When the Littles Take Over

In a burst of summer self-indulgence, I kicked back last week and re-read the entire Casson Family series by Hilary McKay: Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, and Forever Rose. I know I’ve written about this series before – they are among my favorite books in the world. What struck me this time around, though, was the way that Rose, the youngest Casson sibling, takes over the series starting somewhere in the middle of book #2. All the Casson family members are distinct and terrific characters, but Rose really stands out: she is fierce, intelligent, principled, artistically brilliant, loyal, and complicated. Also, she’s funny (often unintentionally). One of the things that happens in Indigo’s Star is that it slowly becomes clear that the dad of the family is drifting away and has moved to London permanently. The four kids and the mom each deals with this in his/her own way. Rose copes by writing a series of letters to her dad in which she hints at various household disasters, in hopes that her father will panic and come home to fix everything. Unfortunately for Rose, he just finds the letters hilarious (as did I).

Anyway, by the third book, the series is unabashedly centered on Rose. Even Caddy Ever After, which supposedly chronicles the romantic vicissitudes of Caddy, the oldest sister, is really about how Rose saves the day.

What is it about little siblings in children’s fiction? They do this a lot--take over the books, even if they weren’t the hero to start with. Just like in real life, older siblings (like me!) might start out with all the attention, but their little sibs get a lot of mileage out of being charming, or quirky, or funny…and before you know it, they’re running the show.

The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary is a prime example: in the earliest books about the children of Klickitat Street, Ramona barely has a walk-on part—she’s Henry Huggins’s friend Beezus’s little sister, that’s all. But soon she’s taken center stage, and the rest is history—a series of eight long-lasting and internationally beloved books, with spin-offs to stage and screen.

Then there’s Fudge, that force of nature, first encountered in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Like Ramona, he starts as a very minor character—Sheila’s beleagured neighbor Peter’s little brother. But starting in Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, he does a Ramona on us: his irrepressible character all but demands that he become the hero of his very own series, and these days the average kid barely knows who Sheila the Great is, but can tell you all about Superfudge, Double Fudge, and Fudge-a-Mania.

Not to mention Anastasia Krupnik’s little brother, Sam, who wasn’t even born yet in the first Anastasia book—in fact, the book is mostly about Anastasia’s furious reaction to the prospect of getting a little sibling at the advanced age of ten. If I remember right, she’s afraid that the new baby will change everything and take over all the attention. Looking at the proliferation of “Sam” books— All About Sam, Attaboy, Sam, Zooman Sam… I can see her point.

On the other hand, the Anastasia of these later books—and all the other older brothers and sisters, eventually—seem pretty resigned, even happy, about having those attention-grabbing littles around. After all, they are quite charming. And quirky. And funny.

As an older sibling myself, I can relate. And as a reader, I’m happy to have them around, too.

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Judy Moody's little brother, Stink, has spun off his own series of books and is well on his way to stealing the stage.

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