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Today I’m delighted to welcome librarian and blogger Maureen Eichner! She can be found sharing her love of reading at her wonderful blog By Singing Light, where she discusses a variety of books including lots of speculative fiction (as you can see from her favorite authors page). She has excellent taste in books and authors, and I very much enjoy seeing her take on the works she reads!

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When Women Teach You To Love Fantasy

I learned to love fantasy in my middle school library, a long room on the second floor of the school which is always, in my memories, filled with light. My parents were not fantasy fans, but I took to it immediately. It satisfied a hunger I hadn’t known I felt. The librarian, Mrs. Hughes, gave me special permission to check out as many books as I wanted, so for three years I stuffed my backpack full and snuck them into the house.

One of the great things about that library is how haphazard the collection was. From an adult and professional point of view, I kind of wince over the fact that Rosamund Pilcher was side by side with JK Rowling. But at the same time, I felt a freedom to read all kinds of books: books that challenged me, and books that comforted me. Books that were too old for me and books that were too young.

And of course I devoured Lord of the Rings over and over. I read Lewis, and Piers Anthony. But crucially, my definition of fantasy, my understanding of what the genre fundamentally is was formed by the books I read at that point. And most of those books were by (white) women; most of them were what would be considered YA today. Here are six of those authors, and what I learned from them.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper Chrestomanci Volume 1 by Diana Wynne Jones The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Susan Cooper: From the Dark Is Rising series, a sense of the past always being part of the present, of magic always being present just under the surface of the world. Also: children working together in the face of adult indifference can save everything. And, to be fair, a sense of crushing disappointment when your favorite series doesn’t end the way you wanted it to. (#Janedeservedbetter)

Diana Wynne Jones: The sheer funniness of it all. There are plenty of authors who write fantasy as Serious Business, but DWJ threw in genetically modified griffins, and walking castles, and gaudy dressing gowns. Her books don’t lack heart, but they also don’t take themselves too seriously. Also, the way the mundane jealousies and worries and cares don’t go away just because you’re also fighting an evil enchanter.

Robin McKinley: That the beloved fairy tales I was raised on could be reimagined and made into something new and beautiful and rich. And that sometimes you find your place almost by accident, that it’s okay to return to a favorite story again and again, that girls can go on adventures and also fall in love.

Elizabeth Marie Pope: Via The Perilous Gard and Kate Sutton, that girls can be prickly and snappish and brave and smart and get the guy. That you could mix history and fantasy to marvelous effect, and that forests have power. That if you keep your head and use whatever you’ve learned, sometimes you can find a way out by the oak leaf, with never a bough.

Tamora Pierce: A sense of girls doing things in different ways (even though I wasn’t drawn to Alanna at all, I loved Kel and Daine both). That books can make you uncomfortable and push you to consider your own beliefs and assumptions and also be valuable.

Anne McCaffrey: Primarily, that it’s possible to deeply love a thing and also know that it is flawed. Because dragons, which I always love, but even at the time, I could see the problematic aspects of the books. Also, that books can be not quite fantasy and not quite science fiction, which was mind-blowing.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope First Test by Tamora Pierce Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

Now, I want to note that all of these authors are white, and fairly privileged, just as I am. At the time, I don’t believe I was aware of any SFF being written from marginalized perspectives. This is a problem, and it isn’t as much fixed as we often want to think. However, I do believe that the feeling of seeing myself reflected in books for the first time reinforced the importance of having stories where all readers see themselves truly reflected.

From these authors and others, I gained a sense of fantasy as contentious, and sometimes flawed, and sometimes outright wrong. A sense that fantasy can and should push you a little bit, asking you to reconsider your world and your framing of it. I learned the bones of high fantasy, but also the bones of everyday fantasy, of stories rooted in the quiet details. I learned that the world is worth saving, but that your family is worth saving as well. I learned that stories about and for girls—girls like me—are important. Justina Ireland has said that, “Women built this castle” and they certainly built my love of fantasy and what the genre can do.

Maureen Eichner Maureen Eichner is a children’s librarian and long-time book blogger, who lives in Indiana. She loves fantasy and hates Lord Byron. Predictably, she named her cat after a fictional detective and is constantly battling an overflowing TBR shelf.