My Favorite (Fictional) Friends
It's #ThrowbackThursday, and I'm thinking about the '90s today. In particular, I'm thinking about these friends I had in the '90s. There were seven of them, they were awesome, and they were older than me. Until we were the same age. And then I was older than them. All in the span of about a decade.
How is this possible?
It’s because from 1986-2000, those seven girls didn’t age. I’m referring, of course, to Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, Stacey, Dawn, Mallory, and Jessi, also known as THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB. At various points, the girls were joined by Logan, Shannon, and Abby, and spinoffs followed Dawn’s cool California friends and Kristy’s little sister Karen’s big adventures.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, there were times when I felt like the BSC members weren’t only my real-life friends, they were my best friends. (No offense to Carolyn, Melanie, and Destin, my real-life childhood best friends.) I looked forward to hanging out with the BSC after school every day and reading their entries in the record book by flashlight when I was supposed to be sleeping. I watched the straight-to-VHS videos and owned both the regular and mystery board games, the Barbie-style dolls and the bigger dolls, the Secret Santa special book, and more BSC merchandise than I should ever admit to. I could’ve started a BSC museum in my bedroom at age ten. I even got in trouble once for signing my bedroom wall, "Kristy Thomas was here" in what I thought was a pretty good imitation of her handwriting. My parents were not impressed.
I have a vivid memory of sitting at the dinner table with my family, talking about a massive school sleepover Dawn threw, when my dad interrupted to say, “Wait a minute, are these real people, or book people?!” I wanted to lie, but was a terrible liar, so I mumbled, “book people.” He said, “I don’t want to hear any more about book people. Tell me about something that happened at school with real people.” Talking about real people at the table was a general rule… but I slipped in BSC stories once in a while anyway. Hey, they were real to me!
Once or twice a month, my grandfather (Pepe) brought home a new BSC book from the original series, and because that was not enough, I also ordered the Mysteries and Super Specials from Scholastic book club pamphlets sent home from school, and found new titles at the local Waldenbooks, and even took some out of the library (though I much preferred to own them so I could dog-ear pages and re-read).
Sometimes, after school, I would offer to fix my brother a snack (he used to say I made the best butter toast) and in exchange he would go up to my room, find a BSC book on the shelf, open to a random page, and bring it down to me. I would try to figure out the title by reading only one or two paragraphs, and if I got it right (which I usually did) I would read that book while we ate snack and he could pick a TV show. My favorite babysitters were Claudia and Dawn and, later, Abby, but I could relate to all of them and tried to start my own babysitting club in second or third grade with a few friends, but for some reason no one wanted to hire us seven-year-olds to mind their babies. Go figure!
Several years back, I came upon my pre-school ‘yearbook’ in a box in my mom’s basement. Under each kid’s name, there was a quote. Mine read, “When I grow up, I want to be a babysitter and take care of children!” I therefore met the first of my life’s goals by age twelve, when I started ‘officially’ sitting for my brother, a family friend’s baby, and kids in the neighborhood, and by that point I was reading the books not only for the fun of it, but to learn new and better ways to be the best babysitter. Years later, as a nanny, I continued introducing my charges to games Ann M. Martin’s characters invented – “Let’s All Come In” is never not a good way to pass a rainy afternoon!
I took so much from the Baby-sitters Club series. I learned about how to be a good friend and how to patch up a friendship after a fight, I learned about good child-rearing practices and what to include in a “Kid-Kit,” I learned the meaning of "decorum" thanks to page one of book one, and I was introduced to families both a lot like mine and very different from mine.
