Growing Up Female

On the pragmatic feminism of Tamora Pierce.

I HAVE WRITTEN exactly one fan letter in my life. It was the fall of 1999, and my new friend Grace and I decided to write to our favorite author — an author we’d seen reading at our school the previous year. Our letter began:

Dear Tamora Pierce, we are in sixth grade in Boston and your Tortall books are our all-time favorites. Grace’s favorite character is Daine and Josephine’s favorite is Alanna; which one is your favorite?

We never received an answer — I can’t remember if the letter was ever even successfully mailed — but our loyalty remained steadfast, even through the Harry Potter craze, and through the many other important literary discoveries Grace and I would go on to make in our teenage years and afterward. As it turned out, Tamora Pierce fandom was a surprisingly effective shortcut for identifying friends even as I grew older. In college, my roommate was a huge devotee as well.

It’s an intense and cult-ish thing to discover Pierce’s books as a young girl. Pierce is a fantasy writer beloved by many readers who do not consider themselves fantasy fans. This is because, for all their sorcerers and dragons, her books, at their core, are about young women growing up and figuring out who they are: how to be weird and stubborn and heroic and angry, how to deal with getting their periods, how to control their tempers, how to handle jealousy, how to decide whether to sleep with their best friends or their teachers, how to prevent pregnancy, how to navigate romantic relationships with men many years their seniors, how to challenge and defeat men many years their seniors, how to be women who don’t conform to the rigid expectations of their (entirely imaginary!) world and time.

Pierce’s books are as rich with original world-building details as Tolkien’s or Rowling’s, but she’s also obsessed with the everyday logistics and mini-dramas of growing up female. Her work thus appeals not only to hardcore fantasy readers but also to bookish girls who were raised on more traditional girls’ fiction: Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Malory Towers, Harriet the Spy, The Little Princess, The Secret Garden. But Pierce goes much further than the authors of those books in exploring the messy biology and psychology of growing up, the urges and desires of adolescent girls. She’s Louisa May Alcott meets Judy Blume meets Ursula K. Le Guin. And her fans, especially her female fans, return to her many series time and again, not merely to lose themselves in the lives we will never lead (winning sword fights, talking to horses, pretending to be a boy in order to train as a knight, falling in love with a man who used to be a crow) but also to recognize elements of the lives we actually do — or, at the very least, might — lead (worrying about pregnancy, falling in love with long-time friends, convincing men to hire us for demanding jobs).

In Pierce’s debut novel, Alanna: The First Adventure, published in 1983, 10-year-old Alanna of Trebond disguises herself as a boy to train as a knight in the kingdom of Tortall, only to awake one morning to discover she has gotten her period.

She got out of bed — and gasped in horror to find her things and sheets smeared with blood. She washed herself in a panic and bundled the sheets down the privy. What was going on? She was bleeding, and she had to see a healer; but who? She couldn’t trust the palace healers. They were men and the bleeding came from a secret place between her legs. Hunting frantically, she found some bandage and used it to stop the red flow. Her hands shook.

Ultimately, she is forced to confess to her friend George that she’s actually a girl. George takes her to see a healer who gives her the Tortall version of The Talk: “It happens to us all. We can’t bear children until it begins.” The healer, very practically, then gives Alanna a “gold symbol dangling from a thin cord” to protect her from getting pregnant. This is certainly not meant as a birth control how-to for readers, but the physical exigencies of menstruation and contraception are as integral to Pierce’s vividly imagined worlds as dragons and magic and jousting. And while a magic token might serve as an effective means of preventing pregnancy in Tortall, the moral is clear: just because it’s a problem magic can solve doesn’t mean it’s an issue young women can overlook or ignore.

As an eight-year-old, I didn’t even register the significance of that gold symbol and what it was intended to do. I was too preoccupied with Alanna’s quests to defeat the evil brother of the King, or replace the shaman of a Bazhir tribe, or travel to the Roof of the World to claim the magical Dominion Jewel. Two or three years later, returning to the books as I so often did (and still do), it finally clicked that that was a contraceptive charm. My first time through, I also missed the moment when Alanna finally decides to sleep with Prince Jonathan. It was only as I came back to the books that I began to understand the full range of adolescent issues Pierce had addressed so deftly, realized that the stories worked on multiple levels — as adventure tales for children, as guides to the challenges and pitfalls of adolescence, as romances attuned to the many facets of youthful love and lust.

