Raina Telgemeier continues her impressive stretch of exemplary comic book works with her excellent original graphic novel, Sisters.
The plot of the comic is that Raina, her sister Amara and her younger brother and her mother go on a long car trip from Northern California to Colorado for a family reunion when Raina is just entering into teenhood.
This is intercut with flashbacks detailing the evolution of Raina and Amara’s relationship up until this point, from the early days when all Raina could think about is having a sister….
to when she can’t remember EVER wanting a sister!
Throughout her career, Telgemeier has been exceptional at nailing through her character work and her writing a tone that resonates as practically universal. You don’t need to have had a sister to instantly empathize with the situations that she presents to you. There is that sense of “oh, I know exactly that feeling” that most writers WANT to evoke in their readers but few can – and Telgemeier does it seemingly effortlessly (I don’t mean it comes easy to her, I mean that she can set a scene perfectly in, like, two panels).
Also, like all good autobiographical writers, Telgemeier adroitly handles the delicate balance that comes with how you depict yourself and your family when you’re telling a story. You obviously don’t want to make it look like you were always right, but by the same token, you don’t want to idealize the rest of your family either. You want to try to tell the truth as best as you can see it – and there are moments where Raina does not come off well and there are moments where her sister does not come off well. But the thing they ALWAYS come off as is realistic and human. The depiction of Raina’s older cousin was especially powerful in this regard, as Raina is willing to show the awful indifference older kids have to younger ones and the painful double-sided feeling of being angry at the older cousin for ignoring her but also searching for any drop of attention she offers. So well depicted (and you have to love the bit where we see a thirteen-year-old’s take on what adult conversations are like – it is more or less spot on, to be honest).
A couple of slight problems I had with the series were as follows:
1. Plot-wise, Sisters did not did not have as strong of a through line as the previous book in the series, Smile, did. That is natural enough, though, as Smile had an amazing framework to go with, as Telgemeier hung it around the development of her dental problems, so she had a clear spot to begin and a clear spot to end. While the trip Telgemeier chose certainly works well to spotlight the differences between Raina and Amara, the switch to the flashbacks don’t always work thematically. Sometimes they come off as almost perfunctory – “Okay, X amount of pages have passed, time for another flashback.” Both elements on their own are very good, but they’re sometimes awkwardly put together.
2. On the one hand, the fact that Amara is more in touch with the tension between Raina’s parents because Raina is so good at putting up walls to isolate herself is PERFECT. That’s such a great piece of character work. On the other hand, it almost reads as though the parents’ relationship is being set up for its own book, which is fair enough, of course, as I’d love to read more autobiographical work from Telgemeier, but as a result that plot sort of ends on a bit of an anti-climax. But hey, I guess that’s how life sometimes works, too, right? No pat endings.
Anyhow, this is an excellent comic book by one of the top comic book creators out there. Go get it, people! My wife bought a copy for her sister but her six-year-old nephew got a hold of it instead and he loved it. This book is for ALL ages, people!
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