I saw on Twitter that Jaclyn Moriarty, the highly successful author of A Corner of White and The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone (among others), was teasing her sister Liane, who is also an author.
I laughed out loud at the fine balance between “hell no she’s not!” and “of course I love her, carry on”. So many of our sibling relationships are based around this tension of loving and teasing. Of course, Liane is the author of the New York Times bestseller Big Little Lies, which was made into a HBO series last year, starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. That these two prolific and famous authors can tease each other publicly says so much about sisterly affection to me.
Siblings often come up in books and they can be portrayed in many different ways. In classic kids literature, brothers and sisters frequently go on grand adventures together, like in Enid Blyton or CS Lewis’s books. Or they help each other through difficult times, like in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, which tells the story of three Polish children escaping Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
Enemies who love each other
Modern sibling stories – whether written for children or adults – have tended to show brothers and sisters in a much more complex light. Miriam Toews’ devastating novel All My Puny Sorrows chronicles the painful relationship between sisters Elfrieda and Yolandi, as Elfrieda struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
It’s not all doom and gloom. Kate Atkinson’s marvellous Life After Life centres on the life of Ursula – but her many siblings are never far away. They all share a friendly love which is, however, never sappy. The truth about many of these relationships is that we can see all the flaws and annoyances of our brothers and sisters, but love them anyway.
Even in Harry Potter, the bucolic Wesley family has so much more going on! There is constant rivalry between Ron and his elder twin brothers, of course. But then he must deal with his little sister, who he starts off thinking is just annoying. His relationship with her changes as he is forced to realise that she is clever, resourceful, and – biggest shock of all! – a girl with desires of her own. He feels all these things at once – wanting her to just go away, feeling like he should look after her, and needing to recognise that she’s growing up. Talk about complexity!
For the littlies
Often, parents will seek out books about siblings when baby number two is on the way, to help prepare your child. Whether or not your kids have brothers and sisters (or ever will), it’s important for them to learn about all different types of families. This will help them empathise with people as they grow up.
Too Busy Sleeping by Zanni Louise explores the disappointment an older sibling often feels when the long-anticipated baby comes home from the hospital and sleeps for sixteen hours in the day. Many adults don’t realise babies sleep so much, and of course little children don’t. The collage illustrations by Anna Pignatoro are pastel and memorable – my 9 year old daughter mentioned them the other day, two years after we last read the book.
Russell and Lillian Hoban’s beautiful picture book A Birthday for Frances doesn’t shy away from Frances’ feelings as her little sister’s birthday approaches. Gloria’s birthday party is going to be fun for everybody but Frances! Her selfish feelings are never dismissed as naughty, just as a normal human emotion.
The very popular Charlie and Lola series by Lauren Child explores the curious imaginary worlds that siblings often create together. It is a world made up of small gestures that mean everything, a love/hate tension, and the need to work through problems together. It’s a world that adults often don’t understand!
An only child
You know what the funny thing is? I witness all this sibling drama from afar, since I grew up an only child! But I haven’t stayed an only child (that’s a story for another day). And I’ve married into a large family, whose sibling antics I’m in the middle of right now on our family holiday as I write this (by a strange twist of fate, I’m also desperately trying to finish Liane’s latest, Nine Perfect Strangers, before I have to return it to my sister-in-law at the end of the week!).
I’d love to hear what your favourite sibling stories are. Do you prefer books with an evil twin or a black sheep? Or maybe you think that stories of brothers and sisters tend to be unrealistic?
Let me know by commenting on the Facebook Byron Bibliotherapy page where this article is posted. Or via twitter or the contact page. As always, if you’d like to receive a monthly collection of articles of interest, please sign up to the newsletter on the right hand side of this page.