Pierce did not set out to write for an adolescent audience. Before they became a series of four young adult books, the Alanna stories began as a single 732-page manuscript aimed at adults, replete with “sex and drugs and alcohol use and harsh language.” Two publishers turned down that manuscript in the early 1980s. At the time, Pierce was working as a housemother at a group home for teenage girls, and they became her audience. In fact, the director of the home had forbidden Pierce to let the girls read her manuscript because it touched on so many of the issues he believed had “gotten them into trouble in the first place.” So, instead, Pierce narrated an edited version of Alanna’s story during the evenings — but not quite so heavily edited as the director probably wished. As Pierce recalls:

I told it to them the way I thought they would respect. I had lost any illusions about teenagers I had ever had. I wrote about the things those girls had taught me teenage girls thought and did and I was straightforward about it. Without knowing it, without really thinking about it, I just made a pact with my readers that I was going to be as straightforward with my readers as I could be.

The determination to be frank about contraception and sexual health solidified early in Pierce’s life, when her sister visited her at college and mentioned that she had been having unprotected sex. Pierce promptly marched her to the nearest drugstore to show her the over-the-counter options. At the group home, one of the teenage girls already had a child, and another was pregnant, but Pierce discovered they knew very little about female anatomy or reproductive health. So she located a plastic model of the female abdomen and uterus and used it to give impromptu biology and sex education lessons in the dining room.

Pierce’s ideas about how young women should be introduced to the topics of sex and sexual health are evident in her books. In Squire (2004), part of a later series set in Tortall, Keladry of Mindelan, known as Kel, is training to be a knight after the ban on girls has been lifted, thanks in large part to Alanna’s earlier success. Kel also receives advice on birth control, this time from her mother, Ilane.

“Perhaps you should see a healer,” Ilane suggested. “Get a charm to keep you from pregnancy, until you’re certain you’d like to be a mother. Then, if you do get carried away, you can surrender to your feelings.” Ilane grinned wickedly. “Goddess knows your father and I did.”

Substitute pills for a magic charm and it’s the kind of sentiment you can almost imagine Pierce imparting to her sister, or the girls at the group home, about the realities of sex and the importance of preparedness.

Contraception is important to Pierce’s characters because they choose to have sex as teenagers. While those sexual encounters are not described in explicit detail, neither are they primly avoided, as in most of the “contemporary” girls books I read growing up, or glossed over with weddings and the sudden appearance of small children, as in the 19th and early 20th century romances of Jo March or Anne Shirley. Alanna and Kel and other Pierce heroines weigh seriously whether or not they want to have sex and with whom and what the consequences will be. Here is Kel debating whether to sleep with her friend and fellow squire Cleon:

She didn’t think she was ready to share his bed, though she certainly liked kissing him. She wondered why he joked about making love to her but never tried to do so. Squires tumbled girls of the lower classes all the time; they were infamous for it. Kel feared both possible explanations for his refusal to press her. Either her large, muscular body was ugly to him, which seemed unlikely when they kissed; or he meant to marry her as people of their station married, with the bride a virgin.

When her agent, Claire Smith, suggested that Pierce turn the original Alanna manuscript into a series of shorter books for young adults, Pierce toned the stories down. But the books still featured forthright discussions of menstruation, sex, and contraception, especially when compared to other young adult fantasy novels. Still, Pierce has said that she encountered very little pushback when she began publishing in the 1980s. In the decade following Judy Blume’s controversial depictions of masturbation, birth control, and sexuality in such books as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), Deenie (1973), and Forever (1975), the Alanna stories may have seemed comfortably removed in their fantasy universe.

The only fight Pierce recalls with her first editor, Jean Karl at Atheneum, was over a scene in Lioness Rampant (1988) in which Alanna drinks wine as medicine. Pierce pointed out that the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes was historically accurate, but she ultimately agreed to change the beverage to a mug of tea brewed with special herbs. Years later, working with a new publisher, Scholastic, on a different series of books (set in the Emelan Universe, her other fantasy world), Pierce encountered another of the random red lines of young adult fiction. For her 2003 novel Shatterglass, Pierce had described a population of prostitutes, the Yaskedasi, who were targeted by a mysterious killer. “Apparently that’s still a no-no,” Pierce observes. So, at the request of her editor, she changed the women into street performers.

