Being a geek in a college English major was occasionally a test in patience. Aside from one course in speculative fiction, pretty much the entire program banned any discussion or work in the field. The reason, as one professor lectured when I asked, was that science fiction and fantasy “isn’t real literature” and “has no meaning in the real world.”
I did not voice my disagreement with the professor, did bland but proficient work in her class, and never took a class with her again. Even at that point, I felt that I’d gained more information and advice to help me face the real world through fantasy novels than I ever gained from the kinds of books she taught in her class.
The fantasy series that’s most informed the life I eventually grew into as an adult was Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet, which follows a girl named Keladry of Mindelan who enrolls to train as a page in order to become a knight. While she’s not going to become the first female knight – her role model, Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop, became the first “lady knight” years before Kel’s story begins – she’s the first to enroll as a girl, whereas Alanna pretended to be a boy named Alan.
Kel’s journey to knighthood is long and filled with a lot of people who really don’t want her to succeed basically because she’s a girl. When she arrives as a ten-year-old, she finds her dorm room covered in graffiti telling her to go home because she doesn’t belong there. In the third book the quartet, Squire, Kel wakes up very suddenly in the night when a man bursts into her room, screaming at her with insults like “trollop” and “jumped-up merchant slut.”
I was only twelve or so when I read the book for the first time. This is a little ridiculous, I thought to myself when I read it, and again a year or so later when I read the scene in the conclusion to the quartet when a man displeased with Kel’s command style implies she’s a whore. Grown adults can’t possibly act like that. It’s almost as cartoonish as when the coyote in Looney Toons doesn’t fall right away when he walks off a cliff.
Twelve-year-old me has eaten those words for breakfast after the evolution of the social internet. And as an adult, I’ve reflected on these books far more often than I wish I needed to when encountering men who think I’m unable to do a job because of my gender.
In the scene from the final book in the series, Lady Knight, Kel responds to the man – who’s implied she’s a prostitute in front of a crowd of people she’s responsible for leading – by remarking that the first thing a man comments on when a woman disagrees with him is her sexual reputation or her menstrual cycle. This conversation was the first thing that came to mind when I read about Donald Trump’s obvious implications towards Kirsten Gillibrand, when he said she “would do anything” to get campaign contributions.
Trump’s accusation, coming just after Gillibrand called for his resignation over sexual assault allegations, is an attack on a senator’s reputation that’s almost unbelievably cartoonish in its obvious misogyny. Any woman who’s worked professionally or used the internet knows exactly what kind of “anything” is meant by the tweet.
The language is so similar to what Kel faces in Protector of the Small that I almost felt like an incredulous twelve-year-old again. Grown adults can’t possibly act like that.
But grown adults do act like that – and women’s sexual histories, whether real or imagined, are often used as weapons against them when they attempt to wield power. As one military commander tells Kel in Squire, “So long as there are nobles and commoners, the wealthy and the poor, those with power will be heard, and those without ignored. That’s the world.”
There are adults who believe that children’s reading should be restricted both out of a sense of what constitutes “real” literature as well as an idea that children need to be protected from unpleasant realities. This isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, either: one of this year’s bestselling contemporary novels for teens, The Hate U Give, was pulled from a school district’s library shelves, citing drug use and explicit language. But there are certain ugly truths about the world that children and teens will grow into that books like The Hate U Give and the Protector of the Small series address – issues readers will eventually face in one form or another.
In a lot of ways, Protector of the Small prepared me to be a woman on the internet with its frank depiction of the things women get called for being ambitious or not “staying in their lane.” But Protector of the Small has also prepared me for a world in which the President of the United States makes sexual implications about a Senator with no apparent consequences and no concern about facing any.
Science fiction and fantasy in general can teach younger readers about difficulties they may face in the future or about ugly realities in the world, all while disguising themselves as action-adventure stories that are fun and enjoyable. Series like Protector of the Small take it a step further: they show readers not only those ugly realities, but what to do when facing them. Kel begins the series as a girl who can’t let kittens or younger boys at school be tormented by those who think themselves powerful, her motivation for becoming a knight in the first place. Over the course of the series, she used her physical, economic, and political power to protect those metaphorically smaller than herself. When she finally earns her shield, her reputation for protecting the powerless leads to her nickname: the protector of the small.
The difficulties that Kel faces in the series may have prepared me to live in America in 2017, but the actions she chooses showed me as a child what kind of person is truly heroic and the kind of person I should aspire to be: someone who protects others with the strengths and privileges I have. In the world we inhabit today, Protector of the Small doesn’t just hold up – it’s as timely as it can get.