The Responsible Ones

So after I posted last week, I had the weirdest feeling that I’d forgotten something. Then I got an e-mail from my cousin Ellen that reminded me about a story she’d written in the new anthology, Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales, which is a collection of stories about fairy-tale villains. So there’s one about the giant’s wife in Jack and the Beanstalk, and one about Cinderella’s wicked stepsister (or stepbrother, in this case), and like that, by renowned kids’ fantasy writers like Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, Neil Gaiman, and Nancy Farmer.

Ellen’s story is about the oldest of the twelve dancing princesses—the one who leads all her sisters into the hidden cavern where they dance their shoes to pieces every night. I’d never thought of the oldest sister as a villain before, but I guess in the traditional version of the story she is the instigator of all the trouble. In this version, she’s just trying to keep an eye on her sisters, but she gets blamed. Ellen kindly dedicates the story to “all oldest children everywhere, who are responsible whether they want to be or not.”

I’d read the story a few weeks ago, and smiled in recognition as a fellow oldest-child in our extended family, and then got busy and forgot to write and tell her how much I liked it (Ellen! I liked it a lot!) but aside from that, I’d forgotten that I’d written a whole post about fictional youngest children and here was this swell story about an oldest child and how could I have neglected to write about books that feature oldest children and wouldn’t that be a nice balance?

Except… there is, as I mentioned earlier, a whole raft of series about those endearing, charming, mischievous youngests, but when I try to come up with series focused on oldest kids I mostly draw a blank. Oh, sure, there are lots of big-sibling-little sibling picture books, like Julius, the Baby of the World and the incomparable Max and Ruby (though even in Max and Ruby, who always prevails? Who, I ask you? Not big-sister Ruby, that’s for sure), but as protagonists of novels, especially series of novels, oldest siblings seem to get short shrift.

Well, there is Clementine. Regular readers might have noticed that I have a soft spot for Clementine, with her good intentions and her helpful problem-solving (which is sometimes truly helpful, sometimes, well, not so much) and even the ingenious vegetable-based nicknames she keeps coming up with for her little brother. I have to admit that sometimes I describe Clementine to potential <strike>converts</strike> readers as “like Ramona, but less bratty.” Which isn’t quite fair because Ramona isn’t really bratty. But she is, recognizably, a little sister: cute, demanding, used to being noticed and looked after. And in Clementine, who works so hard to make everything Okay for everyone—her parents, her neighbors, her baffling and persnickety friend Margaret—I recognize a fellow oldest child: responsible, whether she wants to be or not. And Clementine’s parents don’t lay that on her; she just takes it on, as oldest kids so often do.

A couple other fictional kids who take on—or chafe under—the burden of being oldest:

  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s Claudia Kinkaid, who famously runs away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art partly in protest against the chores and responsibilities she feels are heaped unjustly upon her in her suburban home. Of course, she takes one of her little brothers along, so you could argue that maybe she’s not so dead-set against big-sisterhood overall—one of author E.L. Konigsburg’s many sly touches.
  • Catherine, heroine of Rules, by Cynthia Lord. Catherine is a model big sibling in so many ways: loving, responsible, concerned about her little brother even as his autism makes her life way more complicated than she’d like.

I’m sure there are more…can anyone think of any? And maybe some big brothers to keep those responsible big sisters company?

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On the grown-up front: Georgette Heyer's Frederica and Valencia are both about the eldest daughters.

For a fun poem on the subject, check out "The Eldest" in Suzie Bitner Was Afraid of the Drain. It's one of the poems posted on the author's website, , on the Excerpt page. Hilarious! (As an "eldest" myself, I can definitely relate!)

Madeleine L'Engle's Meg Murry and (her daughter) Polly O'Keefe are both oldest siblings, as is Laura in _The Changeover_. And Nita from Diane Duane's Young Wizards series is an older sister, though I'm not sure it's as central to her character until _High Wizardry_ (when she has to go chasing after her younger sister to make sure she's okay).

I *loved* _Julius, Baby of the World_ when I was little. Guess who has two younger brothers? :P

Oh, I love The Changeover! Of course!

After I wrote this post I thought of the hero of Gregor the Overlander, too, who goes to the underground world to rescue his little sister. And there's Tiffany Aching, who leaps into similar danger to save her irritating little brother (though technically she's not the oldest, as I think she has a couple of older married sisters).

Thanks for the comment, Emily!

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