The best books with understated siblings

Catherine Austen Author Of All Good Children
By Catherine Austen

Who am I?

I’m the youngest of five, and my siblings are what shaped me and my world. Growing up, I never felt alone, except climbing the stairs to bed half an hour before anyone else (such an injustice!). We played cards and games and had noisy discussions throughout my childhood and youth, and we still do. I wouldn’t be me without siblings. It’s the relationship that most fascinates me. There are siblings in all the books I’ve written and probably in all the books I’ll ever write. It’s not a theme I look for when I read, but I recognize the feeling when I encounter it and it feels like home.

I wrote...

All Good Children

By Catherine Austen,

Book cover of All Good Children

What is my book about?

It's the middle of the twenty-first century and the children of New Middletown are lined up to receive a treatment that turns them into obedient, well-mannered citizens. Maxwell Connors, a self-absorbed graffiti artist, doesn’t initially believe his little sister, Ally, when she tells him her schoolmates have changed. Then Ally herself comes home changed, and the treatment is extended to the higher grades. Will Max be "zombified" and turned into the boy his teachers always wanted him to be? Or will the family escape into the unknown world beyond New Middletown's borders? Can Max’s creativity save him? And can anything save Ally?

The books I picked & why

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How I Live Now

By Meg Rosoff,

Book cover of How I Live Now

Why this book?

I just read this book—it’s been in my TBR pile since 2004and it’s why I chose the theme of siblings. I loved the voice of this novel, the narrator’s young outsider perspective, her humour and heartDaisy is such an unexpected character to tell a war story through. But what I loved most about the book is the sibling vibe in the house of her cousins. Edmond, Piper, Osbert, and Isaaceach of them is who she/he is because of their siblings. You could remove one from the plot (well, not Edmond!) but the others wouldn’t be themselves anymore. We feel that through Daisy’s thin bones: these people belong to each other, and maybe she could belong there too. 

The Scorpio Races

By Maggie Stiefvater,

Book cover of The Scorpio Races

Why this book?

I read this novel on a plane coming back from vacation. (I’d brought Matt Haig’s The Humans, André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, and this one—best vacation reading ever!) It took almost 100 pages to get into it, but then I was hooked fast. I wanted to be Sean Kendrick, to have his skill and composure, to hang out with Corr, the water horse (and not get eaten). The narration alternates between Sean and Puck Connelly, an equally strong and dignified character who rides land horses (not as cool). She is why the book is on this list. Her first sentence speaks of her brothers, Finn and Gabe, and they’re with her throughout the book even when they’re not in a scene because they’re part of her, influential and understated. 

The Witch's Boy

By Kelly Barnhill,

Book cover of The Witch's Boy

Why this book?

I read this book accidentally. When ordering The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber (so good! no siblings), this title came up alongside it. Barnhill won the Newbery with The Girl who Drank the Moon, but this one won my heart first. I loved the woods that separated the two worlds and the two main characters; I loved the image of magic pulsing in the veins; and I loved the subtle sibling theme. The title character, Ned, is defined in part by his dead twin. He fears that the villagers are right in saying the wrong boy survived. Having siblings is not all cozy belonging. There’s guilt and insecurity and competition and heartbreak too. This book captures some of those lost feelings among its thrills and terrors, while being ultimately uplifting.

Rules of Summer

By Shaun Tan,

Book cover of Rules of Summer

Why this book?

This is a picture book of very few words. If you Google it (which I just did, in case I missed the whole point), you’ll find it described as being about “two boys, one older, one younger.” They are not identified as brothersbut they sure feel like brothers. For me, this book captures so many of the emotions of a younger sibling: being protected; being left out; being the person someone is stuck with. Trust; mistrust; adventure; terror; not-quite-knowing-what’s-going-on-but- suspecting-someone-does-and-they’re-not-going-to-tell-you. It’s one of my favourite unsettling picture books. There’s raw childhood here in its mysterious words and images. And siblings. These are siblings. For sure. 

Empire of the Ants

By Bernard Werber,

Book cover of Empire of the Ants

Why this book?

There are thousands of siblings in this bookthe offspring of a single queen ant are siblings, aren’t they?and they are most definitely understated. There are humans in the book too, but it’s the ants that interest me, and their sense of relationship to each other. This is one of my favourite novels. It’s beautifully imagined, and so full of fascinating facts that I can never retain them all, so I need to read it again and again. I tried to choose contemporary titles for this list; this is the oldest, from the 1990s, set in the near future, which we’re now living in. 

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