Until the age of ten, I was not just a reluctant reader but a fearful one. Reading didn’t come naturally to me. When we started reading lessons in first grade, my homeroom teacher berated those of us who struggled and didn’t stop the other children in the class from teasing us, either. One day during recess, my classmates literally chased me out of the playground because I couldn’t read. I cried in the bathtub that night convinced I would never make it to second grade.
My mother quickly hired a reading tutor for me and by the end of the school year I was reading as well as everyone else. But the shame and insecurity that reading provoked stayed with me. This being the 1980s, I was obsessed with the televised series Avonlea based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels, and fell in love with the world of Prince Edward Island, but I never would have considered reading them. The idea that reading could be pleasurable was anathema. I read only what was required for schoolwork and then very begrudgingly.
That all changed the day my school librarian put Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce in my hands. We shouldn’t judge books by their covers but this one captivated ten-year-old me. A girl held a glowing sword and she looked proud, strong –– things I didn’t feel. Behind her lay an enchanted if dangerous seeming city. I wanted to go there. For the first time, I felt a fizzing excitement, a desire to break the spine. “Just try it,” the librarian said with a somewhat knowing smile. It was a Friday afternoon. I spent the weekend in Tortall.
In the fantasy kingdom of Tortall, I met Alanna of Trebond who wants nothing more than to become a knight. Her twin brother, Thom longs to become a sorcerer. Unfortunately, Alanna is destined to become a proper noblewoman and her brother a knight. So, they switch places. Alanna disguises herself as “Alan” and takes her brother’s place as a page at the palace. Once she arrives, it is far from plain sailing. While she befriends the crown prince, Jonathan, she also draws the ire of a bully called Ralon.
Being a knight-in-training is exhausting work: reading, writing, and history classes on top of horseback riding and hand-to-hand combat lessons. Alanna nearly gives up –– but she doesn’t. Ralon hasn’t forgotten about Alanna, however. He harasses her, shoves her around and finally breaks her arm in a scuffle. Alanna’s friends retaliate, giving Ralon a beating, but Ralon continues to make Alanna’s life as miserable as he can. I saw myself in Alanna, felt her plight keenly but at the same time I was so invested in her story and what would happen to her that I forgot I was reading.
In case you’re wondering, Ralon got his comeuppance. Not prepared to let her friends fight her battles for her, Alanna enlists the help of George Cooper, aka the King of Thieves. He teaches her different kinds of combat techniques and after several weeks of training, Alanna challenges Ralon to a fight. And it is a pummeling for the ages. Alanna breaks his nose, beats him bloody, and Ralon flees the palace with his tail between his legs. You better believe that I cheered in my bedroom and frightened my cat. Schadenfreude was not yet in my vocabulary but it kept me warm that night.
Alanna captured my heart in a way no character had before and very few have since. I didn’t go into school the following Monday and beat up my bullies (except in my mind) but Alanna gave me a different kind of courage. I rushed into the library as soon as it opened, book in hand, and found the librarian’s desk. She assured me that I didn’t need to renew the book for another week because it usually took several renewals for me to finish anything.
Puffing out my chest, I declared I’d finished it and that I needed to know what happened next. The Song Of The Lioness quartet follows Alanna as she succeeds in not only becoming a knight but also as a powerful wielder of magic. Throughout the series Alanna faces bigger threats, more dangerous rivals and she has moments of self-doubt and despair, but she perseveres.
The Lioness of the title refers to Alanna’s coat of arms, which changes from her family sigil of a black castle to a golden Lioness on a red background when she finally reveals to the court that she is a woman. By the end of the series, Alanna has embraced all of the complex aspects of herself and she’s become the Lioness.
Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series gave back to me the joy of reading that my bullies had stolen. If I hadn’t become a reader, I certainly wouldn’t have become an author. Almost thirty years later, I’m writing my own determined female protagonists, such as Lucy in The Tesla Legacy, because Alanna inspired me to believe that one day I might be a lioness too. So, thank you, Tamora Pierce, and hear me roar!
The Tesla Legacy is out now from Tor Teen.