Written by Varian Johnson
Illustrated by Shannon Wright
Everything has changed, is changing.
Young people are adapting to virtual school sessions, socially distanced play dates and visits with loved ones through Zoom. Change itself seems to be the only constant these days. And it’s a reality that is well reflected in the lives of Maureen and Francine Carter, twin sisters in “Twins,” the first book of the graphic novel series by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright. Maureen and Francine (who now wants to be called Fran) are more like best friends than sisters. Their whole lives they’ve done everything together. But at the start of sixth grade, things just aren’t the same.
Maureen, “the thinker,” wants to keep things just the way they are. The plan was to have the same class schedule as her sister so they could eat lunch together and she is perfectly OK with keeping their same group of friends (coordinated outfits and all). Francine, “the talker,” craves independence. She has a new style and is perfectly fine having a different class schedule. The close bond they have is at stake when both girls decide to run for class president. All this change leaves Maureen wondering if she is losing her best friend. Will these external changes dent their actual relationship?
Johnson is a wonderful storyteller whose humor is poignant and refreshing. He respects his young readers, knowing they can handle characters who don’t always get it right: Adults make mistakes, friends don’t necessarily say the right words and sisters aren’t always honest with each other.
Wright’s colorful illustrations interplay with the text in clever and commanding ways. Her art is an accurate representation of the real world — bodies are a variety of sizes; skin tones and hair textures are diverse. The visual details that capture Black girlhood help us understand the Carter family: hair bonnets for bedtime, the wide-toothed comb on the dresser, the mother’s variety of headwraps and headbands.
There is a knowing here that goes beyond the author’s own experience as a twin himself. It is the sober understanding that for many Black girls, a joyful, everyday moment like shopping at the mall can turn quickly into a reminder that this world is not always welcoming. When Maureen goes to the mall with her friends, a white clerk ignores them and helps a white customer instead. This moment happens quickly, with no foreshadowing. Just as in life, no one knows when micro (or macro) aggressions will happen; they come when least expected and leave the targeted person upended.
When Maureen makes her campaign speech to become class president, she promises to start a sixth-grade buddy system so that students have support while adapting to all the newness. In her speech, Maureen says, “Let’s be honest, everyone needs a buddy!” And she’s right. There is so much happening in the world. Many of our young people are feeling uncertain and anxious. Young readers need a friend, a special buddy, to help them navigate this new norm. This book is a comforting companion.
“Twins” is a page-turner with moments that make you laugh out loud. Anyone with a sibling will appreciate the sarcastic and witty banter of these sisters. And all children will relate to the politics of where to sit in the cafeteria. While the reader learns that all twins aren’t the same and have different interests and needs, the reader also sees the subtle truth that Blackness is not a monolith, that there is no such thing as acting like a girl and that the one thing all people want is to be accepted for who they truly are.