The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: A Discussion That Always Happens From Outside

My addiction to YA literature has moved on to another series. I decided to check out Ann Brahsares The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Aside from the fact that I am going to really milk this series for review fodder, I really enjoyed it, for many reasons.

Seldom do I find stories written by women that tell women’s stories that I think get so much right. Here, we have the stories of four young women, Bridget, Carmen, Lena, and Tibby, who have grown up together, and for the first time are going to spend a summer apart. Young women who have grown so much a part of each other and have formed such a tight bond, a sisterhood that forged long before the eponymous pants found their way into Carmen’s closet from the thrift store, must branch out and discover how to be whole women by themselves.

And that is a story that I don’t get to read often in popular young adult fiction.

I fell in love with this book just a little bit… more than a little bit.

Which is why it pains me just a little bit to write what I am going to write.

Three of the four girls goes away from home to stretch her wings in situations that are so poignant that I felt the need to hide my face behind my book and bury my tears in the pages. Of the four of them, Tibby alone remains in Washington, D.C. for the summer, getting a summer job, dreading being home without her friends. During her shift at the department store Tibby begins an at first reluctant relationship with a twelve year old girl named Bailey, who passes out in the middle of the antiperspirant display that Tibby had built. Through a series of events that leads Tibby to Bailey’s bedside both at the hospital and at her home, it is revealed that Bailey has leukemia.

We pretty much know what happens to kids with cancer in books like this.

Bailey serves as a vehicle to help Tibby learn to see past appearances as they make a documentary together, or the “suckumentary” as Tibby likes to call it. First intended to be a slightly mocking film about people Tibby finds somewhat laughable, Bailey conducts interviews that help Tibby see these people for unique and wonderful people, each broken and needy like she herself is. Bailey is, of course, here to teach a Very Special Lesson to Tibby, who will then go on to learn so many wonderful lessons from it that she will pass on to her friends in the form of a message on the Pants.

Because naturally Bailey’s time runs out. Time, that thing that Bailey fears most, calls up on Bailey. And Tibby goes through a long and painful denial that she must call upon the Pants and her friend Carmen to help her overcome.

I must ask: Why do we always read of the story of Cancer Girl from the perspective of the healthy and able bodied outsider? I have read so many stories (My Sister’s Keeper, comes to mind, and although she doesn’t die, I know I have read others where the Kid with Cancer is meant to teach a lesson from outside the perspective), and have yet to find one that tells Bailey’s story. Bailey is brave, and good, and wonderful, and she has much to teach us, but does she not ever depart the world with any wisdom of her own? Is she only here to impart and never receive?

I hate that the Baileys of YA are only ever vehicles and never the main character. I hate that I have to read Bailey’s story from someone else’e eyes. It reminds me that the disabled and chronically ill are to be talked about, but not to. Our stories and lives are teaching tools, but not to be lived or experienced. We are to be silent.

Bailey’s story marred this otherwise exceptional book for me, and yes, I was delighted to also have Bailey be a young woman, another woman’s story, but she was just a window dressing, like Tibby’s guinea pig who also died.

Bailey lives on, though, in the Pants, and in Tibby’s first movie, and in the friendships she forged outside of her sisterhood when she needed to. I just wish that it didn’t take Bailey’s life and story to teach this Very Special Lesson.

Also worth noting, the author uses the word “lame” frequently, although I think it was only for two of the characters, as casual dialogue. It grated on me to no end. I wish it wasn’t so pervasive. This otherwise lovely novel that has strong feminist language and themes was kind of flawed by this.

Thank you, always, to Chally, for recommending this book to me. I am going to be reading the next in the series very soon. It seems that one of the girls deals very seriously with depression, and if this is a continuing theme, perhaps you will hear from me on that one too.

24 Comments

  1. You might be interested in Before I Die, by Jenny Downham. That one is told from the point of view of a girl dying of leukemia; I thought it was very well done (and the narrator was definitely a fully realized person and not there to be a lesson to anyone).

  2. Oh, and My Sister’s Keeper drove me [redacted per comments policy] for exactly that reason. I was reading the book thinking “WHY do we get everyone’s point of view except Kate’s? WHY?” and when I realized it was at least partly in service of a cheap plot trick, as well as general erasure, I wanted to throw the book across the room. (Which I didn’t actually do until I got to the other cheap plot trick at the end, at which time I literally threw the book across the room.)

