My next piece here will NOT be about literature and will NOT reference the shutdown and the narrowly averted crisis (the news felt like Strong Bad was announcing it every hour), but I ask our readers to bear with me for one more week. And since this one includes sex, violence, and magic, you may find it worth your while.
There are a lot of lessons I hope we learn from this situation which turned the United States from exemplar to laughing stock among nations, and one of the most important is that American citizens—and I firmly include Democrats and Republicans in equal measure in this judgment—need to commit themselves to continuing education. To be informed and aware in a society where, to borrow two phrases from the eminent Charles Pierce, the administration refuses to tell the public what is being done in this country’s name and the opposition has allowed a minority of, and let’s be frank about this, Morons with a capital M to assume leadership and platform erection. Only a critically thinking electorate can combat gerrymandering, Citizens United, and the slew of other obstacles standing in the way of a truly representative and disinterested government of the people, by the people, and both the desire for knowledge and the capacity to interpret such knowledge should be instilled from a very young age.
Which brings me to Tamora Pierce.
Tamora Pierce was a name I heard fluttering around libraries in my childhood and Barnes & Noble during my fifteen months selling actual books to actual people, but I’d never read any of her work until seeing a BuzzFeed article about “Ten Great Children’s Fantasy Authors Who Write Strong Female Characters.” I don’t normally take recommendations from BuzzFeed but I do take them from Miss Rebecca Taylor. If you enjoy reading my little pieces here more than usual as of late, she is the reason. She is my editor at Archaia/Boom! and has made me fifty times the writer I once was, and has taught me a great deal about storytelling. (You can follow her at @BexTay on twitter, although only rarely will she let a pearl of wisdom drop.) So when she posted this article with her own comments, specifically that Tamora Pierce’s books (which were ranked #1) made her want to work with books for life, I concluded this was something which I needed to read, and therefore picked up The Song of the Lioness.
This piece is not going to dwell on Pierce’s style and structure, although I would recommend her in an instant for these points. Only Hemingway surpasses her in terms of writing without bullshit—she doesn’t let her plots drag, hammers out events one by one with excellent pacing, and with only a few adjectives makes people and places clear as sunlight over Lake Michigan in the mind’s eye. Instead, it will discuss her themes, and why these themes make The Song of the Lioness absolutely essential reading for any child, and perhaps the most important children’s fantasy series ever. The “perhaps” is important because of J. K. Rowling’s incomparable presence, but I have come to love Pierce and Rowling equally, and when this is over I hope to have explained why a loving parent would give their children Rowling, then Pierce, as books to dream over.
The Song of the Lioness, published as four separate novels in the 1980s, tells the story of Alanna of Trebond, an eleven (when it begins) year-old noble who is being sent against her will to study magic when her greatest ambition is to be a knight, with all the horse riding, swordplay, and noble heroism that goes with it. Women aren’t allowed to be knights in the land of Tortall, but Alanna has an identical twin brother who hates fighting and loves magic. So after a switcheroo, Alanna enrolls as a page for the royal family and begins a long climb to knighthood and, with it, greatness.
On the one hand, Alanna fits in the mold of so many other fantasy heroes of the past. By the time the reader reaches the final pages, she is without peer as a knight or as a user of magic (even without much formal study of the latter). She stays unwaveringly good and triumphs over the forces of evil. And she’s attractive in a way which makes all the male characters we like fall for her once they figure out she’s not a boy. In this sense she is a flawless heroine like one out of myth.
But Pierce takes the time to make Alanna very human, carefully (though still succinctly) documenting her rise not as one done with ease but with hard work, dedication, and setbacks both mundane and world-threatening. The first volume, chronicling her transition from page to squire and her acceptance of the labor involved, is an all too recognizable picture of the child starting to mature into an adult which has rarely been equaled. Alanna is also pictured as being thoughtfully indecisive when faced with choices. She continually wavers between forging her new path and settling into a more traditional, quieter life. She struggles to control or subdue her most violent emotion and passions. And she develops strong emotional bonds with men whom she ultimately must choose between—Prince Jonathan, heir to the land who makes her his squire and champion, George, the dashing King of Thieves, and Liam, the strong, silent master warrior. Again, at the book’s end Alanna resolves all these inner conflicts, but while she has several excellent mentor figures, she always takes her own steps to achieve what she wants and needs.
The preceding paragraph is why I decided that if I ever have a daughter, these books will be gracing her shelf. Pierce gives her heroine problems recognizable to any of us in the non-magical world, and uses these problems to stress important traits we should possess without being preachy—the virtues of hard work, dedication, and independent decision making. And by making Alanna a woman who does not let others tell her what to do, who is frequently smarter, more prudent, and more far-seeing than her male friends, and who does not hide her gifts but uses them selflessly for the common good (particularly in volume three, when she introduces education and self-determination to the girls and women of nomadic tribes), Pierce gives girls a true role model. Someone they can identify with thanks to her realistic portrayal, and someone who lets nothing, especially her sex, get in the way of fulfilling her dreams and who takes it on herself to share her dreams with others. And for these same reasons, I would share these with my sons as both the exciting adventure sagas they are and a reminder to never look down on or discriminate against anyone. Especially women.
This would be more than enough as it is, but Tamora Pierce added one final quality to her work which makes it even more important for children. She had written The Song of the Lioness as a single novel for adults, was advised to split it into four shorter books and rewrite it for children, then technically botched the rewriting while not doing so at all. For while these stories can be found in the CHILDREN’S section of libraries and bookstores, as opposed to the Young Adult or Teen section for older audiences, they are unsparing and refuse to sugarcoat or hide anything. They are full of violence and very real deaths, described without sentiment. The Tortallian society draws heavily on hard research into many different cultures from world history. On a more personal level, Alanna’s first period is described in the first book. And the three male characters I singled out before? Alanna, who remains single throughout the proceedings, sleeps with all of them.
I loved these books all the more because of the respect Tamora Pierce showed her audience.
I’m not saying we should thrust children out of innocence as soon as possible, but I am saying that children are smart and they question and their curiosity and intuition are always greater than we imagine, and to leave them without facts or false assumptions or deliberate murkiness is doing them, and the world, a great disservice. Perhaps the greatest. They are aware that sex and violence exist, and any society which pretends they don’t or brushes them away, any society which promotes ignorance, is a society doomed to fail and possibly fail spectacularly, for it will create a population willing to believe or accept anything or see things from a much more narrow point of view.
In my dreams, I would raise my children with Harry Potter to introduce the magic of great writing and storytelling with serious ideas behind it (for Rowling, with different aims, is every bit as thoughtful as Pierce), and then move on to The Song of the Lioness, and in both cases, especially the latter, be unflinching. These are books that you should share, and which should provoke questions from your children you should answer carefully but with honesty, without trying to obscure too many points. And Pierce’s books should be shared with any girl, girls who would hopefully make Alanna of Trebond a role model, not because she saves the world, but because she is independent, a friend and helper to people whom she sees are in need, and someone who believes so strongly in her calling that she is unstoppable in its pursuit.
There is a power in this country which looks at women as unable to choose for themselves and denies the qualities which make Alanna of Trebond great. I had thought it would have been extinguished long ago. New generations of women, and men, raised with Tamora Pierce could make that happen.
The Song of the Lioness consists of…
Alanna: The First Adventure
In the Hand of the Goddess
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man