What If I Hadn’t: Luanne Rice talks THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF SISTERS

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the secret language of sisters luanne riceNeed a new contemporary to read? Then perhaps Luanne Rice’s The Secret Language of Sisters is the book for you.

In The Secret Language of Sisters, while everyone thinks she’s in a coma, Roo can see and hear and understand everything around her. Tilly might be the only person who can solve the mystery of her sister’s condition.

The Secret Language of Sisters is available now from Scholastic Press.


I love sister relationships in YA novels. Not NEARLY enough. Tell us a bit about Roo and Tilly!
Ah, sisters.  The most magical relationship there is, at least from my experience as the oldest of three sisters.  And I don’t mean only good, easy magic.  Sisterhood is full of dark spells.  Actually, when you think about it, to love someone is to be under a spell.  All of the complicated emotions are in there, nothing ever stays the same, there can be secrets and betrayals, large and small.

Roo ends up paralyzed with locked-in syndrome after a car crash. How much research did you do to get the portrayal right? Locked-in syndrome currently has no cure – does The Secret Language of Sisters manage a semblance of a happily-ever-after, or is it something more realistic?
I became interested in locked-in syndrome during a visit to Berck-Plage in France.  I had gone there as a sort of pilgrimage – Sylvia Plath wrote a powerful poem about the place.  It is on the English Channel, and there are hospitals and rehab centers there.  At the time there were still patients from the two world wars.  I spoke to a doctor who told me about a girl who had locked-in syndrome.  I had never heard of it before, but I’d dream of her and wake up crying, as if I myself were locked-in with no way of letting my family know I was in there, and I’d feel so terrible for that girl in the hospital.  Writing can be a way of making life turn out as you wish it would.  I believe that Roo is so strong, has such a powerful sense of herself and belief in her own abilities, that with the support of Tilly, Newton, her mother, and her great team of health professionals she will continue to improve and have an amazing life.

Tilly carries the guilt of Roo’s accident with her. How do you write guilt successfully? Guilt is such a personal thing for individual people – how does it manifest in Tilly?
Is it possible to be in a close relationship with someone and avoid hurting them or getting hurt by them?  I wish it was, but I don’t think so.  Tilly made a mistake.  In longing for Roo to be okay, to get well, she stepped over a line.  She got way too close to Newton.  This wasn’t out of maliciousness, but from a desire to keep the closeness going, perhaps even to live in Roo’s skin.  She also has moments of envy for her “perfect,” beautiful older sister, and some part of her might have wanted to test out whether Newton could ever like her the same way as he does Roo.  Needless to say the second it happened Tilly was tormented by guilt and had to do whatever she could to make it right.  Then there was also… the text.

How do you balance the lesson (intentional or not) within the story – don’t answer texts while you drive! – with telling the story and not making it seem too preachy? Tilly blames herself for Roo answering the text, even though it was Roo’s decision – is this something you think many people on the other end of the accident experience?
When tragedy occurs we replay the moments leading up to it and wonder how we could have made it turn out differently.  What if I had…?  What if I hadn’t…?  If only I’d arrived two minutes later…two minutes earlier.  If only I hadn’t answered the phone.  If only I hadn’t texted.  It’s called magical thinking.

Writing the novel I didn’t think about a lesson.  I just imagined two sisters, Tilly and Roo, and I knew that at that moment, waiting for her sister to arrive, Tilly would be really impatient and have to text.

What else do you want people to know about The Secret Language of Sisters?
I love the secret language I had with my own sisters grown up.  It made me who I am today.  Having a secret language teaches you to listen more intently for not only the spoken words but the ones that live deep inside the other person.  It can also be another phrase for “private joke” which means you only have to glance at each other to start laughing uncontrollably.  It’s the best!

What YA books would you recommend to people who are fans of The Secret Language of Sisters?
Whippoorwill by Joseph Monninger, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, and the wonderful old novels by Rumer Godden.

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Nicole Brinkley

Nicole is the editor of YA Interrobang. She has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. Follow her on Twitter at @nebrinkley or Tumblr at nebrinkley. Like her work? Leave her a tip.

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