  3. There was one YA book I read, about a boy with leukemia that was told in first person, by the boy. It was called Hang Tough, Paul Mather, I think. He obviously didn’t die in it because he was the narrator, but the ending of the book left the possibility very open, as I recall (I read it 20 years ago). That’s the only Kid with Cancer book I can think of that centers around the kid, that I have read; I’ve also heard of one called The Chemo Kid, but I haven’t read it. Both of them have male protagonists, but I would have to read/ re-read them to see how relevant that is as an issue.

  4. Completely agree. However, I do have to say that the rest of the series deals with one character’s depression far more realistically than most (or the film adaption).

  5. When I was a tween/young teen i actually stumbled on a handful of YA books where the main characters had cancer/lupus/etc. Wish I could recall the titles. It WAS the 80s though, back when I could remember anything except my homework.

  6. Reading this reminds me of a YA series I used to read, One Last Wish by Lurlene McDaniel. They were all books about kids with either terminal illnesses (cancer, AIDS), medical issues requiring an organ transplant, or chronic illnesses like diabetes or cystic fibrosis. I can’t say, now, from the standpoint of 27 years old and becoming more aware of disability issues (though by no means perfect) whether the books treated these issues respectfully, but they were about 75% from the perspective of the person with cancer/the transplant recipient/etc. Your comment on books not being from the perspective of the person with the illness or disability reminded me of it.

  7. I’ve read a bunch of YA books told from the perspective of teens with cancer or other chronic illnesses, most of them by the author Lurlene McDaniel, whose specialty is this sort of thing. So they do exist, but the McDaniel books at least tend to be pretty problematic IMHO, and not just because they’re sappy and poorly written. There’s a lot of reducing PWD to Tragic Figures, and many times they end up Doing Inspiring Things and Inspiring Others even if all or part of the stories is told from their perspective. And very often the main characters (or at least side characters) end up dying, particularly the girl characters (who were the majority of McDaniel’s character). There’s a lot of Victorianesque romanticizing of the delicate white female who dies young, which is just disturbing and problematic on a number of levels. (Another problem with the McDaniel books: I can’t think of a protagonist who isn’t white and Christian. Heck, I don’t think there are even many minor characters who don’t fit this bill.)

    So there are clearly issues with this kind of fictional representation which go beyond centralizing PWD.

    As for Jodi Picoult, I’m afraid this trope is common with her, as seen even more egregiously in “Handle With Care.” (a book about a family with a young girl with a disability. We don’t even hear her perspective until the very end of the book, when she commits suicide either unintentionally or intentionally. I wish I was kidding.)

  8. Oh man, I really liked this series but that part bugged me to no end, so too did My Sister’s Keeper which was given to me as a Christmas gift by my aunt.

    Part of why this story grates on me is that I *was* the kid with leukemia, and it definitely sucked, and I really didn’t have the time or energy to inspire anyone with my touching life lessons about seizing the moment. In fact, one of the things that I found the hardest was the pressure to behave perfectly– to be brave and uncomplaining and gracious and grateful to my doctors at ALL times. Partly this is because my parents are doctors and I was treated at one of their hospitals, but it really was a tremendous burden. (I don’t want to sound like an asshole here, of course I am grateful to my doctors, but it’s maybe a bit much expect a kid to thank someone for giving them a spinal tap, yes?)

    Also, many childhood leukemias are very treatable. So how come most fictional kids die?

  9. Hey, thanks for this post. I’m a writer (oh, I use the term loosely) & the points you make have inspired me to get down to work on a story I’ve been mulling for a while based on a girl I know who has leukemia (and has been kicking it’s ass for five years now).

