Tamora Pierce, living legend of the young adult science fiction and fantasy universe, turns 61 today. In her honor, I’m dedicating this post to the influences she has provided on the genre and how, especially now, her work has become more relevant with age.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the greatness that is Tamora Pierce, allow me educate you. Her first series for young adults “The Song of the Lioness” was published between 1983-1988. This was the beginning of a career filled with quartets and stand-alones operating in two fictional universes: Tortall and Emelan. The quartet that I read first was “The Circle of Magic” in which one book was dedicated to each of the four mages-in-training: Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar. From there, I backpedaled to her “Protector of the Small Series” and continued to devour her ensuing series and novels: “The Circle Opens,” “Tricksters,” “Beka Cooper” and “Melting Stones”. She has written over twenty novels with more on the way. Now, for those of you who don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, I’ll move past the name dropping into themes that are present in all of Pierce’s books and why we, as a science fiction and fantasy community, need to go back, reread them in light of recent discussions within the publishing industry, and discuss.
First of all, feminist themes abound in Pierce’s books. Her work was one of the first in which I experienced a strong, unflappable female hero. I wanted to be Keladry in the Protector of the Small, I wanted to fight battles, become a knight, out-do the boys. Screw being a damsel in distress. In the Protector of the Small series, Pierce proves in Keladry that female characters can be “feminine” while also competing in a world dominated by men. Pierce addresses Keladry’s struggles: her changing physical body as she grows into a woman, her infatuation with a fellow knight, facing her fears and dealing with the morals of hazing and training. She defends those previously maltreated by society at her own expense, demonstrating a mature emotional and rational range. Through Keladry, Pierce’s states that even in the face of other’s biases and torments, we can prove ourselves and win the respect we deserve.
All of her characterizations demonstrate a self-sufficient attitude that rails against societal norms. And even those of her characters who prescribe to “gendered” if stereotypical themes of dress (like Sandry who is a princess and loves wearing girly outfits), Pierce flips conventions on their heads by demonstrating that a girl doesn’t have to act or dress like a boy to be strong. It’s an empowering line of thought especially for young female readers. And I was lucky enough to experience such stories at a young age.
Even more pertinent to discussions today are Pierce’s diverse range of protagonists. Since the beginning of 2014, the We Need Diverse Books campaign has drawn attention to the lack of diverse characters and authors in children’s literature with startling statistics in which the races, experiences, disabilities, ethnicities, orientations, socio-economic classes, and cultures found in children’s literature do not accurately represent the world’s population of prospective readers. Most novels in children’s literature revolve around white, able-bodied, and straight main characters. You can read further on this issue by checking out a post by the Children’s Book Center here: http://ccblogc.blogspot.com/2013/07/i-see-white-people.html
Pierce’s books, however, do not fall under this norm. In her Circle of Magic books, I was enamored with the diversified experiences of Daja, a orphaned black lesbian trader, and Briar,a multiracial street-rat gang member, each of whom had their own book dedicated to their experiences as mages-in-training. Both covers also do not shy away from identifying the main characters races. Unfortunately, many novels about diverse characters choose to avoid showing frontal pictures of diverse main characters due to the marketing fear (unfounded in my opinion) that people may not want to buy them. These books were written in the late nineties and found commercial success and a willing audience. Personally, these Circle of Magic books led me to fall in love with fantasy and I couldn’t read them fast enough. I think if we need any proof that readers are willing to read diverse books, we can look back at the success Pierce experienced and the relationships and people she highlighted in her writing that was well received. It should also be noted that she develops such in-depth portrayals of her characters that almost everyone can see themselves in her worlds.
So my assignment to you:
1) Tell me about your favorite Tamora Pierce book in the comments and how it fell into the feminist or diverse theme.
2) Why do you believe her work does (or doesn’t) matter now?
The best books are those that can still be discussed in our changing world today. And, as such, Pierce’s works demonstrate a standard that writers and readers should have aspired to decades ago.