I was, sadly, fully a grown up before the Shannons, Jessicas, and Marissas started publishing YA fantasy, but luckily I had Robin McKinley to save me as a teenager. I first discovered her in a middle school Battle of the Books competition. (As you can deduce, I was an extremely popular and not at all nerdy tween. Trivia contests FTW.) Her books had everything I was looking for as I transitioned away from children’s books – fantasy, adventure, kick butt female leads, lovable animal sidekicks, and a little romance without the excessively detailed kissy-kissy scenes so common in YA today.
McKinley is one of the founding mothers of teen fantasy and fairytale retellings. We have come to expect YA fantasy to feature the kind of powerful, convention-breaking female leads her books depict, but when she first began publishing in the 1970s they were few and far between. McKinley has described how her frustrations growing up in 1950s suburban America inspired her to create these heroines: “I was a girl and I wanted adventures; I didn’t want to hang around on some hero’s arm and agenda. This model for autonomy was very important.”
Though McKinley has had numerous successful novels, including Beauty and Deerskin, two received particular acclaim. The Blue Sword was a Newbery Honor Book in 1983, and The Hero and the Crown won the award two years later. These original fantasy novels each feature a young protagonist who feels like an outsider in her community. Adventures ensue in which the heroine learns to ride horseback, defend herself with a sword, and use magic. She saves herself, defeats her enemies, and falls in love without any angst. As a girl, this is everything I wanted in a book.
And now for a bit of Mckinley-esque trivia for you:
- Noticed a lot of animals in McKinley’s books? A professed animal lover, she once owned a horse and currently has three whippets, whom she affectionately calls “the hellmob.” She even dedicated a book to her dogs.
- Though the books work as standalone novels, The Hero and the Crown can be read as the prequel to The Blue Sword.
- Damar, as it is presented in The Blue Sword, was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s depictions of colonial India.
- Though Mckinley devoured the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as a girl, she has said that “the lack of women doing anything but being beautiful and symbolic (don’t get me started on Eowyn) bothered me from first exposure. And is white-hot critical to the storyteller I grew up to be.”
- In The Blue Sword, Harry is tall in part because McKinley herself would like to be a bit taller.
- McKinley was married to fellow writer Peter Dickinson (author of Tulku, The Flight of the Dragons, and Eva) for nearly 25 years before his death in December.
- McKinley is resistant to having her books labeled as children’s, YA, or adult. “I don’t aim my books at any particular readership. The story is the story and it will tell you how to write it, if you listen…I write my books for the people who want to read them.”
- If you’re already a McKinley devotee, check out this article, “in which three adults discuss The Hero and the Crown seriously and at length.”
Here’s to you and your fierce protagonists, Robin.
“If there’s ever a book published with my name on it that doesn’t have important women characters in it, call the police. I’ve been kidnapped, and someone has stolen my name.” – Robin McKinley
It’s Thursday, and we’re trying something new around here. Each week, we’ll feature one of the most highly acclaimed items in our collection, chosen from lists like the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films, The BBC’s Big Read, NPR’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels, and School Library Journal’s Top 100 Picture Books. In addition to a quick review, we’ll make sure to include some fun tidbits about the book or movie and its creation. What can we say? We’re librarians – of course we love trivia.
This week’s selections are number 76 and number 98 and on School Library Journal’s Top 100 Picture Books.