback of Flashback: “Why do boys say someone acts like a girl as if it were an insult?” . . .

I’ve shared this one before.  But I was thinking about some of my favorite writers and talking with some of my friends about them, and Tamora Pierce is probably the author I read as a kid that I reread more as an adult than any other writer.  And so I thought I’d share this flashback  again . . .

You’re a girl with a twin brother who is about to be sent away to be trained as a lady while he is trained as a knight.  He doesn’t want to be a knight, and you do.  So you hatch a plan to switch places, cut your hair and pretend to be a boy.  Learning to be a knight won’t be easy, but whoever said girls can’t be knights hasn’t met you yet.

I’m pretty sure most of you will remember:

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum, 1983)

Most of my flashback Friday posts tend to be obscure, but that doesn’t mean all flashbacks have to be.  It’s been a rough week in the family household, and I find myself falling back upon beloved favorites.  Today I was speaking with a girl on the library staff who is in college and discussing books and movies she’s loved.  We were discussing our frustration with all the princessy stuff that cascades onto the shelves and she said. “I really liked this author Tamora Pierce.  My friend told me about her books and they were really good.”

Total librarian delight moment for me.  I’ve been a fan of Ms. Pierce’s work for 30 years now.  I probably bubbled over a bit with enthusiasm.

30 years ago . . . I encountered the above cover at my library.  I was already a complete incurable book worm.  I’d sit in the stacks and browse one shelf at a time, making my way through anything interesting. But from the moment I saw this cover, I knew it was the spark of something.  A girl with a sword.  A girl who trains to be a knight.  There just wasn’t anything like that anywhere in  children’s fantasy at that time.  Here was a short, stocky redhead who didn’t want to be a princess or a lady.  She wanted to be a knight and have adventures.  Oh the glory of reading that book the first time!  I think I must have hogged the library’s copy quite insistently over the next few years, until I had an allowance to buy the entire quartet. The first book followed by  In the Hand of the Goddess, then,  The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and finally, Lioness Rampant.

I think it was my first quartet as well.   I think I have at least three different publications of the quartet–and they are well loved and well read.  I learned a lot through those books that very few other books were willing to discuss in a series meant for “girls”.  That bullies are real.  That skill can be learned by determination and practice. That girls are just as good as boys and can learn the same things.  That friendships are valuable and necessary.  That loyalty and honor are important, but that there are times to break the rules. That pursuing your dreams may be hard, and may mean going in directions you did not expect or want.  To trust your instincts about people.  That being chosen by the gods for a destiny is rarely anything but trouble.  And that’s just the first book.

Perhaps the best part is that  Tamora Pierce is still writing.  She’s still delivering tough, complex characters that are uncompromising in their promise that girls have just as much right to the fantasy action as the boys–and can do it just as well.  And we’re not talking one dimensional heroines that are essentially a female copy of Conan.  The Immortals Quartetbrings us Daine, a commoner with a strange magic and dark secrets and an incredible bond with animals.  The Protector of the Small Quartet gives us Keladry, who is the first openly female page in Tortall.  She’s a rock in the storm, and a leader despite her own doubts.  In the Circle of Magic series stories we meet Sandry, Tris and Daja, three very different girls who grow into extraordinary women and powerful friends.

Those are just a few examples.  And for the record, Ms. Pierce doesn’t just write strong females, she writes strong characters.  Heroes and villains and everyone in between. Rosethorn, Numair, Coram, Lord Wyldon, Cloud . . . (every book is chock full of memorable characters).  It’s the relationships between those characters that really makes these books so strong.  Not just romantic relationships–which is where so many teen “girl” fiction reads seem to focus.   Friendships,  mentors, family, etc.   The stuff of life.

There is good reason that Tamora Pierce was awarded the Margaret A. Edwards Award for 2013.  Her work has touched so many readers over the three decades they’ve been in print.    I simply remain annoyed that she has not received other awards in recognition of her work.

Folks, it’s easy to forget in the blur of books that we read as adults with intent to review and judge and move on that these things are magical.  Put them in the hands of a reader who has been waiting, without knowing, for just THAT book, and you see it.  That’s what Alanna was for me.  For the geeky kid growing up bullied and ostracized by her classmates who ran away into books and found someone who told her that strength could be found, pain could be overcome.  That life was hard, but worth it.  That people could be cruel, but there was room for opening up again.  It took me years to come back out of my shell, but the seeds were planted and grew. Recently I read an article about the idea of “experience-taking” where readers actually become more like the characters they read about.  I think there was a little of Alanna sticking by me during those years of school where I struggled to find my identity.  She kept me fighting, kept me sane and kept me aware that I liked myself for who I was, I didn’t need to believe peer pressure and bullying that said I wasn’t worth liking.

I’m a mom now.  And I can’t wait for the day that my daughter can discover these books. (I think it’ll be a while yet, she’s 2.)  And I may not be a warrior, but I’ve learned a lot more about fighting for things that are important, standing up for those who need a voice and having the courage to face each day and the challenges it brings.  I still read this quartet.  About once a year now.  And when I do,  I’m still the girl tucked into the library stacks with the book propped up on her knees, breathlessly reading page after page.

Alanna is still very much my hero.  And so is Tamora Pierce.

You can check out Tamora Pierce’s livejournal blog here: Dare to be Stupid , And her Tumblr is here: I Like the Sparklies

Tamora’s official author page is here.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on June 5, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is a new author and series to me and I am very interested in it for my daughter. Is it appropriate for 8 or does it skew a little older content-wise? Thanks – love your blog!

    • Hi Amanda! It’s going to skew older–and it really depends what you and your daughter are comfortable with. Things like Alanna getting her period, dealing with romance and sex come into it. Nothing too extreme (I read these starting around 8) but it does take Alanna from childhood through to adulthood, with all that entails. There’s also a fair bit of warfare and violence, so it’s really up to what your daughter is ready for. I’d suggest reading through the books first yourself for some sense of the fit. I also would ask what your daughter is currently reading and enjoying–that’s often a good way of judging if it’s a dramatic leap or a simple progression.

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