By Tamora Pierce
Grade Levels: 6-8
Although both the page and the silver screen are now happily more willing (if still less likely) to feature strong female protagonists for young adults (take as evidence Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and Tris of Divergent), that wasn’t always the case. When Tamora Pierce was growing up, reading and falling in love with The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, she couldn’t find good female role models in this genre, or in most literature. Pierce needed strong, driven women and girls who would show her the kind of person she could grow up to be. And when she didn’t find them in the books she was reading, she wrote them. Pierce started writing in 6th grade and has grown to become a staple of feminist fantasy. Rocketed to fame by her Song of the Lioness series, Pierce continued to write female protagonists for her books in this fictional universe and in many others.
First Test is the initial book of the second quartet, following the Song of the Lioness series. But it isn’t necessary to read the first books to enjoy this one, and we have always found the second series to be more compelling for a modern audience. First Test is the story of Keladry - a young girl growing up in a medieval kingdom that is changing its attitude towards women - but has a long way to go. There are obvious parallels to Keldary’s kingdom and our own modern problems, which are not lost on the reader. Keladry takes advantage of a decree allowing for girls to train for knighthood for the first time, following in the footsteps of the protagonist of the previous quartet. Although Keladry finds a role model to emulate, she encounters prejudice and adversity far beyond what a boy would go through. She is forced to be better, smarter, and more patient than her peers to succeed, despite supposedly being equal before the law.
If The Song of the Lioness is about Pierce’s own experience as an author - having to pioneer and break into a male-dominated field, The First Test is more relatable to children now - when equality and opportunities for girls are celebrated but often in short supply. The metaphor isn’t a subtle one, but it’s very apt and a great way to introduce both boys and girls to these important ideas. Keladry is the perfect protagonist for this - driven, moral, but at the same time humorous and approachable. Although we would encourage students in late elementary to early middle school to read the books in both quartets (and most of Pierce’s work), this is a great entry point into a story and a world that has both the thrill of adventure that we look for in fantasy, while also teaching important lessons for both girls and boys about the way the world can and ought to be.