Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

I’ve found that I prefer my nonfiction in unconventional mediums – via audio, in short snippets on the web, or in graphic novel format. This past weekend, I dug into two stellar graphic memoirs, both of which tackled growing up as a girl in America: Sisters by Raina Telgemeier and Tomboy by Liz Prince. I planned to review both in this post, but because I love you, dear readers, I’ve split them into two posts (I got a little wordy, as often happens). Come back tomorrow for a discussion of Tomboy.

Sisters is a companion book to Smile and tells the story of a summer road trip taken by Raina, her little sister Amara, her little brother Will, and her mother. They drove from California to Colorado to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins when Raina was around 14. Interspersed among the events of the road trip are musings on Raina’s initial desire to have a little sister – and the reasons Raina felt this was a terrible mistake once it actually happened.

The book focuses mainly on Raina’s relationship with Amara, covering the road trip in a linear way and flashing back to various other moments in time: Amara’s birth, Amara as a toddler, Will’s birth, and so on. Every girl’s relationship with her sister is different, but they almost all share that lovely combination of love and intense dislike. Sometimes your sister will be your best friend; sometimes she’ll be your arch enemy. If you’re lucky, by the time you’re both adults, you’re solidly on the friend track most of the time. When you’re both kids, though, it’s an uneven, rocky trail.

Telgemeier rounds out the story with a few other elements: Raina’s relationship with her cousins (not great), her parents’ relationship with each other, her father being laid off, her interest in comics, and so on. There’s a great scene between Raina and her older male cousins where Raina expresses her interest in drawing comics, naming some of her favorite strips (For Better or for Worse, Foxtrot), and her cousins laugh it off as “not real comics” (like Batman or Hulk, according to them). This is such a simple and realistic way to address sexism in comics and how difficult finding and advocating for your passion can be when you’re a kid. I’ve no doubt that a conversation much like this actually happened.

As a child who went on numerous summer road trips with a brother and a little sister to visit cousins who weren’t always so nice to me, this was instantly relatable. It’s also funny. I laughed out loud at the story Telgemeier tells of her little sister’s pet snake getting loose in the van and living for days without dying or being caught (Raina is, of course, terrified of snakes, and Amara uses this against her). I have stories like this from my own family’s road trips, too. One of my parents’ favorite stories of sibling bickering on road trips involves one kid telling a parent about another kid: “Mom, she’s looking out my window!” (Apparently, we felt that we not only had our own seats in the minivan, we also had our own specific windows.) It’s funny now, but I know we were dead serious then.

Telgemeier has a magical way of making the mundane seem extraordinary. Nothing that happens is fantastical or unusual, but it’s riveting anyway. It should speak quite strongly to big sisters who look on their little sisters with equal parts fondness and aggravation (and vice versa!), bringing to light that contradictory fact that you can love someone and hate her at the same time. There are insights about love and kindness, sure, but it’s not saccharine and she never hits the reader over the head with a Message.

Telgemeier traffics in nostalgia for adults my age – there are references to battery-run Walkmans and a conspicuous absence of the internet or cell phones – but doesn’t allow the book to wallow in it. This is still a book for kids who are kids right now – kids who are forced into close proximity with their siblings who they may not have a lot in common with for a long period of time, whether that’s on a road trip or sharing a bedroom or enforced “family game nights.” It’s about how you get along (or don’t) with the people life has thrown at you through no fault of your own. It’s a lovely middle grade memoir about family with Telgemeier’s trademark expressive, cartoon-style art, and it should find a wide audience.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Sisters is available today.

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  1. says

    I'm definitely with you on how she wields the nostalgia in Sisters (which she didn't do in Smile or Drama), but she still does such a great job of writing girl-centric middle grade graphic novels. These books never, ever lasted on my shelves at the library, and for that, I'm glad.

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