That her publishers were most concerned with mentions of alcohol and prostitution is striking in light of all the other provocative topics Pierce has touched on in her writing. The most controversial and complicated sexual relationship in her work is that of yet another Tortall hero, Veralidaine Sarrasri (or Daine), who talks to animals and studies Wild Magic — a career choice that appeals to animal-loving readers. Daine falls for her teacher, the powerful mage Numair Salmalin, who is some 20 years older. Pierce addresses the age difference head-on in The Realms of the Gods (1996), the last of the books in Daine’s quartet, when the two characters finally admit their feelings to each other:

“It just doesn’t seem right. I feel that I’m … taking advantage of your innocence. A man of my — years, and reputation —”

“‘Taking advantage of’? […] And what reputation?”

“You of all people should know that I’ve been involved with ladies of the court.”

“What has that got to do with the price of peas in Persopolis?”

“It’s easy for an experienced man to delude a young woman into believing herself in love with him. It is the basest kind of trickery, even when the man does not intend it.”

“Do you love me or not?” […]

“That is not the topic under discussion.”

Daine and Numair’s relationship is often the topic under discussion when parents and schools challenge or condemn Pierce’s books for their sexual explicitness. Pierce has several practiced responses to those who feel that inter-generational romance is an inappropriate story line for teenagers. Historically, the plot makes sense, she says, since men often married much younger women in the Middle Ages. Then, she explains that Daine is in many ways more emotionally mature than Numair, despite being much younger. Finally, she points out that Numair has been lying about his age for so long that even he probably doesn’t know how old he is.

Despite her calm responses, it’s clear that criticism of the Daine-Numair relationship has left Pierce even more determined to tackle issues that some think teenagers are not prepared to read about. Indeed, Pierce responded to the controversy by inventing a new, even more age-inappropriate relationship in her Trickster series, which features Alanna’s daughter Aly. Aly falls in love with a crow-turned-man named Nawat who, according to Pierce’s calculations, is all of three years old by the time he sleeps with 18-year-old Aly. “That was my revenge,” Pierce says wryly.

Pierce’s ability to shift back and forth between the magical (crows turning into men) and the all-too-real (dating a much older man) is a significant part of the charm of her books, just as J. K. Rowling’s ability to mix the impending battle of good versus evil with the concerns of everyday student life — grades and dances and the school sports teams — is a huge part of the appeal of the Harry Potter books. But Pierce takes her characters — and readers — more seriously as young women and adolescents than Rowling or most of her other contemporaries. Pierce is not afraid to acknowledge that teenage sexuality often goes beyond kissing, or to tackle the difference between lust and love, but at the same time she doesn’t feel the need to turn Alanna or Daine or Kel or Aly into the kind of sophisticated, hyper-sexually active young women who populate the Gossip Girl books. Instead, she treats the lives and ambitions and worries of her female characters with surprising frankness, nuance, and respect. When to have sex, how to deal with the risk of pregnancy, whether to marry the handsome prince who was your best friend and first lover but perhaps not your true love — these are important and hard decisions, Pierce recognizes, with real consequences and significant emotional stakes for her young heroines.

“I just did what had to be done in terms of the girls’ physical and romantic maturation,” she says. “Let’s face it, when you’re a girl disguised as a boy trying to be a knight, your sexual transformation is a major deal!” Much of her interest in the everyday logistics of her fantasy worlds stems from Pierce’s practical outlook, which overlays even her most fantastic, magical creations. Growing up as a Lord of the Rings fan, she recalls being concerned with the elements of Tolkien’s stories that “just weren’t practical” — such as the characters “eating stew on the road, when stew is something you, well, stew for hours and hours.” Not so in Tortall and Emelan, which are not just full of surprises and magic but also eminently practical details.

