Dear Sister by Alison McGhee & illustrated by Joe Bluhm

By Maureen Tai, 13 March 2020

“Dear Sister, Life was a lot less complicated before they brought you home. Just sayin’. From, Brother.”

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The sibling relationship is a complex one, especially in the early years. Brothers/sisters who are co-conspirators, confidantes and playmates morph at the turn of a screw into bitter enemies, competitors and annoyances. Anna and Ben, born three years apart, exemplify this dichotomy. My own sibling experience however, was quite different, mostly due to the large age gap of nearly ten years between myself and my younger sister. The paucity of overlapping years made for a more detached connection, at least in the formative years. In my forays into children’s literature, I’ve always been a little disappointed that I haven’t come across any books that feature the unique relationship of spaced-out siblings (as in years of birth, not mental state) as the main plot. Until now.

dear sister tells the amusing, tender and heartwarming story of an older, unnamed Brother and his much younger, unnamed Sister. The graphic novel is cleverly presented as a series of pencil-drawn diary-like entries by the Brother, interspersed with illustrated scenes – both actual events and fictional ones conjured up by the boy’s mind. In the beginning, Sister makes her appearance as a diapered baby, tears spraying from her eyes like water from a sprinkler. She is bawling so loudly that even her stuffed toys plug their ears in agony. Sister’s excessive crying features significantly in Brother’s early art work, clearly a significant source of annoyance for the imaginative young boy. As Sister turns two, her obsession with a book entitled Never Too Clever becomes another thorn in Brother’s side. The wide-eyed toddler repeatedly asks Brother to read it aloud to her, and grudgingly, he agrees, possibly to avoid punishment by their parents (whom he refers to as “the wardens”). The pencil drawings are wonderfully realistic, with smudges, shadowy rubbed-out bits and doodles.

As the pages turn and the years roll on, we see the siblings grow up together, largely through Brother’s exasperated eyes. In one of Brother’s drawings, he is laying flat on his back, overwhelmed by an avalanche of his sister’s baby and toddler toys. In another, he has drawn himself standing grumpily in an enormous room filled with row after row of books. Sister is perched on top of a ladder, pointing to the only book that she wants read to her. It has a monocled fennec fox, sporting a bowler hat and bow tie, on the cover. As always, Never Too Clever. At one particularly low point, Brother depicts himself clad in striped prison garb, mouldering in a dark cell.  Sister is just too young, too much of a crybaby to be anything but annoying and whiny, making Brother feel as if he has been unfairly imprisoned. The scenes are uneasily familiar.

But not all is lost. Brother’s childhood and adolescent life experiences – getting braces, his best friend moving away, being rejected by a first crush, the possibility of losing a family member through illness – mellow him. By the time Brother is old enough to leave home for college, his brusqueness towards Sister has been tempered. It is at this point that he reveals – to Sister and to the reader – how much he appreciates the total love and unfailing adoration of his younger sibling. The ending of dear sister will likely cause you to gasp with surprise and emit an “awwwwww!” after which you will be compelled to pick up the phone to call your much younger (or older) sibling. The truth is, at some point, the difference in years melts away and all that remains is love.

For ages 9 and above.

 

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