    SPOILERS SPOILERS

    Re: Picoult – The “My Sister’s Keeper” ending is the laziest one I can think of. The whole book sets up the question of whether or not Anna can refuse the transplant, decides she can, and then kills her in a car wreck so there’s none of those messy gray areas to deal with when her sister dies as a result of her decision. (I actually preferred the movie ending, although it does do the whole Tragic Figure thing. And Cameron Diaz? Really?!) And it is true that most leukemias are (relatively) easy to cure, but some types are more deadly than others, and any relapse pushes down the chances of recovery. In “My Sister’s Keeper,” Kate has APL, which is pretty rare, and she’s relapsed repeatedly since she was a toddler, so death is a pretty realistic outcome there, I think. And IIRC (it’s been a while since I read the book), it’s her kidney failure – caused by the cancer & its treatment – that’s killing her, not the cancer itself. Brashares definitely did not do so much research.

    Apologies for all this barely on topic stuff, but I always have an uncontrollable urge to rant when Picoult comes up. And I know way too much about childhood cancer for someone who is not a medical professional, thanks to volunteering & research for this book I haven’t written. =p

  10. @Gnatalby @Diana: I was going to say about the exact same thing with respect to childhood leukemias. It seems to be a case of Did Not Do the Research. Or maybe an assumption that the audience is ignorant and ineducable. Either way the narrative always seems to be that the character with leukemia dies and the other characters are saddened but learn something valuable.

    Meanwhile the people in the audience who have an awareness that most childhood leukemias have treatments with high rates of success in the real world are left wondering why they’re inevitably fatal in fiction. My guess is it has to do with the narrative convention that when a child dies the work is Very Serious Stuff.

  11. my only real thought on why there aren’t more stories from bailey’s pov is that, when you’re telling the story of a kid who dies of cancer, well, there’s no one around who CAN tell that story. i’m not saying that no one should try, or that a creative writer can’t put themselves in that place. but, thinking about the vast amount of books i’ve read, i’ve read exactly one where the main character actually experienced death in a non-sci-fi setting(the lovely bones).

    now, that totally leaves open a whole host of books available to the MANY people who have survived cancer, and it WOULD be nice to see a non-Lifetime-movie-style book from that POV for sure. there may be some out there that i don’t know of. i hope there are.

    it also leaves open the chance to have the cancer-kid be just a normal kid in a group of other normal kids that your main character encounters. c-k doesn’t HAVE to be the life lesson that propels your protagonist.

    i just wanted to play a teeny-tiny devil’s advocate and mention why i, for one, would be pretty incapable of writing that story, and why i think a lot of authors probably feel similarly.
    .-= InfamousQBert´s last blog ..hippie, thy name is infamousqbert =-.

  12. The rest of the books aren’t as good as the first one, but are definitely great for the fact that they’re light reads and still do a decent job illustrating relationships among young women.

    They did a better job than most wrt depiction of mental illness, but I can’t give away too much without ruining the plots.

  13. Just wondering if anyone else has read Petey by Ben Mikaelsen? I read it when I was about 10 and I think it made a big an impact on me in terms of awareness of disability rights and issues. It’s about a man the author knew who had cerebral palsy and was placed in an institution in the 1920’s and his story growing up, from his POV. The end gets a little iffy when he befriends a young boy and it switches to his POV, but I think it was fairly well written (if I’m remembering right, I read it like 10 years ago). Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who’s ever read it, none of the people I’ve asked have known abut it.

  14. There was a book I read once told from the perspective of a doctor who got leukemia. It was a very interesting read. I’d like to say I own a copy and can say which book it is, but I sadly stumbled upon it in a library somewhere and never wrote down the title. It was especially interesting because this doctor ended up rethinking the way he thought about how he practiced medicine on terminal patients, and it being a true story makes it that much better.

  15. @Eraymor Might it have been “A Taste of My Own Medicine” by Edward Rosenbaum? I’ve never read the book, but I’ve seen the movie “The Doctor,” which is based on it. Rosenbaum had cancer of the larynx, I think, though, so I could be completely wrong.

    Here’s the book’s Amazon link although, sadly, it seems to be out of print: http://www.amazon.com/Taste-My-Own-Medicine-Patient/dp/0394562828

  16. Holy comment explosion everyone! Thank you so much!

    Thank you also for all of the book suggestions as well! I don’t know if I will ever be able to get to all of the books everyone ever suggests, but it isn’t for a lack of trying!

