March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

World Builder: Edwards Winner Tamora Pierce

Photo by Michael J. Okoniewski /Getty Images for SLJ.

When Tamora Pierce found out that she had won the 2013 Margaret A. Edwards Award, she was initially speechless. Murmuring too softly for Jamie Watson and the rest of the award committee to hear, Pierce wondered, “Has anybody

mentioned I have a bit of a problem with potty mouth?” Fortunately, nobody on the committee heard this remark, and the secret has been safe until now. While choosing a person “with a bit of a potty mouth” might make for an entertaining Edwards speech, Pierce’s selection as the 2013 Edwards winner honors several decades of writing feminist fantasy featuring kick-butt female protagonists who appeal widely to both male and female readers.

Pierce’s writing, however, has never won the Printz or Newbery awards. In fact, her “Song of the Lioness series, honored by the Edwards committee, was initially conceived of as an adult novel. Fortunately, she says, that much different (and horrible) version does not exist today. She credits her transformation to beloved teen author to the time she spent telling stories as a house-mother in a group home for teen girls. Since her first book, Alanna the Lioness, came out in 1983, Pierce has been quietly writing exceptional and thoughtful fantasy that serves as a beacon for young readers who want to see themselves as heroes. This year, the Margaret A. Edwards Award, sponsored by SLJ and administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association, honors her lasting and significant contribution to readers of all ages and both genders with a tribute that many claim is 10 years overdue.

In Pierce’s shoes, I might be tempted, in the face of all the attention showered upon Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) or Veronica Roth (Divergent) and other wildly popular authors of fiction featuring strong female characters to scream, “BUT I HAVE BEEN WRITING ABOUT WEAPON-WIELDING FEMALE HEROES FOR YEARS!” Pierce, however, welcomes the company.

“Actually I’m just glad it ain’t so lonesome out there anymore,” she says. “I like to read it, too, you know. Some of them are like guys in drag, but not Suzanne Collins and Kristin Cashore. When Graceling and Hunger Games came out in the same year, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It made me so very happy.”

As for the current meme lamenting the lack of action-packed boy books? Even over the phone I can see Pierce’s eyes roll as she instantly names authors and titles, only stopping because her website lists many such titles for those who mistakenly insist that somehow boys are not served by recently published books, to say nothing of the fact that her fans include many boys, including this one.

Pierce lives with her “Spouse-Creature” in Syracuse, New York. This interview was conducted on International Women’s Day—I’d love to say that it was intentional, but it was just serendipity. On that cold, winter day we enjoyed a warm discussion of her writing and the issues and themes she regularly addresses in her fiction. She even offered men the absolute best advice for how to nurture the innate hero in their daughters.

A person with a misspelled name is obviously destined to become the winner of the Margaret Edwards Award for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature, right?

What you said about me not having won any previous big awards, like a Newbery or a Printz? That sort of piles up. So when you do win a big one, you’re sitting there going, “I could have sworn he just said I got the Edwards Award.” It’s sort of not sinking through. It’s just too unbelievable.

My mother wanted to name me “Tamara,” but the nurse who filled out my birth certificate had never heard of such a fancy name (we are talking Pennsylvania coal country in the 1950s), so she misspelled it, and I legitimately became Tamora (pronounced like “camera”). I actually like it better than Tamara, which means “graceful” and “a palm tree,” and is the name of a Russian saint. I am none of these things.

I had started my fantasy-writing career in college. I had written a lot as a teenager, but my adult career didn’t really begin until college. I broke through the short-story-to-novel barrier in June of 1976. Five months later I had a dream. I woke up, and by the time I got to the typewriter and sat down and started to write, I actually only had a fragment left. I don’t retain dreams very well. And I only had an image left from that dream, and I never included it in the finished book.

But somehow that dream or that fragment unlocked something in my head, that same story that I’d been attempting to tell all along of a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become a knight. I wrote the first scene in which the father tells his twins that he’s arranged their lives for the next eight years or so, and I wrote the next scene and the scene after that and the scene after that. I sometimes call it my string-of-pearls novel because for the first and only time, I just kept writing the next scene until five months and 732 manuscript pages later I had a finished novel. I got the title from my boyfriend. He said, “How about The Song of the Lioness?” And I said, “Sounds good to me.”

