This post is in continued marking of Banned Books Week, which runs this year from September 24 through October 1. Also, this post may contain book spoilers, but not major ones.
You won’t find Alanna on the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books (by year or by decade), nor does her author Tamora Pierce appear as one of the most frequently challenged authors, but that doesn’t mean reader access isn’t restricted. In my case, it means I learned to be sneaky about it.
Which is ironic, given that I completed The Song of the Lioness Quartet several months before I read Deenie. I think the difference is that with Deenie, it never really dawned on me that my teachers would consider this novel objectionable. Whereas with the Alanna books, there was never any doubt in my mind that people in authority in my school and church would consider them the insidious, poisonous, sexy heresy of Satan.
Because, starting in the second book, Alanna has sex. She begins having sex as a teenager, and throughout the course of the quartet, she has three different partners. I had never, ever before read a book where this happened, let alone where it was characterized in an empowering way.
Alanna doesn’t get pregnant, and in fact, contraception is explicitly discussed in a way that’s in line with the reality of the novel. (As in, I don’t think it’s fair to decry magical pregnancy protection as ridiculous in a fantasy novel where there is already magical everything else.)
There is nothing to suggest that she ever acquires a sexually transmitted infection. (Something that’s not explicitly addressed, which is a valid criticism.)
In all cases, Alanna clearly desires the sexual relationships she enters, and she is often the initiating partner. She doesn’t apologize for having a sex drive or for acting on that sex drive in consensual, like-minded relationships.
Finally, having premarital sex with multiple partners does not devastate Alanna either socially or emotionally. At no point does she equate having sex to giving away her virginity, tarnishing her purity, or otherwise sullying her reputation. For the most part, no one judges Alanna for her sex life. True, there is one character who calls Alanna a “slut,” but by that point in the story, it’s pretty clear that said name-calling is a reflection on the other character, rather than meaningful judgment of Alanna’s choices.
In short, these were the first books I ever read that showed:
- Women (and girls becoming women) can want sex because they actually want sex, rather than because they are, say, pressured by the concept of wanting a boyfriend.
- Sex might not actually ruin our lives.
At age ten, I had already been sufficiently slut-shamed to recognize that this was never going to pass for acceptable — or even frowned upon, grumbled about, but for fuck’s sake it’s a fictional story resigned-to — in my world.
Yet I couldn’t not read them (or re-read them or re-re-read them), and I couldn’t not share them. Fortunately, the multiple readings worked out in my favor. Eventually, I had to repair the bindings of my copies with duct tape because I’d literally read them to the point where they were falling apart. The duct tape obscured the cover art and the titles, and it made each book look pretty generic and interchangeable. In fact, I had a few other — non-objectionable, according to school — duct-taped books I was already sharing. When I discovered this added benefit, it didn’t take me long to nominate additional books for re-binding as well. I soon became caretaker to a small middle school lending library — of mostly conservative-Christian-approved fiction but including the Alanna books and, eventually, Deenie — of novels in silver camouflage.
Of course, I couldn’t or wouldn’t camouflage everything. Some books I’d borrowed from other people or actual libraries. Some I’d received as gifts or had purchased new and felt wrong about covering them in tape. With some, I wanted to keep the exquisite cover art visible. Eventually, I got plain tired of being pressured to hide the “objectionable” material I was reading — though I still worried about being found out anyway.
But I have to give credit where credit is due.
Tamora Pierce and Alanna of Trebond, of course.
But let’s not forget duct tape: Bringing empowering female sexuality to repressive educational institutions since 1992.