Illustrated by Luc Melanson
(Groundwood Books, 2010)
I don’t usually go for endearing when I’m picking out books about siblings. Experience tells me bratty and annoying lead to funnier reads. But I’ve groaned when reading a few recent books that feature pesky siblings. Sometimes it’s just too much. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I kept reading Book of Big Brothers when it became clear from the first pages that the book was a tribute to older siblings rather than a platform to humorously disparage them. The real reason that I persevered, however, is due to the author. Cary Fagan wrote one of my all-time favorite picture books, the utterly delightful Thing-Thing. For me, anything he writes deserves a read.
There is a sense of nostalgia that comes from reading this book. I may not have had such endearing moments growing up with my siblings, but it is nice to think Fagan—or anyone—may have. Jerry Spinelli masterfully evoked nostalgia regarding his childhood in Knots in My Yo-yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid and Fagan’s Big Brothers ably takes the baton handoff.
The story begins with the boy narrator relating the story of his arrival home from the hospital after birth. His two older brothers drop him—not due to being cloddish or evil imbeciles but on account of their excitement to be the first brother to hold the newest member of the family. The anecdotes of the boys’ growing up together lack incidents of teasing the baby brother. (Indeed, there is one tale of the youngest having the upper hand on them.) Fagan’s storytelling is as appealing as ever. Take this description of when the narrator had to stay home sick on a school day:
At recess time I could hear the kids shouting in the school yard. The afternoon dragged on and on. It felt like the whole world had forgotten me.
Yes, it’s a far car from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Endearing, to be sure.
Fagan goes on to portray the big brothers as protectors, entertainers, death-of-a-pet consolers and sparkly-ideas-gone-wrong co-conspirators. Many a parent will read this book and find it a pure work of fiction. I can picture a mother or father giving the book a bedtime read, sitting between two siblings and interjecting, “Now why can’t you two be like that?!” But in most homes, even my own, there are (were) such moments. Sometimes we just have to jog our memories a little more.
Luc Melanson’s illustrations add to the nostalgic feel with a heavy dose of muted greens, blues and reds. The humans are simplistically drawn in sharp contrast to some of the realism that pops up in furniture, a shoe tread and a Lego robot.
The text is far longer than most of the current crop of picture books. I’ve attended conferences and heard agents and editors continue to lower the word count maximum for picture books: 1,000…800…500. Yes, these limits make the slush pile more manageable, but I am glad that Groundwood Books allowed the author the chance to tell the whole story rather demanding the equivalent to a highlight reel.