On Reading, and the Transformative Power of Realistic Heroes.

In a number of previous posts, I’ve touched upon my deep love of reading. While I could claim that my reading tastes run only towards the classical, intellectual, and otherwise academic, that would be a blatant lie. As a child, while I did gravitate towards the soothing cadences of Shakespeare, the classic tales of Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carrol, I also loved fantasy books.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint a particular book or particular moment that brought me into the fantasy fold. I know that when I was about 6, my mom attempted to read the first Harry Potter book aloud to my brother and I (all the cool moms were doing it). Unfortunately, tales of wizardry didn’t do much to thrill her, and she let it fall by the wayside. 6-year-old me, on the other hand, was enraptured, and snatched up J.K. Rowling’s book with rapturous excitement. I finished it in less than a day.

Still, when I think of Harry Potter, while I remember it with love and fondness, it was by no means the transformative fantasy work of my childhood. And though I do have a deep-seated adoration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it never truly captured my all-encompassing admiration. No, the books that shaped the course of my development were undoubtedly the sprawling and painstakingly detailed works of Tamora Pierce.

Tamora Pierce Books
My favorite childhood books. In fact, I read Wolf-Speaker so many times, the spine of my original copy broke.

Many of you might be flummoxed in reading that name. Pierce isn’t an universally beloved behemoth like Rowling or an intellectually celebrated linguist like Tolkien. Nor is she even as publicly renowned as Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis. I wish she was. Pierce’s books are a textbook exercise in world building. A sprawling, intimate narrative that leaves no stone unturned, no detail unattended. Plus, she not only provides that level of perfection for one fully-realized fantasy universe, but two.

Both of those universes, though fantastical, are fully grounded in reality. Through her beautifully described Tortall, a medieval nation reminiscent of Italy, the United Kingdom, and France, Pierce places her readers in a world very similar to ours — if not for the added bonus of magic. Still, the characters who inhabit Tortall and its surrounding nations don’t really need magic at all. Not be stubborn, fiery, intelligent, fiercely real characters. Not to be presented as seemingly real people.

Outside of the magic, that’s the real beauty in Tamora Pierce’s work. Reading her books, I saw shadows of each character in my next-door neighbor, my brother, that little kid who lived down the street. And, oh the girls! The bright, smart, diligent and tenacious girls. By the time I was a little kid, there were, of course, books with feisty female protagonists. They didn’t inspire me though. Those girls seemed contrived. No matter how they acted, they still engaged in the same tropes. Either a princess or a tomboy, always emotional, never fully independent.

Tamora Pierce’s girls, on the other hand? These were girls who turned into the kind of women I wanted to be. Her first quartet, Song of the Lionessrevolves around eleven-year-old Alanna of Tremont. A twin of noble birth, Alanna is about to be — as was traditional — shipped off to a convent for finishing  school while her brother, Thom, is preparing for life as a page at court. Of course, when it comes down to it, Alanna is the one with natural combat and strategic skills, and Thom excels at the intuitive magic that happens to be taught at the convent alongside needlepoint and table manners. So, as any slightly mischievous and parentally neglected children are wont to do, the twins switch places. Alanna chops off her hair, hops on a horse, and joins their man-at-arms to journey to court, where she will strive — disguised as a boy for 7 years — to become the realm’s first Lady Knight in more than 3 centuries.

Alanna: The First Adventure
Alanna, in all her technicolor glory.

Alanna’s progression towards her goal is so real it reads like technicolor. She realizes quickly that, to be successful, she will have to participate in constant, emotionally draining subterfuge. So to, she learns that, to compete with the boys — to surpass them in skill, even — she will have to work twice as hard and twice as long, all without anyone knowing why. Alanna’s transformation from typical girl to impressive knighthood candidate is not easy. It isn’t fast. Indeed, alongside swordplay and magic lessons, Pierce spends time on the nitty-gritty aspects of puberty and growth without getting mired down in them. When Alanna — a motherless girl masquerading as a boy — gets her period (which she does! In the book! Really!), a friend takes her to a city healer, who not only describes what’s happening with matter-of-fact professionalism, but nonchalantly provides her with long-term birth control.