If Pierce was influenced by Tolkien and other major fantasists, her books also bear the marks of less obvious predecessors, including Louisa May Alcott. Pierce’s great-aunt gave her a copy of Little Women as a child, and Pierce took an instant dislike to the four sisters at the center of the story. “For a while, I was going, ‘oh, it was brainwashing for girls,’” Pierce says of her initial reaction to Alcott’s classic novel. “It took me a long time to realize that those girls were really active. They were boating, they were shooting arrows, they were setting up theaters and doing plays and walking and sledding.” Pierce has even cited Beth March as her “idea of real courage,” pointing to Beth’s decision to care for a child with scarlet fever in spite of the risk of infection. “Thinking about Beth March made me redefine my definition of female courage, and I’ve been building on that ever since,” Pierce has said.

At first glance, Alcott’s March sisters would seem an unlikely inspiration for Pierce’s hot-tempered, cunning, combat-trained heroines. And yet Pierce’s books have a surprisingly strong kinship with classic girls’ coming-of-age books of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries: Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Betsy-Tacy, Little House in the Big Woods. Needless to say, there is no magic in these books — nor, for that matter, is there any discussion of menstruation, pre-marital sex, or contraception. But the core of Pierce’s novels is ultimately not their finely wrought magical systems or their carefully considered treatment of adolescent sexual development; rather, it is the question of how teenage girls navigate the world around them to become the women they want to be, instead of the women everyone around them wants and expects them to become. Alanna’s hankering to be a knight mirrors Jo March’s desire to become a writer — and the reader feels how equally unlikely and bewildering those goals must have seemed in the respective worlds of each young woman, how completely each of them had to invent her own vision for what she wanted to become, and how utterly those visions diverged from the models set for them by their mothers and the other women around them.

It is this thread of pragmatic feminism that draws to Pierce’s work so many female readers who grew up on more traditional, less magical series. Pierce, like Alcott, like L. M. Montgomery, is capable of tapping into that elusive and powerful voice that suggests to girls who live in entirely different worlds and times: this is how you grow up, this is how you become your own woman. When I was eight, of course, I wanted to be Alanna, but I understood even then that I lived in the wrong universe. Now that I’m 28, I no longer aspire to be a knight with magical powers (most of the time), but I still return to the books for inspiration and guidance about how to find my place in the world, even though the Tortall universe operates under a completely different set of rules than my own.

It’s the peculiar tendency of many book-loving girls to read young adult fiction as a kind of a guidebook, a how-to for growing up. Thus, we see readers declaring themselves to be a “Jo” or an “Amy” or a “Beth” or a “Meg,” or falling for fictional boyfriends, or taking sides between competing love interests, even among vampires and werewolves. We expect young adult fiction to deliver messages and lessons we would never look for in adult fiction — and no one is more susceptible to these morals than teenage girls. No one reads The Lord of the Rings with an eye to Frodo as a guide into manhood. And yet, for middle school girls like me and Grace, part of the appeal of Alanna and Daine and Kel lay in how completely their lives were unlike ours and, at the same time, how many points of intersection there were with our own development: sibling squabbles, first period, parental expectations, school bullies, contraception, first love.

Pierce’s rabid fan base includes men as well as women, of course. In fact, I was first introduced to her books by my older brother, who has reread them and committed them to memory every bit as obsessively as I. Pierce’s literary success may operate at a lower level than the superstardom of J. K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins, but her fan base is no less devoted. Many of her books have been best sellers, and her 28 novels have sold more than four million copies worldwide. All of her books remain in print — a testament to the loyalty of her fans and the enduring appeal of her writing.

Pierce’s novels are simultaneously wildly inventive fantasy and essentially realistic. They meld the excitement of adventure and escape into fantasy worlds with the distinct young adult thrill of finding characters who help you live in your own world, in your own body. They imbue your own daily decisions and routines with some of the thrill of the joust or the Knight’s Ordeal. They enrich your life and world even as they tantalize you with all the lives you will never live and the worlds you will never see.


Josephine Wolff is assistant professor of public policy and computing security at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her writing has appeared in Slate, The Atlantic, the New Republic, and Scientific American.

LARB Contributor

Josephine Wolff is assistant professor of public policy and computing security at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her writing has appeared in Slate, The Atlantic, the New Republic, and Scientific American.


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