Monday, 26 March 2012

Looking Back: The Baby-Sitters Club

Baby-sitters Club author Ann M. Martin stands beside
a poster that features cover artwork from Kristy's Great
Idea
, the first volume in the series
Now that I've spent the past few weeks making fun of (or perhaps paying tribute to, who knows,) Sweet Valley, it is time to turn my attention to that other big pre-teen series from the 1980s & 1990s, The Baby-sitters Club. With sales around the 170 million mark, and merchandise that included a board game, nightgowns (mine had a picture of the BSC gang hanging out in New York on the front,) dolls, a 13 part series on VHS and a feature film, The Baby-sitters Club meant big money by the early 1990s. In an attempt to mimic Sweet Valley's successful cradle to the grave formula, by the mid 1990s the series was spawning numerous spin-offs aimed at various age groups Baby-sitters Little Sister and The Kids in Ms Coleman's Class for those still too young for the books, and The California Diaries and Friends Forever for those who had grown out of the books. The core series was also supported by numerous Super Specials, a Mystery series, and a portrait collection, where the older members of the club wrote their childhood memories (i.e. things that happened to them before they joined the club,) for a school project. (I confess. The last Baby-sitters Club I read as a child was the first book in the portrait collection. By then I was 13, almost 14, and had just started high school. By then, the realities of teenage life had set in and the books were soon forgotten in favour of novels by Paula Danziger and Judy Blume. Escapism came in the form of the more daring, and often soap-like Sweet Valley University.)

Sales and merchandising aside, the greatest achievement of The Baby-sitters Club is how surprisingly well written the books are when compared to other series aimed at pre-teens. Each book was self contained, and lacked the soap-like shenanigans that often went on in Sweet Valley, finding a boyfriend was not the sole purpose (or any purpose,) of their club, unlike the characters in Pen Pals or the aptly titled The Boyfriend Club. Even The Unicorn Club a female friendship series set in the Sweet Valley world that involves the key characters volunteering at a child care centre, fails to meet the extraordinary high benchmark that was set by the early Baby-sitters Club novels.

The key characters of the early novels, Kristy Thomas, Claudia Kishi, Mary Anne Spier and Stacey McGill live in Stoneybrook, a quiet American town that has a wonderful sense of timelessness about it. We know that the novels are set in the latter part of the 20th century, but the books (or the early ones at least,) are free from references to technology and popular culture. The main radio station in Stoneybrook seems to like playing classic hits from the 1950s and the girls enjoy watching classic movies like Mary Poppins and anything that stars Hayley Mills. Their favourite hobby is, of course, babysitting. When Kristy decides that the quartet may be able to run a successful babysitting business. The girls pool their talents in order to make the business work. Kristy has strong organisational skills, so she becomes president, Stacey is a whizz at Maths (or Math in the books,) so she takes on the role of treasurer, while Mary Anne is a good listener and has good writing skills, so she becomes the club secretary. Claudia, the rebellious artist of the group, offers the venue (her bedroom, which has a private phone line,) and the snacks and in return is appointed Vice-President. While a group of twelve years olds starting a babysitting business might be cause for concern in the real world, each of these girls appears to be mature beyond her years and Stoneybrook is a small town where everyone knows everyone and apart from the occasional burglary, is free from crime. As well as documenting the girls many babysitting adventures (often their charges, such as Mallory Pike, were the same age as the target audience for the novels,) the early novels discussed a variety of medical and family issues that affected the girls. Kristy comes from a single-parent family and battles conflicted emotions when her mother starts a serious relationship with a man from her workplace. Claudia, who is said to be Japanese-American, struggles with her grades lives in the shadow of her older sister, Janine, a genius with an IQ of 196. Her parents often use giving up the Baby-sitters Club as an ultimatum if her grades do not improve. Mary Anne's mother died when she was a baby (possibly from breast cancer, though it is never said explicitly in the series,) and she has been raised by her over-protective father. However, the most interesting story, is told in the third novel of the series, The Truth About Stacey. Stacey is a type one diabetic. This novel tells of her diagnosis and the way her illness causes her to be isolated and bullied by her former best friend in New York, before she moved to Stoneybrook. Her parents repeatedly take her to various pediatricians who offer miracle cures in exchange for a considerable amount of money. Fortunately, the parents of one of Stacey's sitting charges is also a doctor and refers Stacey to a well-respected pediatrician who helps set her parents straight. Later novels in the series, such as Book #43 Stacey's Emergency show how the character lives with her illness and the many challenges that she faces along the way. What makes The Truth About Stacey so remarkable is the honest, straightforward way her illness was explained by the author. Ann M. Martin does not talk down to the children that she writes for. The characters speak to the reader in everyday terms, and the first person narrative makes it seem more like a conversation between friends, rather than an adult and a child. In chapter 3, Stacey explains her illness:

Diabetes is a problem with a gland in your body called the pancreas. The pancreas makes insulin, which is a hormone. What insulin does is use the sugar and starch your body takes in while you eat, to give you heat and energy, and to break down other foods. When the pancreas doesn't make enough insulin to do the job, the glucose from the sugars and starches builds up in your blood and makes you sick. And not just a little sick. If you don't treat diabetes properly, you could die.

