Whatever Happened to My Sister? An Assuring Illustrated Antidote to the Disorientation of Being a Teenager’s Younger Sibling
“I’d had my suspicions for a while that someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her.”
By Maria Popova
“Most people do not grow up,” Maya Angelou wrote in her beautiful meditation on home and belonging. “Our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” No life-stage challenges Angelou’s poetic point more ferociously than adolescence, that singular period in which we busy ourselves painting our inner magnolias black and giving them thorns in a quest to experiment with our newfound sense of agency. How disorienting the experience is for both teenagers and their parents is a well-documented cultural trope, but little attention is given to how disorienting it can be for younger siblings, those most innocent and shy of magnolias.
That’s what Italian animator turned children’s book author and artist Simona Ciraolo explores in Whatever Happened To My Sister? (public library) — the follow-up to her wonderful debut, Hug Me, which was among the best children’s books of 2014.
Ciraolo tells the story of a little girl who finds herself confused and increasingly heartbroken over her older sister’s transformation into what appears to be a wholly different person, perhaps even a different species — a creature suddenly tall and secretive and door-slamming, clad in a chronic scowl and scoffing a default “no” to every request for play and sisterly communion.
I’d had my suspicions for a while that someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her.
It had to be!
My sister was never so tall. Did it happen overnight?
I’m rather observant, yet the moment of the switch must have passed me by.
At the story’s heart is a chronicle of our first brush with the perennial philosophical mystery of the continuity of personal identity — what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change, nowhere more dramatic than in adolescence?
The more she struggles to understand her sister’s seemingly overnight transformation, the lonelier the little girl feels — a sense of abandonment sets in as she realizes that underneath her frustration and indignation is the simple, sincere feeling of missing her sister terribly.
Just then, her sister finds her, having intuited the little girl’s sorrow, takes her hand, and the two disappear into each other’s company — an ending offering sweet assurance that despite the universe of change, a sister’s love is an abiding constant.
Complement Whatever Happened To My Sister? with Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, a collection of mischievous vintage verses about siblings by Shel Silverstein, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, and Ted Hughes, then revisit Ciraolo’s disarming Hug Me.
Illustrations courtesy of Simona Ciraolo / Flying Eye Books; photographs by Maria Popova