Alanna: The First Adventure was the first book I ever read that didn’t address puberty or sex with a moralistic bent. There was no long lecture on waiting for marriage, no sickly-sweet paragraphs about love. There was a twelve-year-old girl expressing disgust and disbelief that she’d ever want to lie with a man and an adult woman saying, ‘don’t be so sure. Here’s a way to protect yourself if and when it happens, just in case.’ As a 9 and 10 and 11-year-old reading these books, there was something so powerful in the lack of shame, that easy acceptance that my agency, my body, was my own, just as Alanna’s was.

When, a few books later, Alanna ends up in a complicated relationship with the prince, a close friend, it doesn’t seem contrived. They struggle with questions we ask ourselves in real relationships — are they friends with benefits? Dating? When Alanna is eventually ousted as a woman — not before she achieves her knighthood and saves the kingdom, of course — Jonathan, the Prince, proposes marriage. Alanna is flummoxed, and the reader sees it. She loves Jon, but she knows, deep down, that being with him — becoming Princess, and eventually Queen — would require her to give up the parts of her that define her most basic self. After lots of fierce contemplation, Alanna turns him down.

Let me say that again. The main, female protagonist of young adult book turns down a chance to be Queen. She says no to a crown in acknowledgement of how it would change her, of the politicking and lack of personal decision-making power that comes with the role: things she would inevitably despise. It was the first — and perhaps only — book in the Young Adult genre I encountered where a woman weighed the modern questions of love, career, and family and chose not what was expected of her, but what would make her happy.

I could go on and on and on about Pierce’s books. I could talk about queer representation in her literature. How, in another one of her quartets, a character comes out as lesbian. Not as the only plot point, not as her single defining character trait, but as an important but limited portion of the story of her life.

I could talk about her depictions of varied international and ancient cultures, of societies that are grounded in the true histories of Japan, Iran, the United Kingdom, and North Africa.

I could discuss her dissections on racism and isolationism, on conservative and liberal politics.

I could wax poetic about her casual dismantling of misogyny, and her simultaneous and constant acknowledgment that it’s real and not going away.

Instead though, I want to talk about her. The author. Tamora Pierce. When I was about 9, I was a total nerd. I was obsessed with books, but not a real geek. Just socially competent enough to have friends, I still wasn’t cool or popular enough to have more than a few close ones. No matter that I usually had a place at the lunch table, I never felt like I fit in.

So, I wrote Tamora Pierce a letter. An email, actually, one that was sadly lost to the internet gods at some point around the fall of AOL. I told her how important her characters were to me. How much I identified with and sought to be like her bright, smart, diligent and tenacious girls.

She wrote me back. This woman, this grown adult who I did not know, wrote me a back with a sprawling, personally tailored correspondence. She told me, in the usual ways, to follow my dreams. To not lose heart, to not let the bullies win. She also told me, in a very unusual way, that it wouldn’t be easy. That life and adolescence and adulthood could be scary, uncertain places where sometimes the good guy wouldn’t win. She told me that if I pushed myself like her girls did — Alanna and Kel and Daine and countless others — that I could be my best self too.

If you have kids – girls, boys, genderqueer, younger, older, straight, bisexual, trans or gay, please have them read these books. They are the cornerstones of empathy that I return to again and again. They are the stark, slightly warty, interminably honest books that made me who I am. They are the books I will always recommend for children first. Please remember the transformative power of realistic heroes. They will always shape how we grow.

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
I was about 13 here. I’d probably read that book – The Woman Who Rides Like a Man – 50 times by that age. I’d happily read it fifty more.

–S

Day 33: February 3, 2017

 

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