Growing up in Chevy Chase, Ann Brashares, author of the "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" series, was greatly influenced by her three brothers.
Ann Brashares, the author of the four wildly popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, has large and expressive dark eyes, thick lashes, an upturned nose and long, loose and wavy brown hair. She’s 40, but still could be the pensive and pretty older sister of one of her books’ teenage characters.
Brashares has an introvert’s way of speaking—softly, in a tumbled rush, as if she has been thinking about her ideas quite a lot, but is a little surprised by the sound of her own voice. There are adults who remember their teenage years with some bafflement (was that really me?) and there are adults like Brashares, who, despite marriage, three children and a successful career (the first volume of the Sisterhood has sold over 8 million copies and has been translated into 36 languages), says she still feels comfortably linked to those years: “I don’t have to become another person to write about being a teenager,” she says. “I feel connected to that person, still.”
That person grew up both on Oxford Street and Primrose Street in Chevy Chase, a sister surrounded by three brothers. Her eldest brother, Beau, was only 19 months older than Ann, “and I just worshipped him, in that younger-sibling way. My mother would try, unsuccessfully, to get us to play with other kids.”
When it came time for Beau to enter nursery school, Ann decided that she was going to school, too. Their mother, Jane Brashares, says that when she failed to persuade her 2-year-old daughter that she was too young to attend, the teacher who was to interview Beau at the Montessori School of Washington agreed to break the news to Ann.
“But then Ann walked in and announced, ‘I know all my letters, and my colors, and my numbers, and I’m ready to learn.’ And the interviewer said, ‘We haven’t ever taken a child this young, but she does seem ready.’ So I felt a bit betrayed by the teacher—I’d been looking forward to a year alone with Ann,” recalls Jane, a Brookings Institution economist-turned-psychotherapist who now lives in Chevy Chase, D.C.
At Chevy Chase Elementary School, Beau was bright but dreamy, and his second grade teacher recommended that he be sent to a school with smaller class sizes and a less structured environment. The Brashares decided to send Beau, as well as Ann, to Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school in Bethesda that was noted for eschewing uniforms and for its relatively freethinking philosophy. “Ann was fine at Chevy Chase—she’d have been fine anywhere, but she wanted to be with her brother,” Jane says. The younger Brashares brothers also attended Sidwell. Although Jane, who is Catholic, saw to it that all four of her children were raised in that faith, she says, “They [the children] have influenced me, by bringing Quakerism into our lives.”
Ann and Beau both recall Oxford Street as a cozy, child-filled neighborhood. When Ann was 8, the family moved to a bigger house on nearby Primrose Street. “It was moving on up in a way my parents felt proud of,” Ann says. “But I never liked that place as much. The houses were set far back from the street. The neighbors would sort of yell at us—at kids being kids.” Adding to that sense of bleakness was the decision by Ann’s parents to divorce soon after the move. The children’s father, William, a lawyer, settled in nearby Kenwood, and the four children divided their week between their parents’ houses. As a result, Ann says, her notion of being a “little mother” to her brothers intensified. “I had a sort of magnified sense of how big I was,” she says. “My dad didn’t know how to cook dinner, and neither did I, but I felt like I needed to pretend that I did.”
Another aspect of living in two places later dovetailed with Ann’s fiction, says Beau, 42, a lawyer and fine-arts photographer in New York. “I always thought the ‘traveling pants’ concept was sort of funny in that when she was a teenager, Ann had a habit of driving all her clothes around in her car,” Beau says. “I guess she grew tired of being at one house when her favorite pants were at the other, so after a while she just threw everything in the back of the car and kind of lived out of the hatchback.” Nothing was packed in a bag, according to Beau—just strewn all over the back of the car. “I remember my little brothers sitting back there on a pile of laundry wherever we went,” he says.
Growing up in the 1970s, the Brashares kids were part of a generation in which divorce and two-career parents were increasingly common, but highly structured free time was not. Boredom was an inescapable fact of life. “I remember a lot of interminably long days—those dreadful, hissing, asphalt-bubbling Washington summer days,” Beau recalls. “Wandering around our large house, pulling the contents of desk drawers…just hours and hours of nothing to do. You could say it was a terrible waste, but in my adulthood I’ve met a lot of creative, interesting people who describe their childhoods that way.”
“We watched a bit too much TV,” Ann says, laughing. “I don’t even own a TV now. But reading was definitely a refuge for me.” She read Louise Fitzhugh, Judy Blume, Katherine Paterson, “and later, books about love…I tended to like books that were pretty emotional.” Like many avid readers who grow up to be writers, she read the same books over and over. She also invented ongoing stories, with multiple characters and complicated plots that spun out like movies in her mind. “I’d have one for a few months and then change and go on to another one,” Ann says. “I wrote some of them down, but mostly I didn’t. I spent a lot of time in my imagined world, and it was very pleasant.”