For our penultimate guest blog by one of the writers in the Women in Fantasy Storybundle, we present Laura Anne Gilman. Laura Anne has worked in the sf field for a long time. I first met her when she was editing for Roc Books. Like me, she wrote and edited at the same time. Eventually, something had to give, and like any true writer, what she gave up was the full-time editing. She has written many novels and short stories, the latest being Silver on the Road, which begins a new series for her.
Like all of us in this bundle, she flirts with other genres and uses other names. She’s currently writing a mystery series as L.A. Kornetsky. Her website, lauraannegilman.net, lists all of her other work.
Her blog for this site shares how she got her start reading sf/f, and has some great recommendations for those of you new to the fantasy genre.
In Gratitude for the Library of the Teenaged Female
by Laura Anne Gilman
The year was 1978. My mom’s job had her traveling overseas, and she’d gotten permission to take me along. So at the ripe age of 11, I was an international traveler. Which was great – until I ran out of things to read. My mother sent me down to the hotel lobby store, in the hopes that they would have something that was both in English, and reasonably age-appropriate.
What there was, was a lot of internationally bestselling spy novels, all written by men, a few classic-for-the-time bodice rippers… and something with a white dragon on the cover.
I had never heard of Anne McCaffrey before. I’d read Lloyd Alexander, and Andre Norton, but fantasy was for little kids, and I was ready to not be a little kid any more. But… a white dragon. And it looked like a grown-up book.
And did I mention a white dragon?
And it was by a woman, at a time when it was hard to find genre novels by women (especially under their real names).
So I bought it.
I’m not going to say I understood everything in the book, that trip. But that book did something for me: it unlocked the idea that fantasy wasn’t just kid stuff, that falling into an entirely different world was a matter for teenagers, too. And adults. And there was science in her fantasy, even at eleven years old I could see that, even if I didn’t know how improbable it was.
And when I got home, I marched myself into the public library, and informed the children’s librarian that I was done with all that, I wanted access to the adult’s books, now.
And the librarian – name forgotten, but not their kindness – marched me into the adult’s section, positioned me in front of the paperback rack, and said “start here.”
Now, my local library did their best, but this was the late 1970’s, and science fiction was still ranked just (barely) above romance novels as things Serious People Did Not Read. There was a bunch of paperbacks from the 1960’s that had been donated- pulpy adventures ala E.E. “Doc” Smith – and a few copies of the Heinlein “juvies” as they were called back then, and a handful of what we now consider the classics (Dune, etc). None of them were what I was looking for. Thankfully, I was able to find Madeleine L’Engle, but as marvelous as her books were, they weren’t quite what I was looking for.
And then we went to visit my aunt and uncle, and I suddenly realized that they had bookcases of SF and fantasy. Acres of speculative fiction. And they were willing to let me borrow whatever I wanted.
(In retrospect, James Blish’s Cities in Flight wasn’t my best first grab, but you live and you learn…)
But even then, with all those choices… it wasn’t quite right. I didn’t want hard SF. I didn’t want Martian princess or philosophical musings under an alien sky, Le Guin’s elegant questioning, Donaldson’s cynicism, or Tolkien’s gorgeous language. I didn’t even want dragons, per se. I wanted books that weren’t afraid – or ashamed – to lead with their emotion.
But trying to explain this to people, especially as a female teenager… even from the most well-meaning people, I got a significant amount of book-shaming, as though an emotion-led book somehow wasn’t as acceptable, that it was lowbrow, downmarket, teenaged female.
It took me a long time to learn how to tell those people to fuck off. And I mourn every month of the time I didn’t, where I forced myself to read books I don’t want, because they were somehow “better” – and, interestingly, were mostly written by white males. Hrmmm.
I’ve read a lot since then, and my tastes have changed, expanded. I admire the craft of the distanced narrator, the brain-puzzles of hard SF mysteries, the importance of the plot-driven story (I even write a few of them myself). But I still remember with great affection the writers who gave me emotional support and companionship during my adolescence. Some of them you may have heard of. Some of them you might not. But I think they’re all worth having on your shelves – either for yourself, or the next eleven-year-old in your life.
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. One of the few boy-focused books where I could easily let my brain turn the protagonist into a girl of the same age, without disrupting the story (I’d always wondered what might have happened if she had).
Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books. Even then, I knew they were silly – but they’re also addictive. While other kids were watching soaps, I was reading these books. Long before Game of Thrones made love and ambition bloody, these books showed me why they’re dangerous.
Nancy Springer. Slender, deceptively simple books that plant seeds in your head for long-term growing.
Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. I’ll be the first to make “my pretty pony eyelash” jokes here, but I’ll also freely admit that these were my comfort re-reads, up through my 20’s. And I know I’m not alone.
Who were your beloved teenaged book-companions, and why?