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Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters is about a car trip in the same way that her earlier graphic memoir Smile is about having dental work: It forms an organizing principle for a story about changing relationships, a story built up of small incidents that are all linked to this single narrative thread.
That sounds complicated for a book written for 10-year-olds, but Telgemeier makes it look easy. It’s as if she’s swapping stories about her childhood — remember that time we got a snake, and then we lost it? And although she’s writing about growing up in San Francisco in the 1980s and early 1990s, the story has a timeless feel (the only clues to the setting are teenage Raina’s Walkman and the fact that no one has a cell phone).
Although it’s bright and colorful, Sisters is not a feel-good book. Telgemeier doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of family life, and while all the characters in the book are likeable in their own way, they don’t always get along. Raina, the eldest, has always wanted a sister, but when she gets her wish, her sister Amara comes along and turns out to be very much her own person and not always what Raina expects. The name “Amara” means both “love” and “bitter one,” and it perfectly sums up the sisterly relationship.
As the story begins, Raina’s mother and the three children (the youngest is a boy, Will) are about to drive from San Francisco to Colorado Springs for a family reunion; their father will fly out to join them. As the trip progresses, Telgemeier tells the backstory of herself and her sister in flashbacks denoted by a yellow tint, as if the paper was aging. We see young Raina pestering her parents for a sister, holding baby Amara for the first time, and dealing with a difficult toddler. Along the way, she strews small clues to the larger family drama building in the present day. Although the story is told from Raina’s point of view, Amara emerges as the most clearly defined character, perhaps because she has a lot of sharp edges.
One of the themes of Sisters is disappointment: Raina’s sister isn’t the perfect playmate she expected, the family’s pets have an unfortunate tendency to die, and when the family gets to the reunion, Raina finds the cousin she had been looking forward to seeing has grown into someone totally different than the playmate she remembers. The stresses among the youngsters are echoed in the older generation as well. While the book ends on a hopeful note — a crisis on the return trip brings Raina and Amara closer together — Telgemeier doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. Just as in real life, the story will go on after the storyteller is done.
As in her other books, Telgemeier uses an easy, clear-lined style, with some cartoony flourishes, especially when it comes to facial expressions. Braden Lamb, who’s half the art team on BOOM! Studios’ Adventure Time comics, is the colorist. The palette shifts nicely to reflect what’s going on in the story, and the paneling is straightforward, with a splash page to introduce each stage of the road trip. My only beef with the art is that the family minibus seems overly roomy — in my experience the inside of a car is small to begin with and gets smaller as the trip goes on.
What makes this book sing is Telgemeier’s eye for the small details of family life: squabbling over a set of colored pencils, sharing a room, the tedium of a road trip, and the eternal McDonalds vs. Wendy’s vs. Burger King debate. She wraps some larger truths in the minutiae of everyday life, creating a story that many readers will be able to relate to, in its bitter moments as well as its warmer ones.