A confession: As a 9-year-old boy, I loved the Baby-Sitters Club books.
So deep is my remembered shame that even now, sitting at my keyboard at the age of 43, I’m blushing. I know that times have changed, that today boys can like whatever they like, are even applauded for it. But in the 1980s, when it seemed the only real options for me were “The Hobbit” or the Hardy Boys or Choose Your Own Adventure books, stories that as I recall all involved dragons and trap doors and motorcycle chases, sneaking home one of Ann Martin’s books about a group of 12-year-old girls from fictional Stoneybrook, Conn., felt like a crime. I mean, all of the covers were pastel.
It was a moment. I think I read the first 15 books in the series over the course of fourth grade; whatever was in my school’s library — and I certainly didn’t share my enthusiasm then with another soul.
My great immersion in the friendship of Kristy Thomas, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi and Stacey McGill (and Dawn, Mallory and Jessi — you know I couldn’t forget the later additions) is something I’ve had reason to revisit lately. That’s because my two daughters, 10 and 7, are now obsessives of the Sitter-verse. They have read the books, tracking down the out-of-print ones as e-books. They have devoured — like torn at each other’s hair to get at — Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel reboot of the series, which debuted in 2015. And for the past year their bedtime routine involves listening to audio versions of the books, all 131 of which were recently produced by Audible. As if that weren’t enough, they have been counting down the days to a television adaptation streaming on Netflix beginning July 3 that will offer a modern-day update. Basically, I should have bought real estate in Stoneybrook.
Their love of the BSC was unexpected. I’ve pushed a lot of books on them in their short lives, from Roald Dahl to Judy Blume to Kate DiCamillo. But not these. Maybe because I remembered them as hidden, guilty pleasures, I imagined, in the way overbearing parents do with their children’s reading, that they lacked nutritional value, that they were just pulpy books about preteens. But I’m prepared now to make a claim that makes me feel almost as embarrassed as admitting to loving those books: I think they primed me more than any others for appreciating literary fiction.
It’s true that each entry in the series is predictably paced like a half-hour sitcom — and not of the Dadaist “Seinfeld” variety; more like the “Diff’rent Strokes” or “Growing Pains” of my youth: conflict sprinting toward resolution as the sound of the theme song plays at a slowed-down tempo and a lesson is learned. But what made the series unique and unlike the other monster-slaying books thrust upon me were the knots that had to be untied in the world of the Baby-Sitters Club, which all had to do with personality, with the friction of one girl’s character bumping up against another’s.
Stoneybrook may have had a Pleasantville vibe, full of kindly neighbors and clean streets, but the girls were flawed. There was Kristy and her hard exterior hiding the vulnerability of a girl whose father had walked out on the family when she was 6; Mary Anne and her passivity, afraid to assert herself, scarred by the death of her mother; Claudia, tortured and artistic, underestimated and misunderstood by her family; Stacey, forever the outsider, afraid that her diabetes would always keep her apart.
The books were an introduction to perspective. Each is recounted by a different girl in the club, in her voice and each in her way an unreliable narrator. I’m pretty sure that a big part of why they were exciting for me had to do with the illicit thrill of eavesdropping on the thoughts of girls, older ones at that, even when what pulled a story along could be as low stakes as Mary Anne searching for her lost kitten. It’s the same for my daughters, in a way. As they age out of being small children, they want to understand how people work, how relationships work. And these books, though not Chekhov, offer a lot of insight in this department. There is a plainness, a smallness of frame, but that’s precisely what makes them fascinating.
These days as I’m putting the girls to sleep I end up sitting with them and listening along and I’m struck by how many of the stories deal with the slippage between how things are and how you want them to be, hanging out on that threshold between the dreaminess of childhood and the compromises of adulthood. There are scenes like one in “Claudia and the Sad Good-Bye” (book No. 26, for completists) after the death of Claudia’s beloved grandmother Mimi. A few days after the funeral, Claudia returns to school, confused that everyone seems to be ignoring her, incapable of dealing with her grief. Claudia herself doesn’t know what to feel. She isn’t looking for any special attention, but she wants her loss to be acknowledged somehow. The moment feels realistic in its complicated humanness — as complicated as Claudia’s outfit (she’s the “fashionable” one); I had to check the description to make sure I was remembering correctly: “At the moment I’m wearing lavender plaid cuffed pants with suspenders over a green shirt with buttons down the front, a matching lavender beret … and fleece-lined, high-top sneakers.”
Or there’s a conflict like the one in “Stacey’s Mistake” (No. 18) when the rest of the club members visit Stacey in New York City after she’s left Stoneybrook. It’s a very 1980s New York City, full of muggers and cockroaches. What starts as excitement quickly turns fraught when Stacey has trouble fitting her suburban friends into her city-girl life. All the tension comes entirely from the girls’ inability to speak openly about how disappointing their reunion has turned out to be.
I asked Raina Telgemeier what drew her to the club. The creator of insanely popular graphic novels for girls, books like “Smile” and “Sisters,” Telgemeier traced her own love of the series to the moment when she herself was first learning how to narrate. “My memories of reading the Baby-Sitters Club books are so enmeshed with the time in my life when I started keeping a diary and making my own comics.” From the remove of adulthood, she could see that it was the girls’ imperfections, their insecurities and sibling rivalries, that made them so real to her. “I was so relieved, as a thoughtful and slightly angsty 9-year-old, to see my inner world reflected on the page.”
Rachel Shukert, the showrunner of the Netflix series, told me it was Ann Martin’s world-building that has stayed with her — “finely tuned in a John Updike kind of way,” Shukert said. And the many details come from what the girls take in, what catches in the filter of a child’s mind: “You might not notice what someone’s family dynamic is but you do notice how their mother is dressed, what kind of couch they have, what birthday presents they got.”
It’s that aspect of inner world, of interiority, that I think I responded to as well, and what felt so absent from the “boy books.” The girls have their routines — club meetings three nights a week, baseball practice, homework — and when the dramas of divorce or death or moving away intrude they think through them and we listen in on them doing this thinking. I’m also struck now by how much diversity and realism Martin included at a time when this wasn’t exactly common for middle grade books, populating Stoneybrook with a Japanese-American family (Claudia’s) and a black family (Jessi’s). There are books in the series that deal with eating disorders and autism, racism and sexism and even the problems of class (see “Kristy and the Snobs,” No. 11).
I’m glad my daughters are into these books, though I find myself sometimes trying to counterprogram by suggesting Narnia and Harry Potter. I want their imaginations to stretch, too. Maybe their reading taste is too domestic? Is it strange that I worry about this? Absolutely, yes. One day they’ll be able to appreciate “Mrs. Dalloway” or “The Sound and the Fury” and perhaps it will be because they spent so many hours with a group of girls sitting on the floor of Claudia Kishi’s bedroom, eating junk food around a rotary phone and waiting for babysitting jobs.