Liam has been obsessed with books by Tamora Pierce, who writes fantasy-adventure books filled with magic, knights, quests, and feats of derring-do. The protagonists in most of these books, however, are girls, and I wondered, in a brief moment of gender stereotyping, why Liam found them so fascinating.

The first quartet, Song of the Lioness, is about a girl named Alanna, who switches places with her twin brother Thom. Thom goes off to study socerery and Alanna dresses up as “Alan” in order to take Thom’s place as an apprentice knight.  In Alanna, The First Adventure, “Alan” must struggle to compete against other apprentices who are all bigger and stronger than she is, so she studies and practices endlessly in order to triumph in her various endeavors.

I realized that in Alanna, Liam found a kindred spirit: he’s the smallest kid in fourth grade and despite being incredibly athletic, he has to work twice as hard to keep up with the other boys, many of whom are already half-a-foot taller than he is.

Unlike Alanna, however, Liam doesn’t have magical powers.  Alanna is also a Healer,  it seems, and when she helps to heal people, she glows with a violet light; she can also create an electric-blue force field between herself and her enemies. 

During her time as an apprentice, Alanna starts to grow up: first her breasts start to develop, but she figures out how to wrap her chest tightly so that her body doesn’t give away her secret (it is forbidden for women to become knights, in this world).  Alanna also experiences her first period, which is explained in vague terms as “bleeding from a secret place between her leg,” and later as her “monthly cycle.” She finds a woman who explains what the blood means–that she can now bear children if she “lies with a man,” but that’s the extent of the detail.

Curious about how Liam reacted to these descriptions of a girl coming of age, I brought it up the other night when I was helping wash his hair: “When Alanna has that ‘monthly cycle,’ you remember, I wondered if you had any questions about that, because that’s part of what happens when a girl starts to grow up…”

He stared at me, eyes wide open.

“You mean that stuff REALLY HAPPENS?”

I guess his reaction makes sense. I mean, what’s more fantastical: occasionally glowing purple or bleeding from some secret place once a month?