July 23, 2017

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Sister, Sister: Sibling Drama in Young Adult Literature

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“We are sisters, and there’s nothing she or I can ever say or do to change that.”To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Sisterhood: authors have plumbed its essence for decades, exploring both the range of emotions and conflicts that can define this relationship. Delving into everything from rivalries and heartbreaks to cold shoulders and warm embraces, three recent young adult novels each examine a facet of that bond among young women coming of age simultaneously, bound by blood and, often, friendship.

toalltheboysWhile billed as a teen romance, Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (S & S, 2014; Gr 8 Up) isn’t just about middle sister Lara Jean’s crush on her older sister’s ex-boyfriend, Josh, or about her growing feelings for a classmate; it’s also about the importance of the family unit during the formative teen years.

Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty Song are still reeling from the death of their mother years ago, and their bonds have only deepened over their grief and the circle of protection they have created around one another and their father. Teens will fall in love with steady mother-figure Margot, off to college in Scotland but ever present in her family’s life; dreamy homebody Lara Jean, who would rather bake cookies or practice preparing her mother’s Korean dishes than attend a party or learn to drive; and effervescent spitfire Kitty, who at nine years old steals every scene in which she appears.

The novel’s conflicts involve Lara Jean’s connection to her sisters and her struggle to remain true to herself without hurting either one of them. When a box of her never-mailed love letters to past infatuations goes missing and the missives are sent to their once-intended recipients, the teen has to deal with the aftermath, including the attentions of Josh. In this ultimate test of “sister code” (boyfriends and ex-boyfriends are off-limits), the novel pulls readers in many directions, and Han’s deft hand captures all of the nuances of Lara Jean’s difficult decision.

What sets this uplifting novel apart from similar titles is the warmth of the Song relationships, and it’s not a coincidence that many of the book’s pivotal scenes take place in the family’s kitchen, a room where readers and the protagonist’s love interests find themselves at home.

lovelettersA spotlight on sister novels wouldn’t be complete without the mention of at least one tearjerker. Practically a genre in themselves, titles featuring a teen grieving over a deceased sibling could fill more than a few bookshelves. Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead (FSG, 2014; Gr 9 Up) elevates this motif in a stirring epistolary novel.

When Laurel receives an assignment to write a letter to someone no longer alive, she chooses Kurt Cobain, her deceased sister’s favorite musician. Instead of handing the assignment in, the freshman records her struggles, aspirations, and loves in other letters to famous figures. Each one reveals bits of Laurel and May’s sometimes scary, sometimes empowering interdependence. More like diary entries, the letters also shed light on their mother’s neglect and parents’ divorce.

Dellaira masterfully unveils the details of May’s death through Laurel’s myopic memories and the lens of a too-cool-to-be real boy who was once infatuated with the wild teen but is now Laurel’s anchor and boyfriend. The real May emerges, as does Laurel, who with the help of her newly found confidantes is able to move forward: “When I wrote letters to all of you, I found my voice. And when I had a voice, something answered me….”

In the epilogue, Laurel is finally able to write to her sister and reconcile with the rest of her family in a symbolic reunion. Destined to join the ranks of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper (Atria, 2004) and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere (Dial, 2010), Dellaira’s debut shines in its triumphant conclusion.

sistersIn Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters (Scholastic, 2014; Gr 4 Up), a graphic novel memoir and companion to the author’s Smile (Scholastic, 2010), talented adolescent Raina is in constant competition with her equally gifted younger sister Amara. This classic road trip novel hearkens to myriad similar summertime family treks interspersed with poignant, heartfelt memories.

Telgemeier’s full-color expressive cartoons and smart, kid-friendly humor present the bad and the good of this sister relationship, from bouts of copycat emulations (flattery is not the sincerest form of flattery) to the understanding that arrives during temporary truces when facing a common enemy (i.e., little brothers). In vignettes that will ring true to the book’s audience, the author also expertly handles tough topics, such as the repercussions of a parent becoming unemployed.

Just as siblings are present at our best moments, they are just as present during our most difficult times, true companions and peers. As Raina complains about Amara’s irritating behavior, she also admires her sister’s indomitable spirit; in the end, it’s their mutual love of art and story that solidifies this up-and-down relationship.

“To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.”—Clara Ortega

 Eds. Notes: Don’t miss Jenny Han’s playlist for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

(Shelley Diaz is an identical twin and one of eight sisters.)

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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