By Raina Telgemeier
Scholastic Graphix, 197 pages, $24.99 (hardcover)/$10.99 (softcover)
Mining one’s past for story ideas is a tried and true method but comes with the risks of exposing family and friends to the harsh spotlight so it can be challenging. Thankfully, cartoonist Raina Telgemeier has a wonderfully supportive family, who have allowed her to explore her early years in several works, starting with 2010’s Smile, and this month the wonderful Sisters.
Smile was all about coping with the arrival of braces while Sisters takes place sometime later as the family makes a pilgrimage from San Francisco to Colorado to see relatives. There’s 14 year old Raina, nine year old Amara, and six year old brother Will. As they drive there and back, the road trip is broken up with flashbacks tracings Raina’s first lesson in being careful what you wish for. After hoping for a sister, Amara arrives and she’s no fun at all. First there’s the crying then the usually sibling fighting and then the rivalry as both demonstrate artistic skills. Despite common ground, they just cannot stand one another, so Raina retreats behind her headphones while Amara takes in the world around her.
Telgemeier is brave and confident enough to mine emotional territory while making her younger self overly emotional and far from the hero of the story. She’s withdrawn and moody, excessively fearful of reptiles, amplified when Amara desperately wants and eventually receives a snake. She’s so looking forward to hanging with her cousins, cherishing memories of their last visit many years earlier so of course the reality never measures up. This further isolates her from her surroundings which means she has been missing all the signs of her parents’ marriage collapsing. Amara, a far more observant girl, has noticed but said nothing.
Cleverly, the flashbacks bring us along from Amara’s arrival right up to the events just prior to the fateful car trip. Things then come together as the family, minus dad, is driving west and the van breaks down. Mom and Will are off to find a tow truck, leaving the sisters alone in the car where, finally, they begin to connect.
Telgemeier’s open, colorful artwork is pleasing to the eye and she takes her time setting things up and never crowding the story. She does a nice job aging her characters while keeping them recognizable, and keeps the settings clear. This is a wonderful sequel to Smile and a worthy follow-up to last year’s fictional Drama.
The universal themes portrayed here will allow families to recognize some aspect of themselves in the dynamic, much as I saw me and my brother in Raina and Amara although we were much older before peace settled between us. Scholastic recommends the book for ages 8-12 but really, it’s a fine all ages read.