Robin McKinley was one of the first authors I discovered on my own. I ran out of kids books that I enjoyed reading somewhere during the sixth grade. It might have been after I’d devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Little Women as my light pleasure reads. My mom happily passed on her favorite science fiction and fantasy books, and I discovered Anne McCaffrey and Mary Stewart that way.
How I Found Her
I won a copy of The Hero and the Crown for a reading challenge in the sixth grade. My teacher, Mrs. Kline picked it specifically for me. It was a reward for having exceeded all of my pleasure reading goals that year. I also won free pizza coupons. The book meant a lot more.
I had a horse, or I was shortly about to get a horse, so Aerin’s work with her father’s retired warhorse, Talat, was especially moving to me. This book was the trifecta for a sixth grade Alicia: Kick-butt Princess, Warhorse, Dragon-slaying. Really, that equation still works for grown-up Alicia, but that’s beside the point.
From then on, I would watch the library shelves for McKinley’s name. To this day, I habitually skim the alphabetized by author name section for McK’s and routinely purchase whatever I find there.
Why I Love Reading Her Work
Read Dragonhaven. Read Sunshine. Read Deerskin. Go read them right now, and then come back here and ask me why I love reading her work.
Her books are action-adventures. They are heavy on love of animals and nature and sprinkled with mild romance. My fifth grade young author’s book was an attempt at Deerskin about seven years before it was published. Deerskin is, to this day, the only novel I reread on an annual basis. I was looking for dark fantasy, a new sort of fairy tale, when I found it. If I write fantasy, this will be the tone I seek.
Most of her protagonists are spunky women who do what they think is right, regardless of what other people tell them they “should” be doing. They are “Strong Female Characters” in the best sense of the word. These are the girls I want girls to read about and emulate and cosplay.
It’s little wonder that when my nature-loving, animal-loving stepson said “Hey, do you have any books about dragons?” I handed him my copy of Dragonhaven. (With strict orders that I want it back!)
What I Learn About Writing From Her
Setting. Tone. Themes. Voice. McKinley can take a mundane garden and give it weight and a sense of place.
The bakery in Sunshine is a favorite example of this. You can smell the place as you read it, and you understand that it’s home. It’s safe. It’s warm. I love that you get that sense from one place – because then you can feel the contrast viscerally when the protagonist has that safety and warmth stripped away.
Her books can feel light or dark without really being either. This is an amazing skill that I’m still learning to understand through careful choice of word and metaphor.