The Sister's Club by Megan McDonald, 196 pp RL 3

Written in 2003 by Megan McDonald, best known for her Judy Moody and Stink series, The Sister's Club is a great book, comparable, but different from, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. Written for a slightly older audience, Birdsall can incorporate a longer, more complex plot and her story spans a longer period of time and feels a bit timeless. McDonald's book has a much more contemporary feel to it. However, both books employ one of my favorite devices in children's literature, one that will hopefully inspire the reader to seek out the originals - the incorporation poems, plays and snippets of other works of children's literature into the story line.

The Reel family live in the aptly named town of Acton, Oregon. Aptly named because they are a family of actors, including their descendant Hepzibiah McNutty who, as a pioneer traveling on the Oregon Trail, settled in Acton. There she built the 100+ year old Raven Theater, which the Reel family lives next to. Mom and Dad Reel both act and Mr Reel also works as a set designer for the Raven. One of Mr Reel's greatest roles was that of King Lear and, having three daughters, Alex, almost 13, Stevie, 10 and Joey, 8, he has cast them in the roles of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia for family theatricals so often that, despite knowing it is a tragedy, the girls usually end up laughing, or fighting by the time it's over. Sisters and how they love and hate each other, is the main focus of McDonald's book and she manages to work in other sisterly references beyond Shakespeare, my favorite being the legend of the Three Sisters Mountain range in Oregon which is told by Alex as a ghost story at the end of the book. In addition to working in a reference to I Am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier and a great bit from The Joy of Cooking, McDonald has a wonderful, genuine passage that involves a very famous William Carlos Williams poem. This is also my favorite part of the book because I feel like McDonald portrays a very real thought (or lack of thought) process that we have all experienced as children and probably still do as adults. Tired of being the glue that holds together Alex, the slightly self-absorbed actress consumed by her newest role, and Joey, the pioneer obsessed, Jell-O loving, antagonizer, as well as parents who are pretty absorbed by their jobs, Stevie makes a decision she knows is a bad one, and things snowball from there.

One of the great creative devices in this book, and way to change narrative voices, is the intermittent use of notebook entries and drawings by Joey, who longs to have real homework like her older sisters and makes up her own assignments, occasional notes from Stevie, and, best of all, short one-act scenes written by Alex that dramatize her life and sometimes employ her sock monkey doll as a character. These passages appear "handwritten" on lined paper, or typed, and the drawings look like they were done by kids. This reminds me a bit of the hugely popular Diary of A Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, which is entirely "hand written" diary entries and drawings by the main character. These keep the story moving, lighten up serious parts and make the experiences and voices of the main characters seem more realistic and entertaining. They also help to illustrate the age and personality differences between the three sisters, which is difficult at times since they are relatively close in age. However, McDonald has no difficulty keeping Joey a real (young and immature) eight year old and Alex a maturing almost teenager, as she points out at one point in the book.

The "sister's club" of the title is started by Stevie as a way to keep her sisters connected. But, in the first few pages of the book, Olivia, Stevie's friend who is not a sister and not allowed to join the club, predicts a rift in the making, foreshadowing the events that follow. It serves to keep the sisters connected, but also ends up emphasizing the ways in which they are individuals trying to be themselves within a tightly knit family unit, as well as the difficulties of doing so. There are no "precocious girl" characters here, just real, creative girls with realistic hobbies, interests and interior lives that make them both introspective and interesting, not the loudest voice in the room.

I was curious as to what childhood or work experiences could have given Megan McDonald such precise insight into the lives of girls and kids in general and was tickled to learn a few things. Megan is the youngest of five girls, which explains a lot. As a joke, the doctor yelled, "It's a boy!" when she was born. Megan's middle name is Jo and, as a kid she wanted to change her name to Megan Jon Amy-Beth McDonald so that her name would include all four of the names of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Finally, as a bookseller constantly awed by the ways and things customers steal from the store, I was very excited to learn that Megan chased down and caught a shoplifter who had run out of the store with two full bags of books. Not only did she chase the thief, she caught him!

Books Two and Three in the Sister's Club series: - The Rule of Three and Cloudy with a Chance of Boys!

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:
Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay
School Story by Andrew Clements
My Last Best Friend by Julie Bowe
Book of Coupons by Susie Morgenstern
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

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