For young readers growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the impact of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet (often called the Alanna books) was indelible. Decades later, readers who embraced the books as children still recall the thrill of reading them and recognize the impact the books had on their lives. For some, they fostered a life-long interest in the fantasy genre and a feminist perspective. Authors including Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, Holly Black, and Marie Lu have credited Pierce’s work with making them want to become writers. New generations have continually embraced the books and now early fans have begun introducing their own children to the series.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the books, Atheneum Books for Young Readers is reissuing special editions, the covers of which are seen here for the first time. The anniversary editions include hardcover and paperback versions out on August 29, a reissue of the paperback boxed set with new art, and the first-ever hardcover boxed set, available September 26. All editions will include an afterword by Pierce.
At the beginning of her career, Pierce said she “didn’t think about the books—book, when it started—having any kind of impact. I just liked adventures.” She had grown up reading classic fantasy, science fiction, and lots of history. Stories of trailblazing women such as Queen Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc had always appealed to her, although she “wanted to see the girls doing what the boys did.” She loved stories of women passing for men, such as the women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny and undercover soldiers during the U.S. Civil War.
In creating Alana’s story, Pierce was writing the narratives that she’d always wanted to read. “Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings was my idol, and I saluted her heroism and her need to defeat her worst enemy,” she says. “It broke my heart as a kid when she gave up the sword to be a wife, mother, and healer. Not that I have anything against those things. Alanna heals, too. But I didn’t see why she had to give up fighting to do it. I wrote a story with a girl who didn’t."
The path to publication wasn’t at first clear. Pierce was working at a literary agency and writing an adult novel when she first decided to shop the story that would become the Song of the Lioness quartet. Her first agent, Claire Smith, read the work in progress and advised Pierce to break it into four parts and make it into a young adult novel. It sounded like a brush-off at the time, Pierce said, but when Smith followed up several months later, she got to work on revising. Smith submitted the book to renowned Atheneum editor Jean Karl who initially said no, but agreed to look at revised pages. Pierce supplied them
it, along with a plot summary. “ ‘Well, if you make the changes we discussed, I’ll take the series,’ ” Pierce recalled Karl saying. “It wasn’t until I was pressing the button for the elevator that I realized I’d just sold my first series,” adding that she didn’t understand at the time how lucky she was to have been given a chance.
A Positive Feedback Loop
One of the more gratifying aspects of such an enduring career, she said, has been the opportunity to introduce fans to other writers who she thought they might enjoy. The fandom is a two-way street. From her readers, she says, “I got ideas for new series, new characters, and new conflicts. We were a self-perpetuating mechanism after a certain point. They knew what they wanted, and what they wanted inspired me.” She said she never tires of hearing from fans who say her books motivated them to go into the military or become a writer or engineer. “They all make me proud beyond belief. I brag about my fans every chance I get,” she said. Because Alanna “had to disguise herself as something and someone else in order to be herself,” Pierce said, the character has become an icon to many young LGBTQ+ readers. “The number of nonbinary and trans people who love Alanna and have told me how much she means to them is something I never predicted,” Pierce said. “Their stories pushed me to include more openly LGBTQ+ folks as best as I could in a setting that didn’t have the language to describe their experiences the way we do in our world. I want people to see that the world is an infinite place, and that includes gender and sexuality.”
That inclusive perspective has exposed her books to bans. “The people who try to ban books are acting out of fear, pure and simple,” she said. “They see evil and corruption in new ideas,” she continued, “but the young are not dough. You can’t squish them into a shape you find appropriate. They think for themselves and explore. Trying to stop that is like trying to stop a tsunami. You can’t do it.”
Atheneum editor Sophia Jimenez isn’t just overseeing the reissues—she’s also a fan. “Pierce’s books were hugely memorable experiences for a couple different generations of readers, who then have wanted to share that experience with everyone they know—myself included,” she said. “Adventures steered by strong, brave, funny girls who also visibly struggled for that strength? Fantasy novels where people did normal things like go to the bathroom and worry about dressing for the weather? And romances where the characters talked to each other like equals and had a sense of humor about the whole thing? Twelve-year-old Sophia said, ‘Sign me up.’ ”
Like many, Jimenez believes that “these books were absolutely ahead of their time in centering a girl who didn’t fit the traditional role of a woman in her society, showing Alanna having normal coming-of-age experiences, going through puberty and exploring her sexuality, right on the page alongside epic adventures.”
With the new cover designs, Jimenez said, the goal was not only to acknowledge Alanna as an iconic character but to focus on the power and strength that makes her so beloved. “Many of the previous covers for this series have either gone with a traditional ‘medieval fantasy’ aesthetic or have used a more symbolic approach that doesn’t visually center Alanna herself,” she said. “Designer Rebecca Syracuse and I wanted to show Alanna in strong, dynamic poses that cue how epic her adventures really are. And our incredible cover artist, Yuta Onoda, was right on the same wavelength with us.” The books “keep becoming relevant in new ways,” she added, and the new covers reflect the message that these stories are for “anyone who believes they can be something more than what society tells them they’re supposed to be.”
Pierce is currently working on the second in a duology about Arram Draper, the mage known as Numair in her Numair Chronicles series. She has also started returning to in-person events post-pandemic. “I miss seeing new places and getting to talk to my fans face to face,” she said. “I have cooler fans than anybody, and anyone who knows me has heard me say it at least once.”