My Sister Rosa

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
My Sister Rosa Book Poster Image
Riveting thriller about teen boy and psychopath kid sister.

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age 14+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Lots of discussion around traits of psychopaths and sociopaths. Some information on the anatomy of the brain and which parts control which functions. Human development and the effects of nature versus nurture come into play. New York City geography, neighborhoods, and landmarks are featured and explained. Detailed information on boxing training. Some discussion of the true social and economic costs of manufactured goods, specifically clothing. Some Australian slang and discussion of cultural differences among Australia, Thailand, and New York City.

Positive Messages

Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, even if you're afraid to tell them your troubles. It's good to be a responsible person, but be sure you're taking care of yourself. Don't try to shoulder too much responsibility for another person. The book includes many thought-provoking discussions about what constitutes ethical behavior, as well as interesting discussions and stories about race and ethnicity.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Che takes on serious adult responsibilities with his sister from the time he's about 10 years old. Sojourner is a strong, smart, independent teenager. Leilani, though snooty at the outset, is a caring, empathetic character who tries to help Che and her twin sisters. Che, Sojourner, and Leilani's friend groups are populated with supportive, caring young people. Che's boxing trainers are positive adult role models for him.

Violence

Most of the violence is implied or told in flashback. A guinea pig is smothered. A 10-year-old falls into the street and is gravely injured. A girl is shown in anaphylactic shock due to a peanut allergy. Che and Sojourner are boxers, so there are sparring scenes, a few of which end with injured, bloodied noses.

Sex

Not a lot of sex in the book, but what's there is a bit graphic. Teen boy has a sexual-fantasy wet dream. Che experiences lots of longing and yearning over Sojourner, including erections and masturbation. Some chaste and heavier kissing and making out. Sex scene between teens. Reference to hearing parents have sex. Some sex talk, including the topic of "pleasuring" women.

Language

Some strong language, but it isn't frequent: "s--t" and its variations, "f--k" and its variations, "pissed," "jizz," "hell," "Jesus," "d--k," "God," "damn," "crap," "a--hole," and "Christ." Also, some Australian swearing, including "arse," "bum," and "buggered."

Consumerism

Very few brands and media mentioned: only the movie Polar Express and TV show Law & Order. One of the characters is a well-known fashion blogger who cares a lot about appearance and wearing the right clothes.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Che and his sister have to deal with a drunk passenger on a plane. Parents have wine with a meal. Teen characters smoke pot and drink in one scene. Che has an open conversation with his dad about the aftereffects of, and whether it was worth trying, pot and alcohol. Underage drinking at a café, with shots of liquor supplied by adult wait staff.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier (Team Human, LIAR), is a thriller about a teen boy who watches over his psychopathic sister. Che and Rosa's family moves around a lot for their parents' work. Between the frequent moves and the need to keep an eye on Rosa's worrisome tendencies, Rosa and Che are close and he feels bound to protect the world from her. The book has interesting discussions on what makes someone good or evil. Are these traits hardwired? Can they be learned or unlearned? Minority, multiracial, gay, and gender-nonconforming teen and adult characters populate the book. The teen characters have a frank discussion about ethnicity and interracial dating. The content is on the suspenseful side of intense (as opposed to gory or scary) because Rosa's behavior gets increasingly worse as she pushes to see how much manipulation and cruelty she can get away with. There is some violence, but little of it is described graphically. Che's love life is a big plot point, and the book has a little graphic sexual content and discussion of his longing for one girl in particular. The characters swear but not frequently. Some of the characters drink in a couple of scenes and smoke pot once, and Che has an honest, open conversation with his dad about the consequences of using drugs and alcohol.

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Teen, 16 years old Written bybaileya628 July 12, 2018

One of the better books that I have ever read

This book is suspenseful, gripping, and overall amazing story.

What's the story?

In MY SISTER ROSA, 17-year-old Che and his 10-year-old little sister are uprooted frequently as their parents move from one start-up job opportunity to another. Rosa has never been "normal": She is late-developing in the area of social traits but off-the-charts brilliant academically. It's her fascination with hurting and controlling people and animals that freaks out Che. He tries to convince his parents that something is seriously wrong with Rosa, but they downplay his concerns. Because of this, Che ends up taking on the responsibility of looking after Rosa, keeping her from causing too much harm and teaching her how to be good. When the family ends up in New York City, she has a bigger landscape in which to mess with people, and her actions lead to some interesting and unnerving situations. How far will she go? Will it be Che's fault if she seriously hurts or kills someone? He starts to feel that anyone he cares about is not safe. He has his own life and future to think about. His worries about how much more dangerous Rosa gets as she grows up is amplified by the notion that he has to get on with his schooling, dating, and friendships. How can he grow up to live his own life while looking after Rosa?

Is it any good?

A teen boy tries to protect the world from his sociopathic little sister in this gripping, suspenseful thriller. My Sister Rosa opens with Che's family on their way to New York City so his parents can pursue yet another business start-up. While being moved to a nice apartment in Manhattan might be cause for celebration for most 17-year-olds, Che is filled with dread, and rightly so. His 10-year-old sister is a budding psychopath. Che has kept close watch over her for her entire life and worries how much harder that will be in a city as big, busy, and anonymous as New York. The suspense in the story comes from not knowing what Rosa's going to do next. Che's feeling of responsibility for her is heartrending, especially because his parents either don't see Rosa's problematic behavior or won't let themselves admit it.

The story is told from Che's point of view, and he's a smart, engaging narrator. He has to battle being a shy teen with a huge burden in a big city. As he makes friends and starts dating, and as Rosa gets craftier, looking after her becomes difficult and could lead to serious consequences, all of which ratchets up the story's tension. The book poses lots of interesting ideas and discussions, including big questions around what constitutes good versus evil behavior and whether empathy can be taught. The medical information on human behavior is fascinating and is well-woven into the story without being heavy-handed. Author Justine Larbalestier does a good job of keeping all the plot points moving without dropping any or giving any short shrift, although Che's ongoing talks with Rosa about her behavior get repetitive. There's a good twist that would have been even more effective had more groundwork been laid for it.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the depiction of evil in My Sister Rosa. Is it realistic? A lot of the book deals with Che trying to teach his sister, Rosa, to be good. Do you think it's possible to teach someone to be good?

  • Why are some lies OK and others aren't? Do you think we can be 100 percent honest all the time? What are the benefits and consequences of living like that? What are the morals involved in deciding when to lie and when to be honest?

  • Boxing is a way for Che to channel his frustrations in a controlled way. Do you have sports or other activities that help you get your frustrations out and help you focus?

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