During the course of the first six novels, the girls all grow and mature, and eventually take on a new club member, Dawn, who has moved to Stoneybrook from California after her parents divorce. Throughout the series, Dawn and her brother Jeff, struggle with homesickness and another readjustment when their mother marries Mary Anne's father. Late in the series, Dawn leaves for a six month holiday to California, returns to Stoneybrook, but eventually decides that California is her real home, leading to the set up for the spin-off series The California Diaries. She also continued to make regular appearances throughout the series, which includes another outstanding installment in the series, The Babysitters Club #77 Dawn and Whitney, Friends Forever where Dawn is a paid companion for a girl her own age who has Downs Syndrome. Whitney has no idea that Dawn is being paid to look after her and believes that the pair are best friends. This leads to all kinds of complications when Whitney learns the truth. Meanwhile, Dawn learns a valuable lesson about the way people with Downs Syndrome are often treated in public. The novel ends with Whitney being made an honourary member of the We [heart] Kids Club, the Californian version of the Baby-sitters Club and is trusted to help with various group activities. 

In book ten, the girls start eighth grade at Stoneybook Middle School, where they remain until the end of the series, despite enjoying numerous non-canonical summer holidays, including two trips to Sea City (where book eight Boy Crazy Stacey is set). At about this time, the members of the club begin to expand and contract. Mary Anne's boyfriend, who also likes babysitting, is made an honorary member, as is Shannon Kilborne, Kristy's snooty new neighbour. (Over the summer, Kristy's mother had married her wealthy colleague and the family has moved to wealthy part of Stoneybrook.) In book #13 Good-Bye Stacey, Good-Bye Stacey returns to New York, leaving Dawn to take over as club treasurer. Two new characters join the club soon after - Mallory Pike, who is now in sixth grade and her new best friend Jessi Ramsey, who has moved in to Stacey's old house. The theme of book #14 Hello Mallory is bullying. As the only black family in Stoneybrook, the Ramsey's experience racism from various ignorant townspeople. Meanwhile, Mallory suffers some bullying from none other than the members of the Babysitters Club, who set a series of difficult tests (which she fails) before refusing to allow her into the club. Mallory and Jessi set up their own successful baby-sitting business. Realising that the younger girls are capable baby-sitters, the older girls ask Mallory to join their club. Mallory agrees, but only on the condition that she receives an apology and that Jessi is also allowed to join the club. The girls are then welcomed with open arms into the club by all except Dawn, who struggles with her own feelings of jealousy, which are eventually resolved in the next book in the series.

As the series continues, more social issues are explored. In book #26 Claudia and the Sad Good-Bye Claudia copes with the death of her grandmother. Meanwhile, adoption is explored in books #24 Kristy and the Mother's Day Surprise and #33 Claudia and the Great Search, after Kristy's mother and stepfather adopt Emily, a child from Vietnam (in a process that is far faster than a normal overseas adoption, but it is doubtful that the target audience would be interested in such matters). After caring for Emily, Claudia begins to question her own origins and wonders if she is adopted as she does not fit in with her own family. She later discovers that she was not adopted at all, and the issues of family relationships and communication are explored. In book #28 Welcome Back Stacey, Stacey struggles with her parents divorce and having to choose between her parents. In books #30 Mary Anne and the Great Romance and #31 Dawn's Wicked Stepsister (the only real two-parter in the whole series,) the issue of blended families is explored. In book #32 Kristy and the Secret of Susan Kristy is left in charge of an autistic girl. She struggles to help Susan fit in with the local children and learns some valuable lessons about special needs children and acceptance along the way. The only age-appropriate issue that is never discussed in the books is puberty. 

