This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Margaret A. Edwards Award, given annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association to an author in honor of work that makes a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” The award, which is sponsored by SLJ, was presented Saturday during the American Library Association’s annual conference in Chicago to Tamora Pierce for her “Song of the Lioness” and “The Protector of the Small” series.
As is tradition, the winning author is the featured speaker at the event―and this year, the feisty and mischievous Pierce did not disappoint. After introductory remarks from Jack Martin, YALSA president, and Jamie Watson, chair of the 2013 Edwards committee, Pierce took to the microphone. She spoke in a soft monotone about how honored she was, mentioned her experience of attending conferences and listening to librarians and readers, and paused frequently to cough.
The audience was initially confused; where was the feminist personality they had come to see? Where was the warm, outsized writer whose online persona so many knew? There was a hush in the room, an almost palpable sense of disappointment. This was Tamora Pierce? This was the woman whose books had, for many attendees, been transformative reading in their own teen years?
And then Pierce dropped her punchline: she’s not that dull, robot-voiced speaker―but she likes to see the discomfort. “The thought of your pain and suffering makes me happy,” she said gleefully. The audience laughed appreciatively, thoroughly warmed up, and Pierce’s real speech began.
Readers familiar with Pierce’s work will know that she focuses on strong, spunky female heroes in well-realized fantasy worlds, a theme she discussed at length. Pierce spoke passionately about her own childhood reading of heroic tales and a few bright, bold girl books, and the tensions at home that tore her in two directions and at one point almost made her give up writing.She described discovering fantasy novels, where “women could be warriors. Except, well…”
In the fantasy of Pierce’s childhood, women were sword fodder or “over-sexed trollops.” So Pierce set out to write real fantasy: books in which chainmail bikinis would never make an appearance, featuring women “who would not surrender who they had fought to become. Even if they fell in love.”
Heads nodded. This was the speech people had come to hear!
Pierce wrote realistic fantasy―with bathrooms, contraception, and consequences―because she wanted to live in it. Her books reflect her whole self: Alanna comes from Pierce’s adolescence, but Kel comes from a deeper, adult understanding of the complications and challenges that face women in the military and other typically male-dominated, physically challenging jobs. The verisimilitude of Kel’s experiences reflects research and dedication: martial arts, interviews and conversations with women in the military, and a reflection on 9/11 which occurred as the final book in the Kel quartet was being written―all played a part in making the series ring true.
It’s this dedication to reality that makes Pierce’s books so enduring, and guarantees that she has “the coolest fans of anybody,” a statement in evidence at the end of the luncheon when several librarians who had come of age on Pierce’s books approached her, crying, to finally meet in person the hero who had taught them all about female heroes.
For those who missed the Edwards luncheon, there is another opportunity to hear from Pierce coming up: she will be keynoting SLJ’s free SummerTeen online event.