Lucy has always been her older sister Olivia’s biggest fan, always wanting to be just like her. But when everything starts changing, their relationship moves in ways that Lucy isn’t ready for. In Smaller Sister, Maggie Edkins Willis tells the sisters’ story across several years, showing how their relationship fluctuates as their lives do.
Like many younger siblings often do, Lucy wants to be an important part of Olivia’s life, starting from their earliest days. Olivia is outgoing and athletic with lots of friends. If they spend more time together, maybe those qualities will rub off on Lucy and she’ll finally be able to make some friends that stick. She’s trying her best to emulate her sister when their parents throw their world into disarray by announcing they’ll be switching to a new school, a smaller one where both sisters can shine. This is the first of two school changes the sisters must deal with in the book, with the second involving a move to a new state as well.
Lucy uses art to express herself and to discover who she is. Her expectations and desires for who she wants to be are shown in her doodling. She attempts to change her personality by mirroring Olivia or the popular girls at school before meeting people who appreciate and value her exactly as she is. Both sisters find that there is no perfect body, no perfect way to be a teenage girl, and that finding a space for yourself to be your authentic self is one way to crush your self doubt.
Smaller Sister covers several years and deals with a lot of topics. Perhaps the most notable is Olivia’s struggle with anorexia. The book begins with a content warning for eating disorders. Changing schools and moving is never easy, especially when you’re also dealing with the realities of being a tween. Lucy doesn’t quite understand what’s going on with her sister for some time and this creates a rift between the sisters, making Lucy feel even more lost and distant from Olivia. As Lucy gets older herself, she also begins to struggle with disordered eating and the overwhelming need to have an ideal body staring back at her in the mirror. It is not the main topic of the book, but it is a significant one, and important to note to potential readers.
One of the most endearing parts of Smaller Sister is the notes between the sisters written in their Secret Sister Code. Each note is written in their special code, with a translation box offered. The sisters share their secrets and concerns with each other through these letters, some of which go unanswered. The detail of these is great and their inclusion is consistent throughout the story. Their code reinforces their connection and why Lucy is so upset when Olivia is drifting away from her.
The art is very appealing and reminiscent of other middle grade realistic fiction graphic novels. You see the growth of the characters, both age and personality wise. The colors are bright and vibrant when the story calls for it, muted and darker when the mood changes. The characters’ expressions jump off the page and are very realistic.
The book is a story of growing up and the time when you go from a child to a teen. Readers will find themselves relating to one of the sisters’ struggles, as they deal with everything from the aforementioned disordered eating to first crushes to being left out of friend groups. There are also brief mentions of not wanting to be around anymore while Olivia is in treatment for her eating disorder. Because of this, it is recommended for an older middle grade or younger young adult audience.
Readers of Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Friends: The Series and Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm’s Sunny series will likely be instant fans of Smaller Sister.
By Maggie Edkins Willis
Macmillan Roaring Brook, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: Anxiety, Eating Disorder