Magic Steps: Meeting Tamora Pierce at The National Book Festival

When I was eight years old my parents took me to Bookstop, our local branch of Barnes & Noble, as a treat. Now, this wasn’t an unusual tradition in our household, in fact, I can hardly remember a time we went into the Town East area of Mesquite without making a stop at the bookstore on the corner. And, like any good nerd-in-training, it was almost always my favorite place to shop.

But this particular trip, early in 2000, was special. You see, this was the trip that would change my life.

I know, I know, you’re probably wondering how I can say such a wild thing with such assurance. Surely, at eight, my life couldn’t have been changed so dramatically by such a simple trip. It sounds insane, but I’ve always been a firm believer in the saying, “it only takes a moment to change a lifetime,” and that’s exactly what happened to me.

I remember walking to the back of the store, where the children’s and teen sections were nestled safely away from the entrance (for the adult’s sake or the children’s I can’t decide). There was a small purple cardboard stand set up in the aisle with a small array of brightly colored purple and gold paperback books entitled Magic Steps by Tamora Pierce. Looking back, I can’t say why that particular display caught my eye, or why the small, colorful book held my gaze and demanded to be purchased; but it did. I didn’t look at a single other book that day. In fact, in a very un-Caitlin-esque manner I found my parents and said that I was ready to go, Magic Steps already open to chapter 1. To this day I think that’s the only time I’ve entered a bookstore, picked a single volume from a shelf, and checked out (I’m usually the one sitting on the floor by a pile of books trying to narrow my want list down to my “I can actually afford to purchase these” list).

I didn’t sleep that night.

Instead, I read until I was at the end, nerves humming as I raced from page to page, heart thumping at every turn of the plot.

And I never looked back.

It’s been 13 years since I read that small book in bedroom I shared with my brother until I was thirteen.

It’s been 13 years since Tamora Pierce became my favorite YA author.

It’s been 13 years since I realized I wanted to write novels.

I’ve since bought and devoured all twenty-nine of Mrs. Pierce’s books. I’ve bought every anthology she’s contributed to. I even tracked down a biography of Tamora Pierce in the Who Wrote That? series of young reader biographies, which I used to write a paper on her in ninth grade.

The bottom shelf is almost entirely her, though a few of them are missing…

It’s safe to say that I’m a bit enamored with her. She’s my literary idol, second only to the late great Tolkien (because, let’s be real, Tolkien is the king of fantasy, and I love him). Tamora Pierce wrote books that made my imagination soar to new heights as a child, but, unlike Icarus, I never fell. She weaves stories that bring together a variety of characters, stories that can be enjoyed by adults as easily as children. And the heroines – no author has written heroines as compelling as those in Mrs. Pierce’s novels, that’s for sure. The modern fantasy heroine today is weak and love-addled 90% of the time. She exists only in the romance sector of fantasy. The closest to a strong female heroine in YA fantasy is Hermione Granger, whom I love, but she’s still a supporting role. Tamora Pierce’s novels almost exclusively feature dynamic, strong-willed, independent, and flawed female heroines. Characters that are relatable because they aren’t perfect. They’re discriminated against (as in the case of Alanna, who wants to become a knight but has to hide who she is in order to do it), teased (like Tris in The Circle of Magic series, who isn’t a tiny, size-zero, girl), and often lost/confused about what they want in life. Her heroines aren’t intrinsically feminist either, by which I mean, they aren’t written simply to prove a point that women are better than men (no man-hating here). There are plenty of amazing male characters in her work, and there’s romance a plenty. It’s just the love-stories are never the central plot line, making her worlds inviting for both male and female readers.

Her books captured a part of me that I hadn’t given to any other book series, and they captivated and engaged all of me – heart, mind and soul. I became friends with the characters; I cared about them and wanted them to succeed, and in turn, they comforted me and distracted me over the years through more turmoil than I care to recount. Hers are books that I plan to pass on to my children, and to continue reading throughout my life.

Not a summer goes by that I don’t re-read her work in it’s entirety. And this summer, when I was about three quarters of the way through with my yearly tradition I got the news of a lifetime. Tamora Pierce was going to be at The National Book Festival in September. For those of you who don’t know, the book festival is my favorite annual event in the DC area. I never miss it. Authors come from all over the place to be a part of it, and there are book signings and readings galore. It’s, in my opinion, America’s premiere literary event, and it’s my goal to one day get to be there as an author (I’ll expect you all in attendance that year).

Tamora Pierce rarely does public signings, and I’ve never had the opportunity to meet her.

Until now.

Last weekend, on Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 I arrived at Day II of the Book Festival five hours before Mrs. Pierce’s scheduled sign time and I promptly asked the first official volunteer I could see if I could go ahead and start the Tamora Pierce signing line. I was the first person in line and I got to hold the “Tamora Pierce” sign for hours.

I was pretty darn excited about that sign. Of course, that was nothing when compared to my feelings on actually being there, mere hours away from standing across a small plastic table from my literary idol. I had already known going in that I was going to be a ball of pure feelings all day, and I was lucky to have roommates who love me enough to not only put up with me on a daily basis, but also go along with my crazy now and again.

