I recently re-read one of my favorite books: First Test (Protector of the Small), first of a quartet by Tamora Pierce. I first read it in middle school and have re-read it a dozen times since. It is a young adult, sword-and-sorcery story about a strong girl (Keladry) who wants to use her fighting skills to become a knight and protect those who are less able to defend themselves and must prove herself to a sexist training master at the palace.
These books have been a continuous presence in my life. I’ve taken them from house to house, on long trips. In a very real way, they have come with me wherever I have gone, because the stories are stitched into my understanding of myself.
I don’t re-read it for the story, which while beloved by me and thousands of other readers, isn’t groundbreaking. I re-read it because Keladry reminds me who I am and who I want to be. I started reading Tamora Pierce’s books when I was as fixed in my personality as muddy putty is in a shape.
I learned to see the world through Alanna, Daine, and Kel. When I began wrestling in high school, I expected to fight bullies, like Kel did, and I forced myself to do push-ups so I could better keep up with the boys because Kel had taught me that was a good way to match up physically with boys. Pierce’s books shaped my world into one where I could be strong, and have friends, and be smart.
When I re-read them, I don’t only get the encouraging messages with which the author infuses her works. I remember what I was thinking when I first read that line, the huge crush I had on that character, the time I was motivated at practice because I wanted to be more like Kel. I treat the books like my external personality hard-drive: I’m checking to see if I like my current configuration, and have the option of re-installing from disk if I do not.
I don’t necessarily want to grow up to be Kel, she’s not a writer and has little time for politics in her life, but I’ve mentally tagged each part of her story with parts of my own life, so re-reading the books reminds me of who I am and who I was, and who I continue to be. The books keep me consistent in the best sense: they remind me that it’s ok to say “honorable” or “protector” and mean it.
Kel continues to challenge me. In Pittsburgh, I only have the first of the books of her series (as it is a copy a friend in Pittsburgh who knows Ms Pierce had signed for me) and none of the local universities have the rest. I asked why not: the reference desk informed they they don’t carry many novels because they’re not relevant to faculty’s research interests.
Having learned so much of who I am by reading novels, I’m not sure how any library, research or not, can be complete without fiction. Because of cut-backs, I’ve yet to be able to get a Pittsburgh city library card, since most branches close before I’m out of class for the day. I’ve asked my mother, who I’ll be seeing at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing next week, to pack the next three books for me.
I feel a tug to finish reading Kel’s story not because I’ve forgotten how it goes–she gets wiser, braver, stronger, and funnier–but because I want to remember who I was the last time I read it, see how I’ve grown, and see what I still want to be.
[Between Kel and the head cleaning-woman when her fellow pages wreck her room and scrawl “Girls Can’t Fight!” on her walls.] “Salma’s mouth twisted wryly. ‘What do they think their mothers do, when the lords are at war and a raiding party strikes? Stay in their solars and tat lace?’ That made Kel smile. ‘My aunt lit barrels of lard and had them catapulted onto Scanran ships this summer.’ ‘As would any delicately reared noblewoman.'”– First Test (Protector of the Small) by Tamora Pierce.