Almost every day the conversation comes up in my house of six daughters: “Yes, things your sisters do today might annoy you or make you feel angry, but there is no relationship that can replace the relationship you’ll have with a sister. Someday, you will be so grateful to have a sister who is there for you.”
This is largely informed by my own life. Even though I struggled with my relationships with my three sisters as a kid (blame middle child syndrome, if you like, or my particular defensive personality), I don’t know what I’d do without them today. My sisters have carried me through the hardest and the best moments of my life. They’ve been at my children’s births, held my newborns when I needed a rest; they’ve hugged me and sent packages and prayers and help when I miscarried a baby. They instinctively know when I need chocolate or time by myself or someone to talk to. We trust each other. We love each other. We need each other.
Given all this, and given that I have six daughters to raise up to love one another, I’m always on the lookout for books that can accurately portray the beauty and complexity of growing up with sisters. (This also motivates most of my own works in progress; more on those soon.) What Happens Next, by Claire Swinarski, does just that.
What Happens Next is not a family story in the vein of Little Women or The Penderwicks. It’s solidly in the “issue book” category, centering around 12-year-old Abby’s struggle as her sister Blair succumbs to, and then fights, anorexia. Unlike so many mediocre issue books, however, this one keeps character and story at the center, allowing the issues to enrich the realism and thicken the plot, without getting in the way of the most important element: the relationships between all the characters, particularly Abby and her two sisters. Blair, Jade, and Abby love each other, but they bicker and fight–with increasing intensity as the stress in their life escalates, which is totally believable and true to life. The arch of the story focuses on their falling out and reconciliation as sisters and friends. It’s spot-on and beautiful.
Also laudable is the way Abby is really her own character, not just an ancillary creation meant to narrate the story of the character struggling with the “issue.” (Sorry for the scare quotes here–I don’t love using the word issue, but can’t seem to find a better way to express it.) Abby is obsessed with astronomy, loves SciFi books and Star Wars, and has clearly expressed opinions on everything from her sister’s mental health to her friends’ Instagram shots.
I didn’t love everything about this book. It’s a pet peeve of mine, perhaps, but the characters use God’s name in vain frequently; realistic, yes, but I still don’t like it in a MG book. I also was uncomfortable with the 12-year-old main character sneaking away from home to work with two adults she barely knew on a secret plan. I don’t think it would have bothered me as a child readers (I think it’s clear from the story that these adults aren’t threatening or grooming in any way at all), but I can’t turn off my mom radar and let that go. It was something I had to talk to my daughter about after she finished reading the book, but it wasn’t enough to lessen the impact or value of the rest of the story.
As it turned out, this book found my family at just the right time. My Star Wars and space-obsessed 13-year-old daughter recently heard about eating disorders, and wanted to understand them better; it was great to be able to hand her What Came Next and say, “Read this. Then we’ll talk about it.” If every hard topic could be paired with such an enjoyable book, my life as a mother would be so much easier.
You can buy What Happens Next from Amazon by clicking the image above, or from your local indie bookseller by clicking this link: Shop your local indie bookstore. (I’m an affiliate seller, so I will receive a small commission of the sale. Thank you!)
To find more great middle grade reads, check out all the links for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Greg’s blog!