I laughed at the girls’ misadventures and tried to solve their mysteries, devoured the Super Specials, and I cried with the girls. I cried for Claudia when her grandmother, Mimi, passed away. I cried for Jessi when a racist family slammed the door in her face because they didn’t want a black babysitter in their home. I cried for Mary Anne when her friend was killed by a drunk driver, for Stacey and Dawn when they dealt with being the children of divorce, for Abby, whose father died, and for Kristy, whose father took off one day and didn't come back. And I cried for Mallory, who felt woefully alone at her boarding school. I was excited to see characters I could relate to, like the Papadakis kids (the only Greek-Americans I read about in a chapter book or middle grade novel until I was in grad school) and out-of-place Nicky Pike and Karen Brewer with her overactive imagination. I learned a little more about American Sign Language thanks to Jessi and Matt, a little more about Down Syndrome thanks to Dawn and Whitney, and a lot more about juvenile diabetes thanks to Stacey, plus I saw an autistic character on the page for the first time in non-conversational piano savant Susan,* in addition to seeing characters deal with Scoliosis, asthma, broken bones, dyslexia, learning difficulties, an eating disorder, depression, childhood cancer, and the aftermath of a stroke. I also learned about activism as Dawn stood up against the entire student body, town, and media during the School Spirit War and when Jessi challenged misconceptions about Kwanzaa, and I learned about feminism by following girls who ran a business all by themselves, especially as tough tomboy Kristy, sweet, shy Mary Anne, and super-cool math-whiz Stacey showed kids that there's no ONE WAY to be a girl. (See below link to fantabulous New Yorker article about the Feminist Legacy of the BSC, written by Brooke Hauser, who interviewed Martin.)
The books – and the girls – were all about being yourself and being true to yourself, not conforming, doing what’s right even when it’s hard, and never letting obstacles stand in your way… but understanding it’s okay to ask for help, too. When Mary Anne is depressed, she sees a psychiatrist, which de-stigmatizes therapy and promotes mental health awareness. When Claudia realizes two boys she sits for are being physically abused by their father, she goes to her mother rather than trying to solve the problem herself, which is the safest reaction. That said, for the most part, the girls are able to save kids and solve crimes all by themselves, and when you’re eight there’s nothing cooler than imagining yourself thwarting a diamond thief in a dark museum or surviving the night in a spooky old house or catching the person setting fire to the library.
It is because of my longtime love of the BSC that Nanny Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Kuhn came to me first when the magazine landed an interview with author Ann M Martin for the Sept/Oct 2014 issue’s cover story, linked below.
The conversation went something like this –
Jennifer: “Do you want to go to Ann M. Martin’s apartment and interv-"
After I was properly resuscitated, I got the details. I would be meeting my very favorite author in New York City to talk Babysitters Club, childcare, her new series, and what it’s like to have inspired an entire generation of little girls to find their inner Kristy while embracing their inner Claudia, on balancing being sensitive like Mary Anne with being sophisticated like Stacey, and, perhaps most importantly, being unapologetically themselves, like Dawn. Unlike when preparing for other interviews, the biggest challenge wouldn’t be coming up with good questions, it would be playing it cool, and not fangirling the way I did when I met President Barack Obama (story for another time).
The interview can be found on Nanny Magazine’s website, but here’s the beginning:
“Need Money? Save Time! Call KL5-3231.”
Those words, printed on the back of every original Baby-sitters Club (BSC) book series cover, are as familiar to 90s girls as Lisa Frank stickers, Madonna music videos, and the original SNICK lineup. Was there an American tween between 1986 and 2000 who didn’t know all about Kristy, Claudia, Stacey, and Mary Anne? Even today, nearly 30 years after the publication of Book 1, Kristy’s Great Idea, girls worldwide are discovering The Baby-sitters Club through the rerelease of the early novels, reruns of the television show, and the new graphic novel versions. Recently Nanny Magazine sat down with BSC author Ann M. Martin in her New York City apartment to discuss the series, her 2003 Newbery Honor Award, current projects, and every nanny’s intro to childcare: babysitting.
Rather than rehash the rest of the interview here, I’m going to talk about what was not in it. For starters, Ann M. Martin was incredibly welcoming and personable, and did not seem weirded out when, at the end of our interview, I awkwardly asked if I could hug her. This probably surprises any of friends of mine who may be reading this as I am not typically a hugger, but… this was the creator of my childhood BFFs. Which practically made US bffs, right? (Okay, maybe not, but still.)
