Raised in a sideshow since age three, 16-year-old conjoined twins Isabel and Jane, who share an arm and a leg, have made a life in a traveling carnival and a family of the other performers. When Jane, the dominant and more outgoing twin, agrees to an experimental separation surgery in hope of marriage and family, things go badly: Jane dies but abides as an angry spirit, still attached to her sibling as a “phantom twin.” Artist Isabel lives on, learning to use prosthetic limbs, struggling with the loss of her livelihood and her changing position within her found family, and developing an interest in a local tattoo artist. As a muckraking journalist descends on the carnival, Brown deftly explores the insular community’s relationships, capturing internal tensions while exploring the fragile protection the group offers its members against a world that shuns “freaks.” Though many characters remain two-dimensional—especially the sadly underutilized titular twin—the atmospheric story’s strengths lie in its relational nuance, in a beautifully evoked setting aided by Brown’s uncomplicated drawings, and in Isabel’s journey into autonomy. Ages 12–16. Agent: Charlotte Sheedy, Charlotte Sheedy Literary. (Mar.)
Gr 6 Up—Isabel and Jane Peabody are conjoined twins, bilaterally bound since birth and sold to a "freak show" at age three. Fed up with mounting abuse and craving autonomy, Jane convinces a hesitant Isabel to undergo a risky separation. Jane dies during surgery but lives on as a literal phantom limb; meanwhile, a bereft Isabel must return to the midway short two limbs and her lifelong companion. Guided by her supernatural sister and her sideshow family (from Harold, a thoughtful young Black man playing the "Wildboy," to Nora, a tattooed snake charmer who doubles as surrogate mother and street-smart older sister), Isabel must discover her place, now that she's no longer a "freak" but not quite able to fit in among the rest of the world. With spare text and simple illustrations, Brown's debut packs a wallop. Tight India ink linework brings to life flashes of Nora's tattoos; digital washes suffuse tidy panels in muted hues. As Isabel copes with eviscerating loss, she grows from a naive adolescent to a more self-aware young woman, along the way learning hard-won lessons, self-reliance, and exploitation. Though romance does surface, it shares the stage with a death-defying sisterly bond, found familial love among midway performers, the honesty and empathy of healthy relationships, and the self-love Isabel cultivates as she comes into her own as an artist and adult. VERDICT Brown delivers a sensitive, nuanced meditation on ability, agency, belonging, family, and otherness.—Steven Thompson, Bound Brook Memorial Public Library, NJ
Conjoined twins Jane and Isabel “Jan-Iss” Peabody are performers in an early-20th-century carnival sideshow.
Sold by their parents to the sideshow manager at the age of 3, the twins are exploited to perform for gawking audiences. The other performers (or “freaks,” an insult they have reclaimed) become their family. Now 16, Jane is ambitious and outgoing while Isabel is more appreciative of their carnival support system. When a doctor who aspires to medical fame offers to surgically separate the sisters, Jane jumps at the opportunity to lead a “normal” life. Isabel is less convinced but agrees for her sister’s sake. Tragically, Jane dies as a result of the surgery, and Isabel, who loses their shared arm and leg, is fitted with prosthetic limbs. Haunted by her twin’s ghost, Isabel struggles to come to terms with her new identity. Brown’s clean, cartoonlike images in subdued hues enhance the story. The novel touches on the ways that marginalized people were exploited by sideshows but also, at times, gained the ability to avoid institutionalization and support themselves. However, the story fails to deeply explore the nature of exploitation of difference both historically and today. Strong pacing will keep readers engaged, but the characters are not well developed enough for the story to resonate on a deep emotional level. Jane and Isabel are white; secondary characters are black, Japanese American, and have various disabilities.
A tale of longing and belonging. (author’s note, bibliography, glossary) (Graphic fiction. 13-16)
"In the tradition of Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Lisa Brown’s The Phantom Twin explores the behind-the-scenes lives of performers in an old-timey circus sideshow, tapping into our fascinationand on some level identificationwith these obvious 'outsiders.'" New York Times
"Brown’s expressive line illustrations effectively serve the story, conveying the early twentieth century setting and particulars of the sideshow, delineating the various characters and their nuanced relationships (particularly between Isabel and the phantom Jane), and driving the plot toward its satisfying conclusion."Horn Book, starred review
"Fans of Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost will want to get a ticket to this satisfyingly strange tale."The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Brown delivers a sensitive, nuanced meditation on ability, agency, belonging, family, and otherness."School Library Journal, starred review
"[Brown]...incorporates commentary on the mixed experiences of freak performers, always treating this subject with respect. What emerges is a marvelous story marked by tragedy, courage, personal growth, and first love that is as singular as Isabel herself." Booklist, starred review
“Lovely. A fascinating and heartfelt tale of two sisters, beautifully told, beautifully drawn.” Ransom Riggs, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
“A ghost story, a story of outsiders and carnivals, of vanity and friendship, innocents and monsters, and the way our loved ones haunt us even after they are gone. Perfectly paced and painfully told, The Phantom Twin will break your heart over and over.” Neil Gaiman, Newbery Medal–winning author of The Graveyard Book
“As strange and lovely as the sideshow it portrays, The Phantom Twin is a unique delight.” Vera Brosgol, Caldecott Honor–winning author-illustrator of Be Prepared and Anya’s Ghost
“There’s heart and soul visible in every panel of this beautiful book.” Carson Ellis, Caldecott Honor–winning author-illustrator of Du Iz Tak?
“Skating the line of unsettling and adorable, Brown’s trademark tidy artwork and straightforward, emotional text will make readers wrestle with what it means to be a ‘freak.’ Step right up.” Daniel Kraus, New York Times–bestselling coauthor of The Shape of Water
“Fascinating and creepy and gorgeousa ghost story that’s equal parts romance, reckoning with grief, and tale of two sisters. I’m in love.” Maggie Tokuda-Hall, author of The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea