Possibly the highest point of the most recent American Library Association conference for me was not the usual professional sessions and connections but the opportunity to let my inner fangirl out, as the Young Adult Library Services Association celebrated Tamora Pierce as its 2013 Margaret A. Edwards honoree for lifetime contribution to teen literature. Because although I certainly have shared her books with teens (including my own, who demanded a signed copy of Alanna), my relationship with them is personal.
Alanna: The First Adventure came out in 1983, too late for me to have discovered it as a kid, though it’s the sort of book I would have eaten up had it been around for me. As it was, I found it and its sequels in the Song of the Lioness Quartet a few years after college, and I ate them all up then. The thoroughly entertaining plot (a girl with magic powers pretends to be her brother so she can attend knight school, disguised as a boy) and sturdy characterizations grabbed me right away and kept the pages flipping. More than that, though, Pierce displayed a hugely refreshing pragmatism, confronting those issues so many fantasy novels sidestepped: When Alanna, in due time, becomes sexually active, for instance, she sensibly equips herself with a birth-control charm first.
My attention caught by Alanna, I dipped in and out of Pierce’s burgeoning oeuvre whenever I had the chance. I read her other books set in Alanna’s land of Tortall, including Wild Magic, which introduces apprentice mage Daine; Lady Knight, which concludes the adventures of doughty, nonmagical knight-in-training Kel; Trickster’s Choice, which turns its focus to Alanna’s daughter, Aly, who has a talent for espionage; and Mastiff, which mines Tortall’s history for its story of Beka Cooper, cop. I also took in the Circle Opens series and its successors, set in a different world and concerning a quartet of trainee mages whose powers spring from the elements. Happily, the latest in this series, Battle Magic, will be out at the end of September.
You certainly didn’t hear any kvetching from my corner when the Edwards announcement was made last January.
So I bought a ticket to the Edwards luncheon and stood in line among my fellow fangirls (there was not a whole lot of testosterone in the room) and struck up a conversation with the woman standing behind me. This occasioned a satellite fangirl experience, as she turned out to be none other than April Pulley Sayre, author of Let’s Go Nuts! and more than two dozen other informational picture books that have done wonders to connect children with the natural world (my favorite? Dig, Wait, Listen: a Desert Toad’s Tale). I took some time to gush.
Pierce’s address was a moving one (after a hysterical opening), describing her coming-of-age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when she “breathed in feminism” and devoured adventure novels. She spoke of Alanna’s genesis as she began to write stories she wanted to read, about “girl warriors who made sense and would not surrender what they’d won just because they fell in love.” Observing that “no one ever went to the bathroom in fantasy,” she emphasized that pragmatism I had fallen in love with: “I wanted my fantasy real, so I could live in it.”
Then it was back in line for that signed book, and again I made some friends. (Standing in line was the defining experience for any Tamora Pierce fangirl at ALA.) Behind me was an intense and intelligent recent college graduate who had been sustained by Tamora Pierce as a teenager; in front of me was a middle school librarian who clearly had shared her enthusiasm with many, many nascent Tamora Pierce fans.
And we waited. The middle school librarian wondered aloud about how Pierce would sign the books, as she has repetitive stress injuries in her hands. She explained that Pierce typically uses a stamp of her signature and adds a thumbprint for a personal touch. As a fellow sufferer (an occupational hazard for writers, I’ve found), I decided that was a pretty good solution.
Over an hour and a half later, the signing session had run its course, sending us to the back of the line for the next. When I finally got to Pierce’s table, she’d been going for several hours, between the speech and the subsequent signings. And, by golly, she had a pen in her fingers and was writing her name. She apologized for not personalizing the book—with just 20 minutes before the exhibit hall closed and scores more in line behind me, the publisher had forbidden her to, in order to move things along—and wrote her name in purple ink.
The next day I happened to be speaking to one of her editors, who explained that Pierce had felt so strongly about the Edwards honor that she insisted on actually signing all those books, despite the pain. “I have cooler fans than anybody,” she’d said during her speech.
And we fangirls have a pretty darn cool author.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.