Family Favourites: Sarah Driver on the Best Sibling Stories for Children
Sarah Driver, author of the breathtaking children's fantasy adventure series The Huntress Trilogy, recommends her favourite fictional siblings.
Sparrow: ‘Why’d you always think things are my fault?’
Mouse: ‘Cos they always are!’
Chapter Sixteen, The Huntress: Sea.
When I started drafting The Huntress Trilogy, the first two characters I ‘discovered’ were Mouse and her little brother Sparrow. They appeared in the story very naturally, living through all the ups and downs of a sibling relationship in cramped conditions – familiar to me as a sibling who grew up in a small house, though in this case the setting was a ship’s cabin.
It was only later that I stopped to wonder why I write about siblings, and only when writing this piece that I realized I’ve never written a story which doesn’t feature sibling relationships. I’ve also never been interested in sugar-coating their reality, with all the tears, frustration, jealousy and fighting that are often part of the deal, despite the strength of the bond and the foundations of love underneath. I’m fascinated by the fact that full siblings can share up to 50% identical DNA and half siblings 25%, yet many are as different from each other as the sun from the moon. Siblings also bear witness to the formation of a person’s character and the weird or wonderful, traumatic or chaotic, stable or happy childhood they experience. With a unique understanding of the parents thrown in, the sibling can be, by turns, a powerful ally or enemy.
The Stanton siblings. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.
‘What?’ said Will.
‘Too many kids in this family, that’s what. Just too many.’
What a memorable opener! When James and Will head out into the snowy world to feed the rabbits and collect the hay, they pass through a comfortingly chaotic melee of cooking and singing and radio music and swelteringly hot ovens. Well, they may not have found it comforting, but this (small family) reader did.
As the brothers go about their errands, there’s plenty of good-natured teasing ‘they’ve never smelt you clean before. Probably all die of shock’, and periods of companionable silence. But when the brothers are separated, Will’s world begins to morph.
‘The walker is abroad,’ he said again. ‘And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.’
The March sisters. Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
This was one of my favourite books as a child, and yes, of course – I wanted to be the loose-haired, novel writing, door slamming, plain speaking Jo, with all her energy and mischief and determination to stay true to herself. I loved how she flew in the face of expectation. I felt as if I knew these sisters and I loved how different they all were, how real their problems seemed and the intimacy of reading about their daily lives. Scenes are etched in my mind, like Amy’s drama with, well, everything, but particularly the limes (her ‘limeless state’), Beth visiting the sick and the horror of Amy burning Jo’s book. The book deals honestly with betrayal, heartache, painful acts of forgiveness, moments of humbling – and captures the breathless intensity of a joint coming of age.
The Mortmain sisters. I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
The deliciously described tale of opinionated teenage writer Cassandra and her ‘bitter with life,’ waifishly beautiful sister Rose, who eggs the weather on, ‘positively encouraging forked lightning.’ Cassandra and Rose live in a crumbling castle and have to cope with their dysfunctionally-eccentric elders, as well as a poverty that sees them eating meagre portions of bread and margarine, without any dining room furniture as it has all been sold.
The sisters share a draughty bedroom, warm their feet with hot bricks and take it in turns to have a week sleeping in the four poster, the other relegated to the iron bedstead. It is in the dark that they confide in each other most. These intimate conversations showcase both their poverty, and the differences in their character.
Rose: ‘I’d marry him even if I hated him…did you ever see anything as beautiful as Mrs Cotton’s bathroom?’
Cassandra: ‘Yes, lots of things…and no bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.’
The Fossil sisters. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Found and adopted by fossil collector G.U.M (great uncle Matthew) during his far-flung expeditions, Pauline, Petrova and Posy have very different passions (from acting to engines to dance) but together vow to put the Fossil name in ‘history books’ ‘because it’s our very own and no one can say it is because of our grandfathers.’ The Fossils’ story is refreshingly unconventional and their family life is filled with realistic depictions of sibling teasing, helpless bouts of laughter and miserable illnesses, underpinned by a love enriched further by the mysteries of their pasts. Nana and Sylvia make a loving, stable home for the sisters and, although Petrova’s heritage is Russian, she notes to herself that ‘…she was British by adoption, and had taken a British name, and felt very British inside.’ Re-reading that felt very pertinent to our times. The story also holds comforting wisdom: ‘we can’t all have the same gifts’ – a reminder to nurture our own individual gifts and interests, without comparing ourselves too rigorously to others.
The Everdeen sisters. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In the opening chapter of the book, Katniss awakes, cold and alone – her little sister Prim has left the bed they share to seek the comfort of their mother. This is the day of the reaping. Katniss feels powerless to protect her sister, and glimpses of Prim’s vulnerability, like when Katniss has to tuck her blouse in for her, build the tension until the inevitable occurs : Prim is chosen as tribute, to fight in the brutal hunger games. And Katniss, watching her little sister pass, her blouse unstuck all over again into a ‘duck tail’, instinctively volunteers to take her place.