This week it was my brother’s birthday!
I shall not reveal his age, but I will say he is older than me, and as such I am his kid sister. We are very close and spend most weekday mornings texting motivational quotes back and forth, including inside-joke motivational hashtag sayings like, #compete. He has a sharp sense of humor, an unstoppable work ethic, and, as a coach and teacher, a contagious love for inspiring the leaders of tomorrow and motivating young people to engage with activities and with studies. I’m jealous of his students because they get to have a teacher like him, someone who followed in our father’s footsteps by teaching English to youth. He’s also one of the best storytellers I know, and he seems to soak up and attract stories like a sponge.
I also adopted two kittens last November, a girl named Minerva and a boy named Jon Snow (I believe in Jon Snow!). Since I work from home I am able to capture adorable moments from them as they cuddle together just minutes after ripping into each other. They are truly best friends and will bathe the other and snuggle up together on a cold day.
Anyway, my brother enjoys reading, as do I, and literature is filled with great brothers and sisters in books and fiction. From the time we are kids to the time we are adults, readers get to see different versions of brothers and sisters in novels, fairy tales, and more, a trope that stretches across genres and age groups. When I first started drafting this list, I could not get over how many examples there are of this special sibling bond. I actually had to cross many names off as I pared down to just a few examples of brothers and sisters in literature and fiction.
Read on for classic siblings in literature from fairy tales to romance novels…
Brothers and Sisters of Literature
One of the first stories I remember as a kid is the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, collected in the works of the Brothers Grimm. Everyone knows this fairy tale, and I’m sure it was many other people’s first depiction of brothers and sisters in literature. Separated from their parents, young Hansel and Gretel wander the forest and stumble upon the cannabalistic witch who welcomes them inside. Not only did this terrify me as a kid and foster a long-standing fear of forests and woods, it also taught me the importance of sticking together with your brother. As we grow older many brothers and sisters bond over traumatic instances of childhood and become super close, just like Hansel and Gretel. Their story is one that reinforces the importance of uniting as one unit when facing adversity and challenges. The story has brought about many adaptations, including those by Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton (though frankly that looks to scary to watch).
Another story of brothers and sisters that many people encounter early on is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
What child of the last half-century doesn’t know this story? Claudia Kincaid and her younger brother Jamie run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and get wrapped up an art world mystery. I can’t count how many times I took this out of the library, and every time I re-shelve it during my volunteer shift I am thrilled that kids are still reading it today. I like this depiction of an older sister and her younger brother because so often in literature and fiction we see the older brother and his younger sister. This puts an interesting and fun twist on things.
Oh, and the whole idea of a brother and sister running away was totally covered in Wes Anderson’s iconic film,The Royal Tenenbaums…
Another title we read while a kid and while an adult is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Wow, what a complex novel, with themes of racism, friendship, injustice, prejudice, and coming-of-age. Scout is one of the most fascinating child narrators American literature has ever seen, and this book definitely deserves to be counted among the best novels of all time. But I also love the sibling relationship that Scout has to her older brother, Jem.
Through Scout’s eyes we see the brother-sister relationship in which Scout looks to Jem to understand what is going on in their town, and even Jem can’t come up with adequate answers. When you’re a kid you definitely look up to your older siblings and ask them to translate the complexities of the world into something understandable. But the cruelty of the adult world is too much even for Jem to adequately explain, and for that matter, perhaps even their father, lawyer Atticus Finch, cannot distill into something that makes sense. It’s a harrowing and haunting classic of American literature.
Rounding out the classics is the ultimate classic of romance literature, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. One of my favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice has the central sibling relationship between Fitzwilliam Darcy (aka “Mr. Darcy”) and his younger sister, Georgiana.
Mr. Darcy takes care of his sister and loves her despite her earlier transgression of falling victim to wicked Mr. Wickham’s charms. And Georgiana grounds Darcy and keeps him (somewhat) in check. She looks up to him and is proud of him. Darcy lets Elizabeth into his world by introducing her to his sister, and since he is protective of her Elizabeth knows he trusts her and wants to welcome her into the family.
Elizabeth, sassy and coy, takes the unexpected introduction with a wit that hints at the intimacy of her growing attraction to Darcy…
It’s overall a great sibling relationship. As if we needed another reason to love Mr. Darcy.
There have also been some awesome depictions of brothers and sisters in the romance genre. Courtship requires all the help you can get for most people, so having a supportive sibling there is really essential for some. One of the first novels I read in the romance genre (even though technically it’s more chick lit) was Kristan Higgins’ Just One of the Guys. In this novel, Chastity O’Neill moves back to her hometown in New England where she is surrounded by her older brothers, all four of them.
Chastity has only ever known how to fit in as “just one of the guys,” a problem that has plagued her love life from adolescence into maturity. Can she finally step out of the tomboy label and stand on her own as a woman? Will her longtime crush Trevor accept her as a woman in her own right, not just as the kid sister of his friends and fellow firemen? Speaking as someone who has navigated the tricky shores of having a group of best friends who are almost exclusively male and trying to still be in touch with my feminine side, I applaud Higgins’ accurate portrayal of the definite joys and certain challenges of being thought of as just one of the guys.
Can we really have a talk about contemporary depictions of brothers and sisters without discussing Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl? In Flynn’s novel, Margo (Go) comes to her brother Nick’s aid when his wife disappears. For almost the entire novel Go supports her brother, offers him a shot-from-the-hip assessment of the situation, and is open about it when she doubts his innocence. I love Go and Nick’s sibling relationship, where they are so close that ultimately they back each other even when shit goes down.
Finally, I’m going to end with what is perhaps the most significant brother and sister relationship in young adult fiction, at least of the last 5 or 10 years: Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. In Nelson’s novel, twin brother Noah and twin sister Jude are recovering from the sudden and tragic loss of their mother. The first part of the novel is narrated by Noah and the latter by Jude.
It’s a beautiful and accurate depiction of grieving after someone you love dies. Nelson is also commenting on the grief felt when your brother or sister moves on and you are no longer the unstoppable duo you once were. I absolutely love this novel and cannot recommend it enough. Apparently the American Library Association feels the same way, since they gave it the 2015 Printz Award, just about the highest honor that a young adult novel can get in a given year.
I hope my brother had an awesome birthday. I hope you enjoyed learning about some examples of brothers and sisters in literature and fiction. It’s a gift to grow up with someone and be close to them, and I count myself lucky.
“To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.” – Clara Ortega
What are some of your favorite depictions of brothers and sisters in books? Leave a comment below.
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