Warning: This post includes spoilers for The Hunger Games and Perks of Being a Wallflower.
I’ve hated her and loved her more than just about anyone else in the world.
I’m referring to my sister, treasured above most others on the face of this planet, and also among those who’ve caused me the deepest heartache.
Many of us had the wonderful/agonizing experience of growing up with a sibling. The fights and annoying habits formed part of that season, but if we had a good bond with our sibling, we remember fierce loyalty and companionship, too.
Well-told YA lit with siblings doesn’t forget this reality. These books remind us how formational our friendships and struggles with siblings can be. Love or resentment for a sibling can push us into some crazy situations. (Sibling rivalry, anyone?)
One of my favorite things about YA is its high stakes for young people–they’re facing serious problems, but facing them with the emotional purity and integrity of those whose lives haven’t yet grown horribly complicated. And yet, we adults reading these stories can still relate, because our siblings haven’t left us, they’ve just gotten older. Good YA that features siblings will bypass the petty problems of “Will my brother embarrass me in public?” and ups the ante with scenarios like “Will my brother die for me?”
Siblings in real life (including us adults) will have power struggles, debates over responsibility, and often undergo role-shifting as they continue to find their place in the world and in relation to each other.
Two of my favorite examples of siblings doing these things in YA come from The Hunger Games and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. (The film versions do a very lovely job, in my opinion, of drawing these relationships into the visual realm).
In The Hunger Games, Katniss throws herself into the disgusting spectacle of the Games, even though she’s always hated them, because she can’t let the horrible event take her little sister, Prim. This huge responsibility that she feels for a younger, more fragile sibling stabs straight to the heart. I disagreed with so many of Katniss’s choices throughout the book series, but this seminal decision to protect her sister brought tears to my eyes. I’d have done the same thing.
Later in the series, Katniss tries to protect a much-matured and stronger-willed Prim, but Prim’s desire to help with healing others pulls her out of Katniss’s power. Although Prim’s tragic death in the final book cuts short the path of this particular sibling relationship, we see that Prim was rising as her own star, stepping into the role of a brave healer, shifting successfully out of her weaker self who needed directing and shielding. Katniss’s battle against Prim’s new self is thoroughly believable and reminds us adult readers that the younger siblings we once controlled will soon outgrow (or already have outgrown) our dominion and go on to make real decisions of their own, sometimes with bitter consequences.
In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Sam and Patrick’s friendship is a one of marked equality. Their closeness of age as step-siblings allows them to relate without an older/younger dynamic.
Sam and Patrick exhibit incredible acceptance of each other, along with all of their self-destructive habits. They clearly want the best for each other, but don’t readily step into the role of judging or issuing commands. They adopt the role of responsible caregiver for each other when the need arises, such Patrick comforting Sam after her most recent dating fiasco with a cheating boyfriend, but then shift out of it when the need passes. I personally find it’s easy to forget that a role I played once as a sibling isn’t a role I should keep playing indefinitely. Example: Trying to mother my now 19-year-old sister isn’t so well-received.
This unified dynamic between Sam and Patrick makes it so power struggles are pretty nonexistent, perhaps because they’ve decided it’s better to team up against the bigger outside forces that threaten them. The absence of their parents’ active involvement in their life pushes this brother and sister to form their own family unit of two. I see this as a lesson to remember what the real obstacles are—it’s a wise tactic that saves up emotional resources for the worthwhile battles.
Responsibility is less pronounced between Patrick and Sam than between Katniss and Prim, but it’s there. Sam and Patrick see their job as being there for each other, refusing to preach or “I told you so,” and offering a safe haven of acceptance in the middle of pain and brokenness. Some of us might disagree with this choice—maybe Patrick should have told Sam bluntly that Craig wasn’t treating her well. Maybe Sam should have told Patrick that numbing himself with sex, drugs, and drinking after Brad broke up with him was only making things worse. But they see their safe place together as more important than saying those things. This is the million-dollar question—do I say anything, or just hug her?—that so many of us face with hurting siblings. Sam and Patrick offer their own answer.
We might grow from kids to adults, but we don’t outgrow the role of siblings. I applaud YA whenever it shows us a clue into our own lives. Even if we missed it at age thirteen with our sibling because we were busy screaming through our raging hormones, it’s not too late to learn this stuff now.
Elise Stephens is the author of two novels. Forecast will be released July 2013 from Booktrope. It features a brother and sister at its core. Elise blogs about practical approaches to creativity, relationships, and life at www.elisestephens.com. Find her on Twitter @elisestephens and Facebook http://www.facebook.com/AuthorEliseStephens