Children’s Lit Corner

Happy Valentine’s Day! In my mother’s family, this day was set apart as a day of family gift giving. Grandpa would buy boxes of chocolates for his three girls and Grandmother. Later he included his grandchildren in the chocolate gifts. That tradition continued throughout the rest of Grandpa’s long, long life, until he died in 2008 at the age of 99. I remember the Valentine’s Days I spent on my mission, and how thrilled I was to open the mailbox in Michigan and find a little package from Grandpa, all the way from Salt Lake City!

Yes, Valentine’s Day was a family holiday for us. The elementary school envelopes containing a couple of candy hearts were not REAL valentines, to my mind. A real valentine was a gift from my mother or father, or even one of my siblings. This brings me to the topic I’ve been thinking about for this blog post: sibling relations.

Having a sibling (or many siblings) can be a source of joy or misery or anxiety or fear or any combination of many emotions. Because there are so many different types of sibling relationships, and they are so much a part of growing up, it is natural to find a whole spectrum of these relations represented in children’s books. For example, think of the big sister in Diana Wynne Jones’s book Charmed Life. Cat’s big sister, Gwendolyn, treats him terribly. Not only does she steal his magic, but she uses up many of his nine lives in her exploits! Even after everything, Cat is kind to his awful sister. But most kids (mine included) wouldn’t let a sibling run over them that way. Part of the reason the Great Brain books are so popular and continue to be read and reread is the way John (the narrator) tries to think of something, anything, that will outwit his older brother, Tom. That type of familiar rivalry, with its streak of actual admiration and sometimes fellowship, is more like the relationship I see between some of my own children. In fact, sibling relationships are so much a part of such a vast number of children’s lives, that sometimes I think unless an author writes about an only child for a significant, plot-related reason, the choice to make a character an only child shows a certain lack of something: imagination perhaps, or skill with character development, or life experience.

I’ve mentioned old favorites — Charmed Life was published in 1977, and The Great Brain was published a decade earlier. But there are many very recent examples of sibling relationships in popular children’s books. I don’t just like, I LOVE the Penderwick Chronicles, by Jeanne Birdsall. The third book in the series, The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette, was published just last year. The Penderwick girls have a normal, realistic, sometimes loving, sometimes competitive life together. Although some of their family meetings and responsibilities may seem farfetched, I do remember running up and down the stairs of my own family homestead yelling, “One, Two, Three . . . One, Two, Three!” That was the call for a meeting of the 1-2-3 Sisters, of which I was number 1.

Then there is the poignant relationship between Katniss and her little sister, Prim, in The Hunger Games. When Katniss steps in to help Prim at a crucial moment, the entire series is impacted by her loving decision. I actually prefer Suzanne Collins’s earlier series about Gregor the Overlander. Gregor is a very kind and loving big brother, and the care he has for his youngest sister, Boots, shines through in all the books.

Of course I have written about only a minuscule number of books in which sibling relationships figure. I could mention hundreds of others. Here are a very few out of the many I have thought about in their good, or not so good, examples of sibling interaction: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott; Tangerine, by Edward Bloor; Judy Blume’s Fudge books;Beezus and Ramona’s relationship in Beverly Cleary’s books; The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper; Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine;  the Casson family chronicles, by Hilary McKay; Jack and Annie in the Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne; the Baudelaire siblings in Lemony Snicket’s books; and even the Alden children in Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children books.

So much of the reading children do helps build connections — connections between what happens in real life and what goes on in the life of the mind. By talking about the connections we find between the books we read as children, and the books we read to our own children, those bonds are strengthened and we can be more aware of the power of books and reading and thought. So let’s continue this discussion. I would love to hear about books you’ve read where sibling relationships are a big part of the reason you have liked (or disliked) certain books. Let’s learn together!

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4 Responses to Children’s Lit Corner

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A very good point. Sometimes (especially in sf&f), writers act as if their teen main characters have no families at all.

    One delightful exception was Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver books (I Am Not a Serial Killer etc.). As I recall, John’s desire to protect his sister wound up as a major motivating force in the second book. Recently, I’ve been reading the fantasy webcomic Dominic Deegan, where sibling relationships play a major role in the plotlines.

    There are so many different ways sibling relationships can play out that it seems to me a good author can never run out of possibilities.

  2. Wm says:

    What age range are the Penderwick books appropriate for, Kathryn?

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Gosh, I suddenly feel emotionally crippled. The books I read as an elementary student didn’t seem to have siblings. There was Nancy Drew, who was an only child, and all the books about a boy (or girl) and his (her) horse, like the Black Stallion series. Is this what’s wrong with me?

  4. Kathryn Poulter says:

    The age range for the Penderwicks is probably about 8 years old through middle school. But I don’t like putting an end age cap on, even grownups would like the books.

    No worries, Lisa. We can READ all the only-child books we want. It’s just if we’re trying to write a believable story and can’t work in a sibling or two . . . maybe that’s when something is lacking.

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