Right. Sisters. If you’ve spent any time on this page at all, you suspect strongly what I’m about to say: it’s a masterwork, and Raina Telgemeier is going to be remembered as not just one of the great comics storytellers of our century, but one of the great storytellers, period.
But as I was reading (and re-reading) Sisters, I found myself wondering why I like some of Telgemeier’s books better than others¹.
Smile just grabbed me more than Drama, but Sisters I enjoyed as much as Smile. The scope of the stories is similar — middle school girls are the protagonists and the stories center around their interactions with family and friends — the conflicts and problems are not of the earthshaking variety, but are obviously important in a personal sense. There’s a sense of growth suffused in each book, and the technical skills (both words and pictures) are beyond reproach.
I don’t think it’s because I feel a disconnect with the topic matter, as I’m at a remove from the main thrust of all three books: I never had braces, nor was I involved in drama club or had my relationship with a too-similar sister define the first half of my life. I don’t think it’s because of the self-contained nature of some of the stories — Smile and Drama come to clear conclusions, despite the sense that the characters will continue to grow and change after the last page — versus the relatively open sense of but what about? at the end of Sisters.
And in the end, I think it comes down to the fact that Smile and Sisters are autobiographical; not simply because Drama is fictional, where the other two aren’t, but because the Smile/Sisters stories are specifically taken from Telgemeier’s life.
This flies in the face of the McCloudian notion of being able to identify with a simpler character (and what can be less simple than a messy, actual, human life?) where specificity keeps us at a distance as an observer. Call it appreciation of the honesty that has to go into telling your story vs the fiction that goes into making up a story, call it empathy in knowing that sharing some hurts from her adolescence must have challenged Telgemeier in ways that putting the fictional Callie through heartbreak would not (indeed, could not).
I think that gets to the heart of it — in all of her work, Telgemeier avoids the trap of making her characters too sympathetic; Callie and Raina can both be moody (or cranky), and they can be blind to the situations beyond an immediate focus on themselves. But putting those flaws into somebody you created in your brain is not the same thing as finding those flaws in yourself and saying This was — this is — me, these are my failings. It’s an incredibly intimate act of sharing, as Telgemeier invites us to live the highs and lows of Raina’s life along with her. It’s a razor-thin line that she walks, between sharing all and pruning out that that doesn’t serve story, between maintaining honesty and honoring dignity of her family by not delving too deep.
And in the end, she pulls off that balancing act, and weaves us into her story in a way that makes us live it along with her. Set primarily in a concentrated couple of weeks of tension (involving days cooped up in a VW minibus with no A/C with mom and siblings, driving from San Francisco to Colorado and back) with flashbacks to recount the highlights (lowlights?) of her relationship with her sister up to that time, we follow the story of Raina and Amara² as they confront challenges in different ways: different tastes in nearly everything, jealousy and envy, realizing that you don’t fit in and reacting to that in diametrically-opposed ways, recognizing cracks in their parents marriage, and finding that one thing that might bring them closer together — drawing! — is also a wedge between them.
By the conclusion of the story, Raina finds that five years younger Amara is more perceptive than she gave her credit for, and about that time there seems to be a realization dawning in her that one of her lifelong assumptions was wrong. You see, Raina wanted a baby sister from the time she was little because it was going to be awesome and they’d be best friends but that didn’t happen and what is wrong with Amara why can’t she be the way she’s supposed to be instead of so different from me? The epiphany is that relationships don’t come pre-packaged, that they require give and take and work from both ends, and you get the sense is that Raina will be approaching a lot of things in that more conscious fashion from now on.
But that’s only a sense, because that’s where things wrap up. No montage to show that Raina and Amara became Best Sisters Forever and can’t go two days without talking to each other. No indication if their parents found themselves drifting further apart or pulling back to each other. No neat little and it all turned out happily in the end, because that’s not the story Telgemeier was telling. Smile was the story of Raina through the lens of four-plus years of corrective dentistry; Drama was the story of Callie through the lens of the Spring musical. Sisters is the story of Raina coming to a realization over two weeks about her life to that point, with few clues as to exactly when it occurs in the broader story of her life³.
It’s simultaneously a smaller and larger story than Smile, and if Telgemeier never shares the answers to those dangling questions, we’ll get by. We’ve seen — stepped into, really — a critical time in her life, one where she made a choice about what kind of person she wanted to be. There may be other inflection points in her life that are as important to Telgemeier as this one, but we’ll have to wait and see Because even though the events of Sisters led to a choice that led to becoming the Raina Telgemeier that could share her story with us, “Raina Telgemeier” is as open and unfinished as Raina the character. She’ll share more with us when she’s ready, and it will be wonderful.
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¹ Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she’s got a bad book in her; we’re talking about the difference between two things that are excellent — one of which you prefer to the other — either of which is far beyond almost all other things of a similar nature.
² And to a lesser degree, that of their parents and younger brother, Will.
³ Telgemeier avoids drawing teeth in Raina’s mouth throughout the book, but the back cover shows a smile with braces. We also see Raina with a shirt referencing her junior high school, and at one point she mentions starting high school in two weeks, so we’re just before the time that she takes another huge leap in becoming a whole person: cutting off the why am I friends with these people again? crowd that had grown increasingly mean towards her.