Then you split that one book into the four books?

I was sending it around to adult publishers, and my life was sort of going up and down. I was out of college, living with my dad and stepmother in Idaho. I had gotten the only job that I ever was educated for. I became a housemother in a group home for teenaged girls. The girls wanted to read my book, and I wanted them to read it because I didn’t want them to think I was shining them on when I said I was a writer. When the director found out it was an adult novel with sex and violence and drug and alcohol use in it—and since those were the things that had gotten the girls into the home in the first place—he didn’t want them reading about them in a book by an authority figure, which is what I was passing for at the time.

So every afternoon, when I was on shift, the girls would come home from school or before bedtime and literally drag me to the dining room table and give me the binder I had the manuscript in, and they would say, “Pierce, tell us more about Alanna.” And I would sit there with the binder in my lap and I would retell the story to them, suitably edited. Well, apparently not as suitably as the director of the home would have liked, but if he wanted it more suitably edited he should have been there.

I moved to New York after I left the home and went to work for a literary agency. The agent took a look at my manuscript and said I should turn it into four books for teenagers. I knew it would work because I already had the girls’ reaction. So I had to rewrite it. We tried it on three publishers, and Jean Karl at the third said, “No,” because of the number of pages, so Claire Smith, my agent, talked her into meeting with me, and we talked about the changes she felt the manuscript needed. I rewrote it again, and Atheneum took me on as a writer.

Protector of the Small is a very different series!

Yes. Well, I’d sort of done Alanna a disservice by making her a mage, a wizard, and a knight, and I’d been thinking that I really wanted to try the idea of a girl knight. And these books just caught fire.

Alanna is such a hothead and Kel is so grounded—I always feel like I am reading about real people.

I try to do that. I try very hard to make it so that people can feel they can turn a corner and find my characters there and hang out with them. I base a lot of characters on either people I know or actors or characters they play, but the important thing is they have to feel as real as humanly possible.

Your early books are all around 200 pages and then we get to Trickster’s Choice and the page count doubles and almost triples with “Beka Cooper.”

Ever since they took us off that cursed 200-manuscript-page limit, I just spread out a little, and I don’t have to do four books anymore.

When you think back to “Song of the Lioness” or “Protector of the Small,” now that you have a little more word freedom, what changes would you make?

Well, Song of the Lioness in particular, I look back on it now and I think, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t jammed so much plot into every book. I wish I’d spread out a bit.” But I couldn’t do that to my fans. They’ve fallen in love with those books as they are, each and every word, so I would not touch them. I would not dare to touch them. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Mark Reads. He will record himself reading and reacting. He’d just finished the Alanna books, and it was through his reactions and his audience’s reactions that I discovered that, even though I could see all I would improve, I actually had some good stuff in there.

Do you have a writing routine, an average day?

I have multiple book contracts. So these days by the time I sit down to actually work on a book, I’ve been generally thinking about it at a minimum for four to six years. I’ve been turning the material over in my head. I’ve chosen whoever I’m going to base the characters on. I always try to start—it may not end up that way in the final version, but I try to start—with us meeting the main character, and he’s doing or she’s doing something that tells us something about them. In my first chapters I introduce the main characters, the secondary characters, the main plot, the overarching themes for the book. And if you know me at all, you know my endings are fairly simple. There’s a forest fire, an epidemic, a war, the ground opens up, the palace collapses inside, and the rats reign supreme over all. Then I get to writing, and I’m toggling along, and I hit chapter four or five, and all of a sudden I hit that vast wasteland that I have not outlined for because I don’t outline really. And I realize I have no idea what’s going to happen then. I’ve got to line up my ducks to fetch up the earthquakes, forest fires, ground opens up, palace, rats.

That’s when I scream for my husband.

You and your husband created Sheroes, an online hang out for young women. How did this evolve?

I had fallen into conversation online with a very new to YA writer named Meg Cabot. We were talking about how hard it was for us to find female heroes when we were growing up, real women in the real world. We basically wanted to cover anything that would get girls and young women to talk about female heroes and real-life ones and Meg’s books and my books and anything else that came along. I left in about 2006, because my life sort of exploded, too, but I think it’s still running.

Sex, GBLTQ issues, racism, class warfare, social justice. Have you had any backlash about any of these elements in your work?

Not really. Once or twice in person, usually on the sexual aspects. Twice—once in a county in Oregon and once apparently in North Carolina—Alanna got challenged for sexual material. That’s it.

Is it because it is fantasy writing?

I have no clue. I think it was in SLJ, in an article on YA romance writers getting challenged, someone said, “I don’t get it. Tammy Pierce writes every bit as much sexuality as I do, and nobody ever says anything about her.” I laughed, but it’s true. All that stuff about Harry Potter and witchcraft, and I have been writing plain old paganism ever since 1983 and nobody has said diddly-squat.

What new words may readers expect from Tamora Pierce this year and in 2014?

Well, right now it’s Battle Magic, which is the “Circle Universe.” I’m crunching every day finishing the second draft. Briar, Rose-thorn, and Evvy are caught up in a tiny country fighting off a very much larger and bigger China-like country. I’m almost done with the second draft. My poor editor is working away, and I’m just sending her chapters. It’s very dark, but there’s a lot of really crazy stuff. I don’t know what happened to me, but somewhere along the line when I was writing it, parts of the landscape started to come to life. That’s unusual for me. I usually like to keep the organic stuff organic and the inorganic stuff dead. But it had its own opinions.

Tell us about problems young women face today.

There are just so many traps out there for girls and women. There is the domesticity trap, there is the sexuality trap, there is the intellect trap. If you say too much, you could get called this; if you do too much, you could get called that; girls don’t do this; it’s rude if you do that; if you talk about this, you’re weird; if you talk about that, you’re a slut. I talked too loud and was hushed up. I was interested in boy things and was told to be quiet. I wrote to the FBI to see about becoming an agent and was told that the only option for me was secretarial work. And then I got to college and went to work with a feminist, and got told that because I had a sense of humor it was wrong, and because I was straight I was wrong….

You just can’t be right!

Yeah. It just seemed like judgmentalism is something that women and girls smash into all the time. Writing ways to deal with that and writing ways to say, “Well, here’s who I am”—that seems to be the thing that people take away from what I do. And it doesn’t matter what sex they are, they seem to take away that you do what you want to do with your life, you become who you want to be. It’s going to be a lot of work, it’s going to be really hard, but you can do it if you want it badly enough. But you have to want it badly because the world sets up so many barriers for young people in general. I mean, even for boys.

What advice would you give me and other men to nurture that inner hero of the young women we know?

Be determined and dare to be stupid!

Ed SpicerEd Spicer ( teaches first grade at North Ward Elementary School in Allegan, MI. He was a member of the 2013 Margaret Edwards Award committee, as well as the 2005 Printz Award committee. He reviews teen literature for the Michigan Reading Association.



  1. Kat Kan says:

    I first read Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness back in 1983; I was a brand-new librarian working a temporary position in the Children’s Department, and I grabbed the book off the new book truck as soon as it was processed. I’ve been a fan ever since. I’m so glad she won the Margaret Edwards Award, she deserves it. I’ve already told her that I first met the young lady who would become my daughter-in-law in a bookstore, and we bonded over Pierce’s books (DIL is also a fan). Thanks for the interview, Ed!

  2. Carmen Sandiego says:

    Totally deserved. Her books opened my world and changed my life.

  3. My parents bought me “Alanna: the First Adventure” to tide me over at summer camp back in 1993. I managed to find “In the Hand of the Goddess” the next year, but it wasn’t until 1997 (!) that I finally found the last two books in the series in the basement of Wordsworth. I’d been devotedly looking for them for nearly four years! Having finally finished the series, I didn’t check back with Tamora Pierce for a few years, and imagine my delight and surprise (and slight envy for her newer fans) when I saw all the Alanna books had been re-printed and there was a complete new series, “The Immortals”! Since then, I’ve eagerly anticipated each and every book.

    For me, Pierce is right up there with Ursula K. LeGuin and Andre Norton as one of The Great female scifi/fantasy authors. I’m so glad her work is finally beginning to get the wide recognition she’s deserved since the ’80s!

  4. I’ve been a huge fan of Tamora Pierce since I first started reading her books in high school ten years ago . I was fortunate enough to meet her a couple years later. Now I’m in my late twenties and I still eagerly await each new book. This award is well deserved! :)