I was super excited to see the room in which she keeps all the BSC books neatly organized on her shelves – in general, they looked to be in better condition than the ones on my shelves, presumably because she didn’t read them over and over propped up between a cereal bowl and the milk jug on Saturday mornings and never had to sneak one out to the hayloft or chicken coop so to read after being given the strict directive, “Put down that book and go play outside!” (Yes, I was a rebel who had to sneak books outside because I had a problem with "reading too much." I also hid them under my mattress and in my pillowcase.)
Nanny Magazine's photographer, Marsin Mogielski, asked if we wanted a picture together, which I hope Ann M. Martin didn’t mind because I definitely did want one. I brought with me a couple of books, including a copy of Les Amies Toujours (Friends Forever) that I bought at a used bookstore in Paris, and my original, pretty beat-up old copy of Kristy’s Great Idea, the first book, printed in 1986. She signed it for me, which means I now have signed first edition copies of two of my four favorite books. (The other signed one being When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and the unsigned ones being JK Rowling’s Order of the Phoenix and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Someday... maybe.)
At the time, Martin was working on another story of a girl on the Autism Spectrum, Rain Reign, which was released in October, 2014. The protagonist, Rose, is one I related to well, especially as OCD was one of her issues and homonyms were one of her passions. When asked to give my recommendations for books with accurate Autism representation, this is one of the first I suggest. (There are reviews by others who feel this book is not good Autism rep, but it felt authentic and relatable to me, so I encourage readers to decide for themselves.)
As an aside, while many of the Babysitters Club books were written by ghostwriters (with Martin doing outlines, edits, and giving approval), she estimates she wrote 60—80, including the first five in which the original club members tell their stories for the first time. When I learned as a kid that other writers were also working on the series, I had mixed feelings, including wondering how one gets a job like that and whether Scholastic would be interested in hiring a twelve-year-old ghostwriter. (The answer was probably no, but I kind of regret not writing to ask. Kristy totally would have written a letter to ask. Mallory, too. I should’ve been more like Mallory. Maybe Scholastic would’ve sent me a cool bookmark as consolation. I liked cool bookmarks.)
Other novels and chapter books by Ann M. Martin include Ten Kids, No Pets, Bummer Summer, Yours Turly, Shirley, Belle Teal, Here Today, The Summer Before (a BSC prequel), the Family Tree series, the Main Street series, the Doll People books, and A Corner of the Universe, for which she won a Newbery Honor Award. I particularly loved Here Today, which is less known than many of her others, but such a great story with a compelling protagonist in Ellie. But now I'm definitely fangirling, so it's time to wrap this up.
As a writer, I can only hope that I someday impact and inspire readers as Ann M. Martin did me. The Baby-sitters Club series made me want to be a babysitter, an author of kids books, an artist like Claudia, an activist like Dawn, and, briefly, a softball player like Kristy. (Very briefly. One spring on the school’s intramural team. I never got a hit and couldn’t catch because I was afraid of the ball.)
Meeting Ann M. Martin and interviewing her for Nanny Magazine has been one of the great highlights of my life as a writer thus far.
It was like meeting all seven of my childhood BFFs at the same time.
*While newer versions of the BSC books have been updated to reflect what is now known about juvenile diabetes, Susan's story will not be updated. I therefore caution kids who read Kristy and the Secret of Susan to do so while keeping in mind that what is known/understood about Autism is vastly different today, and some scenes/elements in the book are therefore problematic. “I would write about it differently now,” said Martin during our interview, adding that “the way kids are taught” has changed considerably since that book was printed in 1990. If one decides to read it, trigger warnings for bullying, ableism, and reinforced misconceptions should be applied.
Link to Nanny Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2014 issue:
http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/804258 Link to Nanny Magazine's website: https://nannymag.com/
Link to New Yorker article about the Feminist Legacy of the Babysitters Club: