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Judith Arnold: First-Rate Second-Borns

I often wondered whether my sons read up on birth order theory while still in the womb.

Embodying the theory, my first-born has always been a striver, an achiever, a perfectionist. When, at about a year old, he started talking, he spoke in complete paragraphs, using multisyllabic words. A straight-A student, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in college and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. This is what first-borns are supposed to be like.

My younger son has generally leaned more toward the gonzo end of the behavioral scale. He refused to start talking until he was two. (He claims this is because his brother never shut up and gave him a chance to speak.) He’s smart, but if a subject in school didn’t interest him, he blew it off. As a child, he was fearless, figuring out how to do wheelies on his bicycle at five years of age, figuring out how to navigate moguls the second time he strapped on skis. But he was in awe of his big brother, always trying to keep up, always measuring himself against his brother and fearing he fell short.

They fought. They’re siblings, after all. But they were and are very close. They love each other in a way only siblings can.

When they were growing up, my first-born complained that I invariably took his brother’s side in their disputes—because I, too, am a second-born. This complaint was groundless, but my budding-lawyer son, lacking a better defense, tried to persuade an imaginary jury that we second-borns had formed some sort of alliance and were prejudiced against first-borns.

Unlike my sons, my sister and I didn’t quite fit the standard first-born/second-born template. I was determined not to let her overshadow me—and it would have been easy for her to do so, given how brightly she glowed. She was beautiful in an era where beauty was the most important attribute for a girl. I knew I could never be as pretty as she was, so I opted to be brainy. She was a good student, so I labored to be a better student. She was graceful, and there was no way I could ever be graceful, so I didn’t even try. She was often described as ladylike. That word has never applied to me.

But like my sons, my sister and I were close. Our lives moved in different directions, but we loved each other fiercely. Twenty-four years after she died of cancer, I still miss her every day.

Having grown up a second child, and then having watched the dynamics of my sons’ relationship, I wanted to write a novel that dealt with what it means to be a second-born. In fact, the original version of One Small Favor was titled “Seconds.” To me, that word implies lower quality—second-rate, second-class—a self-image many second-borns have when they compare themselves to their radiant older siblings. But I realized that my initial approach to the story, beginning when Annie, the novel’s second-born heroine, was a teenager, didn’t work. The title didn’t work, either.

Sometimes, a story sits in front of an author like a blazing campfire, and the author has to figure out how to approach it. Come at it from this angle, and the author might get burned. Come at it from that angle, and the author might extinguish the flames.

I finally figured out the right approach for Annie’s story. Unlike me and my second-born son, Annie has a difficult relationship with her older sibling. Her parents did favor their first-born, because she was perfect. Annie isn’t as pretty, isn’t as successful, isn’t as lucky in love, and definitely isn’t as graceful. Yet she’s a wonderful person. And when it falls to her to keep her sister’s perfect world from collapsing, she rises to the occasion and discovers that maybe she’s not a second-rate, second-class “second,” after all. Maybe, in her own way, she’s just as special as her magnificent older sister.

We can’t change our birth order or its impact on us. But we can change our perceptions of ourselves. We can discover our own strengths and celebrate them. I’m not as gonzo as my younger son is, and I will never have gorgeous hazel eyes like my sister’s. But that’s okay. What I do have—and will always carry in my heart—is her love, and my love for her. I dedicated One Small Favor to her, and I can imagine what she would have said if she’d had the chance to read it: “Honestly, being graceful isn’t important. What’s important is being true to yourself.”


About the Author...

USA Today bestselling author Judith Arnold knew she wanted to be a writer by the time she was four. She loved making up stories (not exactly the same thing as lying) and enjoying the adventures of her fictional characters. With more than eight-five published novels to her name, she has been able to live her dream. Four of Judith's novels have received awards from RT Book Reviews Magazine (for Best Harlequin American Romance, Best Harlequin Superromance, Best Series Romance Novel and Best Contemporary Romance Novel) and she's a three-time finalist for Romance Writers of America's RITA Award. Her novel Love In Bloom's was named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. A New York native, Judith lives in New England.



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