When we reach book #34 Mary Anne and Too Many Boys, the quality begins to deteriorate. The first problem is that up until this point, the books (excluding the super specials) had all followed a chronological order. The girls had aged and matured. Suddenly, at the beginning of book #34, school is out. No mention is made of the fact that the older girls would have just graduated from middle school (in Stoneybrook children attend middle school in grades six, seven and eight,) and would be starting high school in just few months. No mention is made of high school, or any type of graduation ceremony. Even as a child, I found this odd. Book #34 opens with:

I was so excited I felt like doing cartwheels across Claudia Kishi's bedroom floor. It was summer (at last!) and my friends were gathered for a special meeting of the Baby-sitters Club.

The book details two weeks that Mary-Anne and Stacey spend in New Jersey with Mallory and her family. Book #35 Stacey and the Mystery of Stoneybrook opens with Stacey and her friends back in Stoneybrook and still in eighth grade at Stoneybrook middle school. Umm, what happened there? Did the Baby-sitters Club just travel back in time? Worse is yet to come. In book #67 Dawn's Big Move and Reader's Request: Shannon's Story the older girls all start eighth grade yet again, despite the fact that both novels make indirect references to events that have happened over the course of eighth grade, such as Jessi Ramsey moving to Stoneybrook, Stacey's parents divorce and how Kristy and Shannon put their differences aside and became friends. At least Shannon's Story could be partially explained by the fact that the book is a non-canonical entry in the series and the story develops over several months. Even so, it would have been nice to see a reference to the events that occurred in Book #11 Kristy and the Snobs, where Shannon and Kristy first meet. The continuity errors that occur in Book #67 are harder to ignore. How did a series that started out so well-written and so researched deteriorate to the point where continuity errors could be found by a nine year old? You could expect this in Sweet Valley (where the Wakefield twins enjoyed at least six Christmases as twelve year olds and several more as sixteen year olds,) but in Stoneybrook?

The answer lies in the copyright page of book #23 Dawn on the Coast, where Ann M. Martin thanks Jan Carr for her assistance in writing this book. In book #27 Jessi and the Superbrat Jan Carr is thanked again. In book #34 Mary Lou Kennedy is thanked for her help. From this volume onward, a number of individuals are thanked at the front of nearly every book. The names that come up again and again are Ellen Miles (whose name appears often inside the Mystery books,) Mary Lou Kennedy and from Book #44 Dawn and the Big Sleepover onward, the name Peter Lerangis appears quite regularly. In other words, the books were now being written by a team of ghost-writers, overseen by Ann M. Martin. Her autobiography (written for children and) later acknowledges this, explaining that it was too difficult for the author to write three children's books every month (at that stage, the series was at its peak with one Baby-sitters Club, one Baby-sitters Little Sister and one Baby-Sitters Mystery book being released every month). Of the ghostwriters, Peter Lerangis soon became the star, ghostwriting more than forty volumes in the franchise. (Click here for more information.) 

As the series wore on, the quality began to vary. Serious issues such as children with Downs Sydrome, Book #77 Dawn and Whitney, Friends Forever, peer group pressure, Book #87 Stacey and the Bad Girls, and coping with asthma Book #90 Welcome the the BSC, Abby, were discussed, along with books with less interesting titles and subject matter--Books  #78 Claudia and Crazy Peaches, #89 Kristy and the Dirty Diapers, #120 Mary Anne and the Playground Fight. 

In the late 1990s, the series finally came to an dramatic conclusion. Mallory falls out with Jessi and leaves for boarding school, Dawn has long decided to stay in California for good and then the most dramatic event of all, the fire that destroys Mary Anne's home. In 2000, the final spin-off series is released Friends Forever which is written for a slightly older audience. Although the series begins with Kristy being reunited with her deadbeat dad (who is now a successful chef who hints that David Michael may not in fact be his son, though this may easily escape the attention of younger readers) the bulk of the subject matter revolves around the fire at Mary Anne's house, along with the older girls starting eighth grade yet again. The final volumes of this series tie in with The California Diaries before a two part special editions which sees the older girls finally graduate from Stoneybrook Middle School.

2006 BSC Graphic Novel
In May 2010 Schlastic released The Summer Before, a prequel to the series that features the back stories of Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne and Stacey. Unlike other series, which have released volumes written specifically for adults who grew up with the series--Sweet Valley Confidential and Sisterhood Everlasting--this book was written for children. (Of course, it may help that Scholastic is an exclusive children's publisher.) Shortly after the release of The Summer Before selected early volumes of the series were re-issued with a new cover. Four volumes were released as graphic novels in 2006.

On the whole, the Baby-sitters Club is a well-written series for pre-teens that discusses a number of social issues in a way that is interesting and relevant to children. While the quality deteriorated in later volumes, the series is a benchmark for what books for pre-teens should be its themes of friendship and responsibility.