Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Chompo bar for my sister

On a long run, I always carry a Clif bar in case of hunger pangs. As the bar becomes squeezed and misshapen in my sweaty grasp, I always think about Russell and Lillian Hoban's A Birthday for Frances.

Frances, although conflicted about her little sister Gloria's upcoming birthday, uses her allowance to buy Gloria a Chompo bar and four bubblegum balls. All the way home from the store, Frances ponders the goodness of Chompo bars and the fact that Gloria is awfully young for that kind of candy, and meanwhile she pops the bubblegum balls in her mouth and squeezes the Chompo bar harder and harder. Gloria does eventually get that Chompo bar, despite more bouts of anguish on Frances' part, but only after even more Chompo-squishing in Frances' hot little paw.

I have a little sister of my own, and although I don't remember being jealous of her on her birthdays (perhaps knowing that mine would be coming only a month later), I was certainly aware of my duty as big sister to do what I could to tame a bit of that irrepressible, busting-out-all-over Little Sister personality. And my sister is a Leo, too! The danger to humanity was extreme. I'm convinced that my occasional necessary squelching of obnoxious little sister behavior helped make her the confident, well-adjusted, and decent person she is today.

It may be big sister Frances who is the exuberant main character in that wonderful picture book series, but often it's the little sisters who star. A book I pored over again and again as a child was Sarah's Room by Doris Orgel and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, in which little sister Jenny yearns to be allowed access to the glories of her big sister Sarah's room, with its pretty wallpaper, dollhouse and tiny treasures. I would never have scribbled on the wall as Jenny did, but on the other hand I was in awe and admiration at Sarah's tidiness - and so I identified, as readers were meant to, with young Jenny - who proves that she is capable of growth and change. Even big sisters can feel the frustration of being too young.

In Beezus and Ramona, the main character is clearly big sister Beezus, whose frustrations with little sister Ramona the reader feels strongly, but as the series continues, the focus turns to Ramona's thoughts and feelings, turbulent as they are. I read and re-read these books with total absorption, despite the fact that Ramona was often as perplexing to me as she is to Beezus. On the other hand, Ramona is often mystified herself by her overwhelming emotions and urges. That Ramona wants to pull on a classmate's boing-boing curls, just to watch them sproing, I can imagine. To actually DO it - well, that's a little sister for you. But it's brave Ramona who, in desperation, throws her own shoe at a scary dog blocking her path on the way to school, and then has to spend a day at school with only one shoe. That's little sister pluck. I was and am Beezus, but that Ramona, mysterious and volatile, has my heart.

Big sisters may do a bit of little sister squelching, for the good of humanity, but they are often fiercely protective as well. I just finished The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff (review coming soon), in which a big sister's love and protection of her strange and unnatural little brother ensures his survival in a hostile world. And in Sisters Red by Jackson Pierce (the book I'm reading now), Scarlett saved her little sister Rosie from a brutal werewolf attack as a young child, and can't stop protecting her even now.

During a family trip to the Grand Canyon many years ago, my older daughter was terrified whenever her little sister got within 10 feet of the edge, convinced that in typical little sister exuberance, she'd somehow manage to topple into the Canyon. She worries about her even now. "She reads too much fantasy. If she read more realistic books, she'd know what happens when you do dumb stuff," my older daughter said to me earnestly, pointing out that in YA books, risky behavior is often followed by unwanted consequences. "She doesn't even realize all the bad stuff that can happen."

Or, being a little sister, she is simply less risk-averse. Or perhaps I should say that little siblings in general are more prone to behavior that others might find odd. After all, it was not sensible big brother Peter but rather his little brother Fudge who ate Dribble the turtle in Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

My sister never ate a turtle. But even if she did, I'd still give her a Chompo bar for her birthday or any time, with only a bit of squishing for extra luck and love.


  1. But she DID try to eat a very large and crunchy beetle at the beach one day. I fished it out of her mouth just in time.

  2. Typical little sister... I bet I never ate a bug! Big sisters are just too sensible for that kind of thing.