Like best friends on a lazy summer day, Ann Brashares' Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series and her new young adult book, 3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows, share a lot of things. Each tells the coming-of-age story of a group of young female schoolmates; their worlds overlap in the city of Bethesda, Md.; and, both prominently feature themes of friendship, love and family.
But where the New York Times-bestselling Sisterhood had the magical one-size-fits-all jeans that helped Carmen, Tibby, Lena and Bridget through their teen years, 3 Willows takes a different approach. The three characters Jo, Polly and Ama are bonded by willow cuttings they planted together in third grade. They've heard the stories of the Sisterhood before them, and even tried to find their own "traveling pants," but had no such luck.
"Partly I was thinking, 'OK, I want to give myself a different challenge. Think about friendship, but don't give yourself a crutch, and don't give yourself a trick. Make them work for it. Make them earn it,'" Brashares says during a phone call from her New York City home.
The 41-year-old admits that's a bit harder to do as a writer: "You're asking a little more of your characters, and maybe a little more of your readers. But somehow, it felt like a back-to-basics approach ... part of it is wanting to come back to what's most organic not organic in the capital O sense, but just what feels most real to us."
Some of Brashares' inspiration comes from being a mother of three. She gets to observe a lot of teenagers, and now includes her 13-year-old son as a critic. While he hadn't been interested in the Sisterhood series she thinks perhaps he was too young when she was writing them he wanted to read 3 Willows.
"It was sort of nice and a little bit strange for me to have him reading it. And also, I think, for him," she says. "It was sort of funny, because he'd come down after reading a few chapters and he'd say, 'Mom, it's actually really good.'
"Kind of like, 'I didn't expect much here, from my mother.'"
The book gave Brashares and her son something to talk about, and she says she hopes other parents use her books (and others') as jumping-off points for difficult conversations.
Each of the main characters in 3 Willows struggles with tough issues, ranging from self-esteem to body image to dealing with death. But within the context of a fictional story, Brashares believes a parent and a child can bring up any topic and find it safe territory. For instance, she says, talking about Jo's first kiss makes it easier for a mother to discuss boy-girl relationships with her daughter, because there's no personal specificity to it.
It's hard to overlook one more similarity between the Sisterhood series and 3 Willows: All the stories unfold during summer breaks from school.
"Summer offers a blank slate," Brashares says. "It's kind of an open time. There's potential for freedom and change and upheaval, both good and bad."
Seems Brashares must have had some pretty exciting summers.
"I had fairly quiet, not very adventurous, summers," she says, laughing, "so maybe I'm making up for my own lost opportunities here."