I always appreciate a great story about family. By that, I don’t mean I specifically search for books on this literary theme. Rather, when I read a book about family that resonates deeply or refreshes my perspective on the theme, I’m often thinking about that book for weeks, months, even years later.
Maybe it’s because family is one of the values I hold dearest. Or, maybe stories about family relationships (either fiction or nonfiction) move me more than romances do. Whatever the reason may be, I have a long list of recommended books that explore the theme of family. Maybe you have one, too.
So let’s trade favorites today. Yes, we’ve already discussed a number of books on the theme of family, thanks to this case study and our previous Theme: A Story’s Soul post on why this theme matters to readers. But it never hurts to share more stories that accomplish the “how” and “why” so well, right?
Here are five books that, in my opinion, are excellent examples of the theme of family.
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (MG / YA Fantasy)
What happens when a father pushes his tomboy daughter to become a lady-in-waiting? She switches places with her twin brother so she can train to be a knight! But as much as this first installment of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet is an entertaining, magical coming-of-age story, it’s also about family relationships.
Having grown up with an emotionally distant father and without a mother, Alanna and Thom of Trebond have learned to rely on and take care of each other. This is evident in their “sibling swap” and in their letters to each other throughout the book. Their family isn’t the only one that’s featured, either. Once Alanna begins training as a page in the King’s palace, she learns the value of choosing a “family” of friends and confidants and gains a father figure in Sir Myles of Olau. She also encounters examples of healthy family relationships (George Cooper and his mother) and how familial love can blind us to a relative’s flaws (Prince Jonathan and his cousin Duke Roger).
Alanna: The First Adventure may be geared toward younger readers, but Pierce’s exploration of family here is complex and endearing, and it continues to be that way as the series progresses.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy)
N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season takes places in the Stillness, a fictional continent that’s constantly ravaged by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters. Oddly enough, the setting’s geologic volatility is symbolic of the instability found in the relationships of its residents. Essun, for example, embarks on a heartrending quest after coming home to discover her husband has killed their son and kidnapped their daughter. In a different village and time, young Damaya finds a father figure in her Guardian after she’s taken from her birth family for training on her orogenic (earth-shifting) powers; while Syenite, a highly skilled orogene, is forced to conceive a child with fellow orogene Alabaster.
These and other families in The Fifth Season are driven by tension, disagreements, and child abuse or death. But the book isn’t without its moments of tenderness between parents and their children, or of characters creating nontraditional and “chosen” families.
If anything, the one parallel between all three women’s experiences is that the bonds of any family are sometimes as complicated and precarious as the world they live in.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (Magical Realism)
At first glance, romantic love and the supernatural appear to be Practical Magic’s two main themes. But like most stories that revolve around family, Alice Hoffman’s bestselling novel begins with—what else?—a family. Orphaned sisters Sally and Gillian want nothing more than to escape the house where their spinster aunts practice witchcraft and concoct love potions, and to live their lives free of romance and passion. And escape they do, but in opposite directions and with the pain of resentment and misunderstanding.
Thus, Practical Magic evolves into a story about the inexplicable “magic” of family ties. The night-and-day differences between steadfast, responsible Sally and impulsive, whimsical Gillian make them a fun pair to study as they reunite, reconcile, and learn all over again to balance tolerance for each other’s differences with unconditional love.
The relationships that Sally’s two daughters have with their mother, their aunt, and one another also act as mirrors of Sally and Gillian’s bonds with one another and the tension the older women feel toward their own aunts.
Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks (Memoir)
In 2003, author Nicholas Sparks and his older brother Micah embarked on a three-week trip around the world, starting in the Mayan ruins of Guatemala and ending in the Arctic latitudes of Norway. During each tour stop, they find themselves recalling memories about their boyhood adventures, their parents, and their sister Dana. Thus, Three Weeks with My Brother is much more than a travelogue. It’s also the story of two brothers in their late thirties who are the last surviving members of their family, and how their bond helped them grow closer through all the tragedies and struggles they shared.
Most chapters in Three Weeks with My Brother begin with the world-travel storyline, using the Sparks brothers’ impressions of each location to illustrate the differences between the exuberant, take-charge Micah and the more subdued, reflective Nicholas. Then, to transition to the flashbacks storyline, the brothers share brief dialogue about their parents, their wives, or other insights connected to the next set of memories that follow. And through these flashbacks, which focus almost exclusively on family, readers learn the historical context of Nicholas and Micah’s relationship, the bonds they shared with the deceased members of their family, and the families they created with their spouses and children. As a result, both storylines use different techniques to highlight the theme of family in complementary ways.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Fiction)
Considered an American classic, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of the Nolan family, who live in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn during the 1910s. It focuses mainly on the oldest daughter Francie as she persists in her efforts to get an education and go to college despite gender expectations and poverty. But in order to provide enough context about Francie’s growth, Smith incorporates the pasts and personalities of other members of the Nolan family, from her parents and siblings to her grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Much of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s delving into this theme comes from the challenges that the Nolans endure together. Johnny, Francie’s lovable yet alcoholic father, struggles to keep a job. So most of the family’s income (and overall survival) depends on mother Katie, who works as a janitress, saves every possible penny, and ensures her children stay in school. Family relationships, including the sibling bonds between Francie and younger brother Neeley and Katie and her sisters Sissy and Evy, play important roles in the story, too. Through these characters and the bits of backstory Smith shares about relatives on the Nolan and Rommely sides, readers learn how Francie’s family has influenced her personality and values for better or worse—and how, just as we often do with our own families, she loves them all despite their flaws.
What other stories featuring the theme of family would you recommend for this list?
Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach based in Massachusetts. She’s currently taking clients with manuscripts in speculative fiction, literary fiction, or YA, though she’s open to other genres as well. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Canary, Muddy River Poetry Review, Soul-Lit, and elsewhere. A Massachusetts resident, she can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.