A Lot of Lessons from Tamora Pierce (and Just a Little Theory of Mind)

I don’t know about you guys, but my adolescent years were full of awkward encounters, sweaty palms, and not knowing who on Earth I wanted to be. Was I always going to be a super-shy dork with my nose stuck in a book? Was I going to pretend I didn’t care about school and try to fit in with the kids who ditched homework for football games? Was I going to spiral out from the anxiety I felt about deciding between the two? Did any of it even matter?? Yes, even at twelve, my life was chock-full of these existential-esque thoughts. And then I found Alanna: The First Adventure from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet and everything changed. Suddenly here was someone who was my age, experiencing the same kind of identity-crisis, and she decided to take charge of her life and be who she wanted to be. It didn’t matter that she wanted to be a knight, and the society she lived in forbade warrior maidens. She did it anyway. There is one word that completely sums up Alanna: badass.
It helped that there were countless other books by Pierce that all dealt with girls discovering themselves, so Alanna wasn’t my only role model. Daine from The Immortals; Keladry from Protector of the Small; and all the other kickass heroines she sprinkled through her stories. These characters all behaved differently, and had different ambitions with their own unique set of challenges to vanquish. But one thing united them: they were girls, and they didn’t let anything stop them. Here were awesome ladies who didn’t quite know who they were, but they didn’t let social pressures affect their budding selves. They proved to me that it was okay to go for what you wanted, and to fight back if people tried to stop you or put you down.
I won't lie - the impact these books had on my personal life helped pave the path to the research I'm conducting now. I'm particularly interested in cognitive poetics, which is an interdisciplinary field that combines literary analysis with psychology and neuroscience, to create an entirely new way of looking at books. It starts to unravel the questions of why we care about reading fiction, even though we know it's entirely made-up. Part of the answer is it helps us understand other people - real people - through understanding characters in fiction. There's a concept called theory of mind, which means understanding and representing other people's mental states, which is a powerful social tool. By reading and comprehending the intricate social dynamics represented in fiction, readers can learn how to interpret similarly nuanced situations in real life. (This is a very watered-down definition of both cognitive poetics and theory of mind, so if you want to know more, just say something in the comments - believe me, I can go on and on about it ad naseum.) My point here is, there is more and more scientific proof that our brains are changed by reading fiction, and I know that the books I read as an adolescent taught me more than just about grammar and plot. They showed me ways I could act in the real world, and that nothing could limit me, least of all myself.
I would’ve been a very different person without these books. Less confident, less outgoing, and less kickass. There’s a reason why my fifth-grade teacher told my parents, “Katy is really coming out of her shell this year.” Well, yeah. I had fictional role models who showed me how to pry open that sucker and get out. Here are some of the other life lessons (most of which were cemented through understanding through theory of mind) imparted by these great books.
Doing something “like a girl” is awesome, and in no way weak.This is pretty much the bread-and-butter rule of all Pierce’s books – girls are the best. My favourite hero, as I said, is Alanna, who trains as a knight. And I am talking sword-wielding, knife-throwing, horse-riding knight. It takes a determination and work ethic that I still dream of, but she turns out to be the best knight of her time, “even though” she’s a girl. Whenever I felt like I couldn’t do something because it was a boy thing, I always asked myself: What would Alanna do? Answer: do it better.
It doesn’t matter where you come from – you have the power to change your life.Daine is a girl from some backcountry hole in an icy nowhere-land whose village tries to kill her because they think she’s crazy. Turns out she has wild magic, which is a very rare skill, and she uses it to help her run away to find better, non-murdering people. They help her cultivate her magic, making her super powerful in her own right. So even if you’re surrounded by ignorant and prejudiced people as a kid – it doesn’t matter. You have the power to leave them all behind and be yourself. In your face, village-jerks.
You don’t always know how to feel – and that’s okay.Alanna had a confusing love life, what with disguising herself as a boy and all. First there’s that scene (you know what I’m talking about) with Jonathan, and the whole romantic drama that is their lives. Then there’s George, who’s been her best friend for so long and really takes care of her, but can’t go adventuring with her. Plus there’s the overriding feeling that Alanna never wants to marry or have kids because she thinks she’d have to give up being a wandering knight. SO MANY FEELS. And it’s okay. People have the feels, and you can work through it. Alanna eventually sorted it out, and if she has time for that while fighting magical-ape-gods, then you will too.

Don’t lie about the important stuff. Most of the time.Okay, so Alanna technically lied about her sex for several years, but that was because it was the only way for her to be a knight. I’m thinking more about when Daine pretended that she couldn’t meditate because she was afraid of losing herself to the animals. Once Numair knew what the problem was, he could fix it super easily, which in turn helped Daine’s power grow. It ended up completely changing her life, teaching me that lying about major things is a no-no. Unless it’s to make the world a better place…

Unjust rules don’t have to be followed.This makes me think of high-and-mighty things, like Thomas Jefferson saying it’s a person’s duty to overthrow a corrupt government (or something like that). But it really hits home with Alanna’s story. And has a lot of spooky parallels with our world, too. Girls being barred from doing things just because of their sex is ridiculous, and Alanna proves that. Her actions change her world, and soon girls are allowed to train as knights.
Sometimes you need help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.This ties in with the whole not-lying thing. If Daine had asked for help, she wouldn’t have needed to hide things from her friends. (Okay, I get that she didn’t really trust people much after her village tried to kill her, but still.) Later she learns from this, and tries to elicit help from whales to aid her friends in battle. They say no, but she does end up getting the attention of a kraken. Yes, a kraken. He then dispatches the enemy’s boats and saves dozens of lives. Which just goes to show that help can come from the darndest places.
The great stuff is always worth fighting for.I don’t even mean this in the strictly physical way, though sometimes that’s necessary.  Again, this is a motif in lots of Pierce’s books, but I think Alanna and Keladry embody it best. Keladry is the first girl who trains as a knight after Alanna’s actions led to it being made legal. But oh man does Kel have to put up with a whole bunch of stuff that Alanna didn’t have to. Now people can be sexist outright and to Kel’s face. Alanna may have had to prove to herself that she was better than the boys, but Kel has to prove it to herself and to everyone else. But she doesn’t give up. She becomes the first person to openly become a female knight, and it’s totally worth it. Which makes me want to say: Never give up; never surrender.
Being true to who you are is the best thing you can do.All of Pierce’s characters prove this, because at some point they all consider giving up. Life is hard. Being a girl is hard when you live in a world that’s full of demeaning, patriarchal jerks. But these ladies figuratively pull up their britches (cause some of them wear dresses sometimes) and get on with it. They know they won’t be satisfied taking on a role that relegates them to a second-class kind of life. Alanna says no to being a noble lady; Daine says no to being helpless; and Kel says no to all the haters who try to get her to quit. Deep down they’re fighting to be the people they want to be. Sometimes it sucks, but it most definitely makes up for it when you feel true to yourself. And everytime I forgot that, or wanted to take the easy way out, I remembered them and what they would do. Punch negativity in the face.

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