Yep, they even held the sign. They came at around the one hour mark so that I could pop over to DJ Machale’s line for his signing (more on that at a later date), but certain events made that trip null and void. Namely the event where Tamora Pierce was rumored to be coming early, meaning I didn’t dare leave my coveted first-in-line position for anything or anyone else.

As we got closer and closer to the designated signing time I got more and more nervous. My friend Alex joined us (he had previously been in the DJ Machale line, again, more on that later), and it took all four of them to help keep me from completely losing my cool…

Which was all for nothing because the second Tamora Pierce showed up on the special author golf cart, camera crew in tow (Why? Probably because she’s the best author alive today.), I went into hysterical this is too much to process mode. I started crying. There I was, books in arm, feet away from the author who most shaped me, and all I could do was bite my lip and cry. She was even more incredible in person. First of all, this woman is the spunkiest fifty-nine-year-old I’ve ever met. She’s living proof that tattoos do not always age badly – her tattoos that were visible corresponded to her books, and were purrfect (yes, the cat reference is for her because she has a cat paws tattoo in honor of Pounce, one of the best characters in her books, who happens to also be a cat). She was rocking a cardigan and retro-glasses (that were probably not always retro). She was, in my love-addled mind, perfect in every way. I’m standing by that now, even after having a week or so to process it, because even now I can’t believe I got to meet her.

I didn’t want to hold up the line, so I only asked her to sign four of my books (there was a limit of five). In the heat of the moment it was hard to choose, but in the end I didn’t really care – it’s not like I’ll ever sign my ragged, creased, and lovingly read to death copies of her books. Meeting her was what I came for. But the moment when she signed my worn and yellowed copy of Magic Steps I cried harder than ever. There she was, the woman who brought that story into this world, who gave me an second home when I didn’t want to be in mine, who spent years crafting characters that would later get me through mean-girls-esque bullying about my weight, break-ups, and major life setbacks was holding the book that started it all for me. It truly was a bit of real life magic.

The first thing Mrs. Pierce said to me was, “Your necklace is beautiful.” Yeah, you heard it here, Tamora Pierce liked my necklace. I was practically humming with happiness at hearing that, because the necklace she was referring to, is one that I wear all the time – it’s a collection of charms from different places I’ve been and it means a lot to me. Of course this was the one time in history that I couldn’t find my voice. I’m pretty sure I mumbled a few words about how much I admire her, and how much her work means to me. Then Alex chimed in with, “She’s a huge fan. Seriously, she loves you,” prompting a, “Shut up, Alex,” from me. Mrs. Pierce looked at me and said, “You don’t need to be embarrassed. It’s one of the highest compliments I can receive. You don’t have to cry.” Which of course. made me cry even more (stupid tear ducts – listen to Tamora Pierce!).

Over the course of the four or so minutes I was in front of her she told me that I looked lovely today, and she insisted on personalizing one of my books. I managed to mumble out something about writing novels myself, and I even sort of asked her to give me a piece of advice or inspiration (something I always ask writers when I meet them). She signed my copies of Lioness Rampant, Emperor Mage, and, finally Shatterglass, where she wrote, “Caitlin – Keep Writing – Tamora Pierce” and dated it.

Normally I ask authors to write the inspiration or advice on a small piece of handmade paper so that I can include them in my Inspiration book later, but I didn’t really have my head on straight, and somehow, her writing it there, in that book, was exactly as it should be. She told me as she wrote it, “This might not sound like much, but it’s the best advice I could ever give or have ever received.” 

And finally, she shook my hand, squeezed it tight, and held it for at least ten seconds. I still can’t believe I shook her hand.

After, when I was trying to come down from my “I just met Tamora Pierce” high, the camera crew that had come with her approached me and asked if I would do an interview with them. “You really made an impression on us,” the anchorwoman said. So, wobbly still and sounding like quite the fool I got on camera and talked with them for maybe 5 or so minutes. Of course, I was so shaken up from my encounter with Tamora Pierce that I had trouble keeping what little composure I had left, and I could barely remember how to speak properly (I’m sure I’ll be mortified when it goes up on the Library of Congress website and I realize how many times I said, “um” or couldn’t remember my own favorite book – Magic Steps for the record). But such was the effect of Mrs. Pierce’s magic. I’m sure most of you still can’t imagine me in such a state (Caitlin not talking – never!), but I assure you my roommates will vouch for me. And, if you look closely in the following picture  I believe you can see that I am indeed still crying. 

Overall, it was more than I could ever imagine. My books are all the valuable because she held them in her hands.
The only thing that could top this is if, someday, Tamora Pierce reads one of my novels and enjoys it. I can think of no higher honor.
You never know…
After all, crazier things have happened to those who believe in magic.
  1. Is it a little silly that I teared up reading this? You perfectly describe my feelings about her writing, and about how I felt when I met her- 4/5/09- I’ll never forget that date.

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