Should we hop in the DeLorean and zip back to the neon spandex-n-matching-scrunchie year of 1989, where would I be on a radical Saturday night? Not painting my toenails lime green, Aqua Net-ing my hair or jamming out to the B52’s “Love Shack.” Oh no, I was too cool for that. I was babysitting.
I distinctly remember the swell of girlhood pride when one weekend a friend asked if I’d come over for dinner and then to a movie—the newest adventure of Marty McFly.
“Can’t,” I replied. “I have to babysit my neighbor’s daughter. She’s one of my regular clients and her mom always orders Domino’s.”
“Really?” My friend said and sighed with such pained jealousy I can still recall it to this day.
For me and a million other American preteens of the era, this entrepreneurial spirit was a direct result of an obsession with Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series. My childhood bookshelf was filled with BSC books—row upon row of colorful titles neatly aligned in numerical order. The novels and their characters ushered me through adolescence with money in my pocket, after school club meetings, a deep appreciation for a job well done, and the satisfaction of sharing it with friends. So inspiring were the novels that to this day the sight of block lettering gives me gleeful pangs of nostalgia.
It’d been years since I read or thought about the BSC until recently. I ran smack into the news headline: “Ann M. Martin on the ‘Baby-Sitter’s Club’ Prequel”
My heart did an honest-to-goodness flip-flop in my chest, and my inner Claudia exclaimed, “Oh my Lord! A prequel!” I was so excited; I could barely Google fast enough, my brain spinning the question, “Is it true? Is it true?” I am here to testify: Folks, it’s gospel.
This month, Scholastic released Martin’s newest addition to the series, a prequel entitled The Summer Before, following each of the original four girls—Kristy Thomas, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi, and Stacey McGill—the summer prior to seventh grade and the start of their illustrious Baby-Sitters Club. In addition, the publisher has reissued updated versions of the first two novels: Kristy’s Great Idea and Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls; The Truth About Stacey hits bookshelves in June; Mary Anne Saves the Day in October, and Dawn and the Impossible Three in December.
My original copies are boxed somewhere in my parents’ basement. I’ve made mental note to excavate them on my next visit. As for the prequel, it’s ordered and my trusted online bookseller promises its arrival in 8 to 10 days. So what if the target audience is 7 to 12 year olds. The BSC are classics alongside Nancy Drew, The Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, and so on. Okay, many will debate this claim, but on my shelf, the BSC are as beloved.
Allow me to school those who aren’t familiar: The BSC series enjoyed a stellar run from 1986 to 2000, amassing a fervent preteen readership that chomped through all 213 titles as fast as they chewed Bubble Tape gum. The Baby-Sitters Club membership grew from four to eight main characters over the course of its fourteen-year popularity streak, selling approximately 176 million copies. Like any cultural feeding frenzy, it spawned a number of spin-offs including extended versions, a mystery series, character autobiographies, The Baby-Sitter’s Little Sister, California Diaries, The Kids in Ms. Coleman’s Class, and graphic novels.
To Mokoto Rich of the New York Times, Scholastic’s Editorial Director David Levithan explained that the publisher brought back the series because of fan requests. “This whole generation of girls who had grown up reading The Baby-Sitters Club were now teachers, librarians or mothers,” said Levithan. “And at any opportunity they had, they let us know they wanted them back. We couldn’t go to a convention without having women come up to us and say, ‘You’ve got to bring these books back.’ ”
Again invoking the DeLorean, a typical conversation between my friends and me whilst braiding rainbow friendship bracelets on my bedroom floor went something like this:
Me: “What book are you on?”
Friend #1: “Mary Anne and the Search for Tigger.”
Friend #2: “Oh! That’s where she almost breaks up with Logan.”
Me: “Shh—don’t spoil it! I’m still reading Kristy and the Mother’s Day Surprise.”
Friend #3: “Well, I’m only on Hello Mallory and I can’t get over Stacey moving to New York.”
Me: “Yeah, that sucked. I bawled my eyes out when she left.”
Friends #1 and #2: “Totally.”
Me: “So do you guys have any babysitting jobs this weekend?”
As the daughter of a career Army officer, I moved every couple of years during my preteens. The BSC provided me with a group of friendly characters who remained intact, book after book, year after year, and most importantly, place after place. It seemed no matter where my family was stationed, I found other girls who shared this literary friendship. So despite not knowing a thing about each other, we could talk for hours about Kristy’s newest adventure, Mary Anne’s boy troubles, or our own babysitting stories. During its heyday, it seemed everyone on the planet was reading the BSC! (Or at least to a ten year old it did.)
These babysitting characters weren’t just make-believe heroines; they were role models. They dealt with responsibility, family problems, health issues, self-esteem, school, friendship, boys, etc. And we, preteens, read, learned, and took heart from their accomplishments and mistakes.
Given the current YA vampire and fantasy craze, I wonder if novels staked in the normal can find the ardent following they did with my generation. Even with the updates to technology, fashion and pop culture, will young readers with an acutely developed taste for bloody bites and wizard wands be captivated by the story of industrious teenagers facing the universal travails of growing up?
In her interview with the Wall Street Journal, author Ann M. Martin thinks so: “The issues the characters tackled twenty-five years ago are not really so different than the issues kids today tackle… what are the things that are most important to them still? Their families, friendships, issues surrounding school.”
I agree, and I think readers are growing somewhat worn out by the fantastical. Yes, unicorns, secret spells, hunky werewolves, and eternal life are delicious to dream on, but that’s not the world around the dinner table or in the classroom. Sorry to burst the bubble, but a family of vampires do not live next door nor is there a Platform 9¾. Reality is, the neighbors are worrying about the grocery bill and their preteen daughter’s plea for Miley Cyrus concert tickets. And trust me, if you run headlong into a magical, unseen platform, the best you’re going to get is the “transformative” feeling of a mild concussion.
I believe readers are now at a place where four regular girls facing normal problems might be the compelling connection desired from their reading fodder. In a 2010 American Psychological Association survey on stress in America, researchers found that children ages 8 to 17 suffer from more anxiety-induced headaches, sleeplessness and upset stomachs than they did in previous years. A few of their top worries included school, getting along with peers and their family’s finances. Everyday issues.
So while the fantasy genre is an exciting escape, when the book covers close, readers—young and old— must still contend with the microseisms within their homes, within their relationships. The trials and tribulations of being chased by a vengeful vampire can quickly pale in comparison to parent’s divorce, a sibling’s battle with diabetes, economic difficulties, peer rejection, fear of failure, and the secrets we carry, big and small.
I argue it’s time to bring back literary heroes and heroines with feet firmly planted in reality. The characters who battle the business of life. The characters in whom we see a reflection of ourselves. And I think Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia and Stacey are just the young, tenacious women to do it.
Welcome back Baby-Sitters Clubbers.