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Sibling Dynamics (Picture Book Style)

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

If you have been following me at all, then you probably already know that I'm super-excited for my next picture book, HIDE AND SHH!, with illustrator Nathalia Takeyama, to come out April 1. Yay!

I love and tend to write stories with layers that weave together multiple themes. In the next two months, I'd like to share some themes in our book and other picture books that touch on the same ideas. In HIDE, Dinah is the star, but her co-star is her big sister, Chloe. Sibling dynamics (and interpersonal kid relationships more generally) are a big part of the inspiration for HIDE.

Meet Chloe (left) and Dinah (right).

I'm a sibling, though my younger sister, Adrienne, might not always want to claim me. (That's right! I'm the Chloe in our dynamic.) I'm also the parent of siblings, and myohmy, how they love to mystify and entertain, and yes, frustrate me. I've been privileged to watch the older-to-younger dynamic twice over among my offspring, first with an older brother to younger sister, and then with an older sister to younger brother. I've seen hide-and-seek and other games play out successfully and not-so-successfully many times. (Just the other day, one younger sibling's army of creepers happened to destroy one older sibling's carefully crafted and fully outfitted base in Minecraft. That was fun.)

So, this is neither my youngest son's creeper army nor his older sister's base, but you get the idea.

Humans are social creatures, by and large. Though we might have different views on how social we want to be, to some extent, most of us must interact with others. Those who grow up with siblings, their sibling relationships are some of their first social emotional interactions and learning experiences. Those who do not have siblings might have a comparable experience with cousins, neighbor children, the kids of caregivers, or their first friends (in their building or neighborhood, or at childcare, preschool, school, or some other place of significance, like a religious institution).

Those early interactions are important, so I love looking at how siblings (and other young relationships) in picture books unfold. Siblings and other early relationships offer young people opportunities to develop empathy, to navigate potential conflicts, to share and compromise, to collaborate, and yes, to learn less positive ways of interacting. Books afford us all ways to explore alternative experiences and ways of interacting with our fellow humans (as well as with dragons, talking toasters, other planets, you name it). So, the way we show siblings and friendships in picture books matters.

Okay, so the brave little toaster was a movie ...
But lo! It was a book first!

In HIDE, I wanted to show two siblings with competing ideas of fun. Each has her own idea of how she wants to play and how to have fun while playing. (This is a common source of disagreement among siblings and other friends, I have found.) The two perspectives seem to conflict at one point, but part of the main idea, is that they don't really. Different does not mean mutually exclusive. With a little self-reflection, Dinah figures out how she can adapt her idea of fun and her style of play to the demands of the game that Chloe has started with her friends. In so doing, she shows Chloe that maybe she can stretch her ideas about how to play the game. Sometimes, it's fun to stick with the rules we know or expect; other times, it's good to try something new. They both have valid feelings, and they both learn something. What's more, in the end, they and their friends ALL have a hopping good time.

Alas, if only I'd been so wise in the ways of sibling dynamics when I was younger ... or yesterday ... or ... Okay, so wisdom doesn't always make it to application, but you need to start somewhere. In that spirit, I'm sharing some of the delightful, powerful, poignant, and otherwise awesome sibling picture books that I've encountered in my reading journey. Here we go!

Picture books about sibling dynamics

At the top of the sweet sibling books list goes Maple & Willow Together and Maple & Willow Apart by Lori Nichols. Both books show the joy to be had both in togetherness and in taking a break and forging your own path. They embrace the frustrations along with the fun. They show change ... and growth. They are likely to appeal most to younger readers, ages 2 to 5 or so, maybe 6.

How about artsy siblings? I have a few of those to share! We just discovered Louise Loves Art by Kelly Light last week and LOVED it. Aside from the punny name (little bro is Art), most parents and caregivers can predict where this is going, but there's still a sweet little twist that makes the ending delightful. Ish by Peter Reynolds has a similar but different plot device in which one sibling helps the other learn a little something important ... maybe two somethings. Finally, what sibling book list is complete without a little competition?! For some artsy "who can do it better," check out Violet and Victor Write the Best-Ever Bookworm Book by Alice Kuipers and Bethanie Murguia. It's fun for talking about writing your own book, too! Also, the illustrations! Gah!

What about the sibling who can't get the others to play or help? Brenda Maier and Sonia Sanchez tell and illustrate it perfectly with The Little Red Fort. The lyrical, jaunty narrative is so much fun to read, and Ruby rocks it, from her maker mighty girlness to her triumphant kind-but-fairness. One Busy Day: A Story for Big Brothers and Sisters by Lola M. Schaefer and Jessica Meserve also tackles the dilemma of getting a big sibling to play through a fabulously illustrated imaginative play story. It's a sequel to the new baby sibling story One Special Day.

What about the big sibling who knows he needs a little space and seeks it out ... but also knows when he needs his siblings? The Nowhere Box by Sam Zuppardi combines wonderful cardboard box play with me time and together time.

Oooh, how about siblings exploring the dark? Many a set of siblings, cousins, and friends have gotten the shivers in the dark, playing ghosts in the graveyard, exploring, telling scary stories, and so on. The Too-Scary Story by Bethanie Deeney Murguia is a great older-but-not-as-old-as-she-thinks-she-is tale. A Dark, Dark Cave by Eric Hoffman and Corey R. Tabor is all about the joy and discovery of exploring together, and well, I couldn't help but add in The Spooky Old Tree, because if you're going to sneak into awesomely spooky old trees and get almost eaten by crocodiles, it should be with a sibling or a friend.

Sibling support is an amazing thing. The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad, S.K. Ali, and Hatem Aly shows how one sibling's love can strengthen another. Allie All Along by Sarah Lynne Reul follows one big brother as he tries to make sense of and help his younger sister work through her own complicated and changing feelings. In Jack (Not Jackie) by Erica Silverman and Holly Hatam and Sparkle Boy by Lesléa Newman and Maria Mola, big siblings grapple with and come to embrace unanticipated changes in their younger siblings.

Sleep Well, Siba & Saba by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn is another top-of-the-sweet-list books. These two sisters lose and find things together, and their dreams make for a great bedtime story. The soft but engaging illustrations are worth every page turn. Speaking of bedtime books, let's go classic. Anyone remember Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There? I have long suspected that this book inspired the 1980s movie Labyrinth. A sister is a little put out with minding her baby brother ... until he's swiped by goblins. Then, she goes on a mission to rescue him!

This next one could have been grouped with several of the above lists. It's a neurodivergent title that highlights sibling frustration, siblings embracing differences, validation of different sibling feelings and perspectives, and siblings empathizing with and supporting each other. Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla and Ken Min is a favorite social-emotional-learning title with lots of good stuff to dig into.

Finally, this list is by no means exhaustive. There are so many fabulous sibling stories and picture books about other close kid relationships out there. I thought I'd end with this fun one though. It's a great twist on the new sibling story ... I mean, if you just got a new baby sibling and you think you have trouble, just imagine if you're a bunny who just got a wolf for a brother! Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora makes for a hilariously lovable adoption tale.

If you have other favorite sibling stories, or cousin stories, or just awesome friend stories, please share them in the comment. I'd love to check them out if I haven't already!

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