    Kate, Rebecca, Sarah, Gnatalby: I read Piccoult’s books… and I don’t know why. My Sister’s Keeper actually compelled me to throw it across the room, but I haven’t seen the movie because I really hate it when screen adaptations change so much of a book. Even if it was a terrible ending to begin with. Not every character like Kate and Bailey has to be so tragic.

    And many of you have brought up a great point (Kate’s APL aside), leukemia is often treatable, if unpleasant.

    I have plowed through the second book, and am interested in the direction that the character with depression’s story goes (not to give any more away). I am also intrigued with the story of Carmen and her mother, having been (mostly) raised by a single mother myself. So far the other two stories have… well… I am glad to have four young women’s stories to tell, but…

    Thanks so much for all of the conversation!

  17. Lessons in Taxidermy by Bee Lavender is a first person account of the author’s disabilities/health problems. I never got around to reading it when I took it out of the library a few years back, but I’m hoping I can read it sometime. I don’t know how the portrayal is, exactly; but I do know that it is first-person and autobiographical.

    (Please delete the older comment; my e-mail address was wrong in it.)

  18. I’m getting a vague memory over here… Not young adult fiction… read books like what you described in… elementary, then middle school…

    There was one, a short story in a bigger lit book in middle school… no wait, it was a big chapter novel… I can just barely remember reading a book about a boy whose younger brother had leukemia. But I can’t remember the name of it now, so if it’s been listed here in the comments already – I’m not picking up on it.
    I can’t remember much about it either other than the boy – not the one with leukemia, the older, able-bodied boy – was some kind of tragic hero.

    The short story in middle school… the younger brother may have had a developmental delay, I think? Something about him wanting to go outside & look at the swans. It’s been a long time since then, my memory is sort of jumbled up.

    Something else… were there short stories like that in the Chicken Soup for the [x] Soul series?

  19. Somehow all this is putting me in mind of the first time I read “Diary of Ann Frank” when I was, I don’t know, 11? I came into it not knowing anything about it, except that it was a real person’s diary. I remember getting really scared, partway through, afraid something terrible was going to happen to Anne, and reassuring myself that she had to get through OK, she had to, because she’s the narrator and the narrator always lives, right? Right?

    Meanwhile back to the inspiration cancer kid genre, there’s a horrid treacly novel called “A Walk To Remember” that must have been a bestseller – I was at a library book sale and there was a different edition on every shelf, I swear. It jumped up and down on my last nerve with the saintly cancer girl, and the orphans, and Jesus, and Christmas pageants, and on and on, was there a single cheesy trope it didn’t include? Yuck.

  20. @Diana: I don’t think that’s the book. I’m pretty sure the doctor who wrote it was a surgeon, not a rheumatologist. That sounds like an interesting book/movie nonetheless. Thanks for responding!

  21. I think one reason the kid with leukemia tends to die, is that the cliche began when that was a realistic outcome, and then younger writers who want to use that cliche either don’t do/ ignore the research or they set their stories in an earlier time, and it kind of feeds on itself.

  22. My addiction to YA literature has moved on to another series.

    I might come back to leave a comment regarding the content of this post, but I just wanted to note that as someone with a history of addiction problems, who comes from a family of people with addiction problems, I chafe at casual usage of the word “addict(ion).” If your consumption of YA literature has been detrimental to your life, if you feel you can’t control it, then I sincerely apologize. (I’m not being snarky at all, I think a person can become addicted to just about anything.)

  23. I’m reading a YA book right now, Going Bovine by Libba Bray, wherein the16-year-old narrator has Creutzfeldt-Jakob a.k.a. Mad Cow disease. It’s hip and funny but I find myself getting a little annoyed with the Fire Monsters and pink angels and other wacky encounters that might all be inside the kid’s deteriorating brain. I do recommend the book though, for people who like YA and/or sci-fi/fantasy.

  24. Two other book recommendations, if you’re interested (both YA).

    Freak the Mighty is… now that I’m thinking about it, I’m sure it’s problematic in all sorts of ways, but both main characters (the protagonist (Kevin) and the narrator (Max)) have disabilities.

    The other I’d recommend is What Happened to Lani Garver. The narrator, Claire, had leukemia when she was younger, and one of the major plots of the book is her PTSD and fear of relapsing. She doesn’t die.