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The Babysitters Club

10th Apr 2012

The_Babysitters_Club

From 1986 to 2000, Scholastic were churning out titles of their beloved series The Babysitters Club almost as fast as pre-teen fangirls all over the globe could consume them. In fact, at the peak of their popularity they were producing a new title as often as once a month.

In my primary school years I was one of those fangirls, with a shelf crammed full of the iconic brick-wall spines. Regrettably, I gave them all away in my teens to make room for more ‘grown up’ books.

However, I recently purchased a box of secondhand copies, overcome with nostalgia and curiosity to see to what extent these stories helped shape the strident feminist I am today.

If you were a Goosebumps or an Animal Ark kid, you might not be familiar with the premise of the series. Essentially, The Babysitters Club followed a group of eighth grade girls in a small town in Connecticut.

The series starts with Kristy’s Great Idea, when Kristy Thomas enlists three of her school friends, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi and Stacey McGill, to start a babysitting club.

Later on, they expand the club to include Californian hipster (and my favourite character) Dawn Schafer, as well as Mallory Pike and Jessi Ramsey, and a couple of other peripheral characters known as “associate members”. The popularity of the series stemmed from strong characterisation created by author Ann M. Martin (and later a selection of ghost writers).

My vague memories of the stories were of friendship, girl power and entrepreneurial spirit, and when I revisited the books I wasn’t disappointed. The second time around I also noticed an attempt to address pretty heavy issues like racism, illness, bullying and on one occasion (Claudia and the Terrible Truth) even child abuse.

When I was a kid I was obsessed with all things Americana. I watched American TV shows and in my head my toys spoke with American accents. In retrospect I think this is why I loved these books so much.

The subplots revolve around dances and baseball and Thanksgiving, and their school experience was totally different to mine. The characters are as American as apple pie. Except, this time around it started to grate on me a little bit.

They’re so preppy and spirited it seems false, and the two blonde bombshells from New York (Stacey) and California (Dawn) are just so totally awesome it’s a bit sickening. On top of the extreme American-ness, my adult prejudices resented the fact that it was all just a bit too middle class.

And other things started to grate on me, too. When I was a kid I thought these books were about a babysitting club. Reading them as an adult I can see they are mostly about chasing boys; the babysitting is kind of incidental.

They are obsessed with boys and getting a boyfriend, and the girls that don’t care are considered immature by the others (or lesbians, according to most TBC fansites). Hand-in-hand with the boy craziness is an overwhelming preoccupation with appearance.

The series gets a lot of criticism for the fact that about 20% of each book reintroduces the characters and recaps storylines, and a great deal of this is dedicated to how each girl looks and dresses.

Claudia’s artistic and eccentric fashion sense is something that a lot of girls note as their fondest memory of the series, and it still comes across as the characteristic of a creative girl with imagination and confidence. But many of Stacey’s ‘sophisticated’ outfits made me wonder whether I’d let a twelve-year-old go out like that.

In truth, the feminist reading of these books didn’t go that well. I found myself getting annoyed by small yet significant details like the girls getting embarrassed when they use the word “bra” in front of a boy.

I understand that in real life girls probably would be, but perhaps demonstrating it with such iconic and influential characters sends out a message that should be embarrassed by it.

And in over two hundred books not one of them gets their period. I’m sure this is probably to do with the age of the audience, but I couldn’t help but question it.

The original series generated a lot of spin-offs, including Babysitters Club Mysteries, California Dairies, The Kids in Ms. Coleman’s Class and the Babysitters Little Sister collection, written for an even younger audience.

There was also a twelve-episode television show and a movie. In 2010, a couple of the original books were re-released with updated versions, as well as a newly written prequel, The Summer Before.

With such widespread influence I can’t help but think maybe The Babysitters Club was just another channel perpetuating the idea that to be ‘normal’ you had to live your life obsessing over boys and clothes and makeup, perhaps with a little bit of babysitting on the side.

If you want to make up your own mind or just get your hands on some pure pre-teen nostalgia, TBC books are a little hard to come by. Some titles and reissues are available on Amazon, or you often find bulk sets going cheap on eBay.

Were you a fan of The Babysitters Club? Or were you more into Point Horror, Anastasia or Sweet Valley High? Have you ever re-read the books you loved when you were younger, and how well (or not!) did they stand the test of time?

Cariad Martin

Comments

  • digressica says:

    I’m too afraid to revisit these books, because in my mind they are still as brilliant as they were when I started reading them. My sister and I were obsessed – OBSESSED – with these books, and we would devour them in enormous numbers. The first ‘chapter book’ I ever read was a BSC winter super-special (the one where they all get snowed in at a ski lodge… wow, the very idea of this blew my seven-year-old brains out), and I credit this series with nurturing my love of reading and writing in those early days. I’m not sure how they would hold up with my own feminist values either, but I’m also not sure that’s the point. I didn’t care about the boy stuff at the time – the things I loved were the thrice-weekly meetings, the entrepreneurial spirit, the mysteries, the crazy awesome stuff that Claudia wore, the blending of Mary-Anne and Dawn’s families and, like you, the Americana – all those Thanksgiving dinners and Halloween costumes and snow days and so on.

    I did actually have a quick peek at an old copy I recently found in storage. The writing was truly awful. But that’s fine. I didn’t know that at the time – I only knew that I wanted to read more of them, all the time, and in that sense they acted as a literary gateway drug, eventually pushing me onto a somewhat healthier diet of Little Women and Tomorrow When the War Began and To Kill A Mockingbird and whatever else I read as a kid. I would totally let my future daughters read the BSC. Although they’ll probably just tell me it’s naff and old-fashioned, laughing scornfully as they whizz off on their iPad-controlled flying jetpacks. Or whatever.

    • CariadMartin says:

      I agree that our children will probably think they’re totally outdated, they’re a little bit Saved By The Bell in their retro-ness, but I imagine I’ll still offer them as an option. The boy craziness is obviously quite easily overlooked for a young kid, if neither of us picked it up back then.

  • I would LOVE to try reading these again – I wish I still had all mine! Those red-bricked spines were a huge icon of my childhood and Claudia Kishi was always my goddess!

    • CariadMartin says:

      Without exception people say Claudia was the one. I think that’s probably also because I associate with a lot of creative, independent, alternative women who dress and act a little bit like Claudia in their adult years!

  • Alex Herod says:

    Thanks Cariad, this post has made my day! I did revisit Point Horror when I wrote the post on those, but I don’t think I can bring myself to revisit The Babysitters Club… I think the formulaic (and pretty awful if my inner critic remembers correctly) writing would irritate me, and as you say, I can’t imagine them standing upto a feminist reading. BUT as a child they were responsible for me longing (LONGING) to be a treasurer of some awesome club or other and are probably responsible for my fondness for spreadsheets and record books and taking notes as if everything we A Project 🙂

    • CariadMartin says:

      Haha, I love that! I think I just really, really wanted the phone in my bedroom!

  • Beulah says:

    “in over two hundred books not one of them gets their period” – love that!

    But I have so many memories of happily reading these books on the Newcastle Metro with my mum sitting next to me reading the one I’d just finished with. She is incredibly well read, has a degree in English Literature from a very prestigious university and was still able to enjoy the BSC books at the age of 38.

    • CariadMartin says:

      That’s awesome! No special ‘adult covers’ necessary. I think once you accept that they’re no masterpiece and they’re just a bit of fun you don’t critique them as much as you’d expect.

  • Rose-Anna Bleasdale (@RoseAnnaStar) says:

    I loved the books, and still remember loads of positive messages from them. Excellent teen reading = )