The enduring magic of The Baby-Sitters Club
In 1991, a successful trip to the mall involved me coming home with a new slap bracelet, a Sanrio surprise bag, and at least one of the latest Baby-Sitters Club books.
Life is pretty simple when you're six, and I can still remember grabbing my mom's hand and racing to either B. Dalton (RIP) or Waldenbooks (RIP). I'd dart to the back of the store where the children's books were on display, and zero in on the familiar pastel covers, my hands instinctively reaching for the last, and thus newest, Baby-Sitters Club book. I couldn't wait to get home, grab a Capri Sun, and find out Kristy Thomas' great idea du jour.
I started reading on my own at the age of four, and I just never stopped — the amount of money my parents spent on books probably could have paid off our house and bought them his and hers Ferraris. When I wasn't creating a masterpiece in a Lisa Frank coloring book or running around outside like a lunatic with my friends and dogs, I was deeply engrossed in a Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, or, more often than not, Baby-Sitters Club book. When I didn't have a new BSC book to devour, I'd just re-read a copy I already owned, like the very first one my oldest sister bought me: Welcome Back, Stacey! For some reason I decided to start with the 28th book in the series (I was in the first grade, cut me some slack).
This month marks the 30th (30th!!!!!) anniversary of the series, with Kristy's Great Idea first published on Aug. 1, 1986. Yes, if Kristy Thomas was a real person, she would be 42 (in those first books, the girls were 12 — it wasn't until a few titles in that they moved onto the eighth grade and became forever 13). The series, written by Ann M. Martin, concluded in 2000, when the girls finally graduated from middle school, and in between, there were spinoffs (Baby-Sitters Little Sister, California Diaries), Super Specials, Super Mysteries, Readers' Requests, a TV series, a movie, board games, and dolls (I had Dawn, although I desperately wanted Stacey). It wasn't just American kids reading, either — millions of copies were sold around the world, translated into dozens of languages. There was some sort of voodoo surrounding that series, because everyone I know who grew up during the BSC era was hooked.
For those who need a crash course in BSC lore, the series initially revolved around assertive tomboy Kristy, the president of The Baby-Sitters Club, and her friends — artist and creative dresser Claudia Kishi (vice president), shy and quick-to-cry Mary Anne Spier (secretary), and sophisticated diabetic Stacey McGill (treasurer). The club expanded to include California transplant and ghost hunter Dawn Schafer (alternate officer), bookworm and horse enthusiast Mallory Pike (junior officer), ballerina and oddly mature for an 11-year-old Jessi Ramsey (junior officer), and wise-cracking soccer player Abby Stevenson (Dawn's replacement). There was even a boy in the club, Mary Anne's boyfriend and associate member Logan Bruno.
The series took place in the fictional town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, where for some reason, the parents were never home and their kids were constantly in need of babysitters. Each of the main characters had a distinct personality (which we learned about during chapter two of every single book), but they did go through changes throughout the series, just like in real life. They weren't perfect — Claudia could be a total brat towards her genius older sister Janine, while Stacey at one point chose her boyfriend Robert over her friends, and vegetarian Dawn treated people who ate meat like they were the actual worst — but it made the series more interesting as you watched them make mistakes. While I never felt like I could totally relate to one character, I did appreciate Kristy's assertiveness, Mary Anne's sensitivity, and Stacey's savviness.
The books all had life lessons, but they didn't bonk you over the head with them. While some "very special episode" titles tackled important topics like how to handle death (who didn't cry when Claudia's grandmother Mimi and Kristy's dog Louie died?), racism, and divorce, there were also some that focused on the mundane, like Kristy coaching her softball team for kids and Dawn organizing a sleepover fundraiser.
Because there were so many books, you could immerse yourself in this world. You felt like you really knew the babysitters, their siblings, their charges, their friends, even their houses (like Dawn's with a secret passage and old barn), and you couldn't wait to see what happened to them next.
Of course, the series was also fun because the girls went on major adventures and did things that no real eighth grader would get to do. Case in point: In Super Special #5 California Girls!, the babysitters pooled their money for a lotto ticket (purchased by an adult, even fictional towns follow state laws), which ended up a winner. With their sudden windfall, the girls visited Dawn's dad in California, where Stacey morphed into a surfer, Jessi worked on a TV show, Mallory bleached her red hair blonde, and other craziness ensued. The very first Super Special (Baby-Sitters on Board!) gave first-grade me completely unrealistic expectations — why couldn't my best friends and their parents and siblings join my family on a Caribbean cruise, followed by a Disney World vacation?
The books obviously included a lot of babysitting, but those weren't my favorite parts. I didn't care about those kids because I was those kids. That's why I never got into the Little Sister series following Kristy's 7-year-old stepsister, Karen. What I truly cared about was being 13. You see, the girls in The Baby-Sitters Club may have just been in eighth grade, but they lived lives that were not of the typical teenage variety. They were always going to cool dances and football games and sailing trips and the mall unsupervised. They had boyfriends and were going on dates to French restaurants with names like Chez Maurice. They were adults trapped in middle school. This made me want to be 13 SO BAD. I was convinced it was going to be the most exciting time ever. Once I turned 13, I quickly realized that the Stoneybrook version of that awkward age is not like real life, and middle school dances are not something anyone should look forward to, ever.
My friends and I waited until we were in the fourth grade to start our own version of the BSC. It lasted an afternoon. After school one day we made up flyers and planned what we would buy for our Kid Kits. My friend Lily said she was certain her uncle would hire us, a gaggle of nine-year-olds, to watch her baby cousin. For some reason, he just wasn't into the idea of random kids still in the single digits watching his child, and we disbanded as quickly as we came together. At least we were wise enough to know that if our own families didn't trust us, who would?
Unlike the girls in the BSC, I did grow up. By the time I was in middle school, I no longer read the books I once sprinted through the bookstore to buy. The series ended my sophomore year in high school, but the occasion went by unnoticed because I was actually going to football games and pizza places and the movies unsupervised, all those things I looked forward to doing when I was still a dedicated BSC reader.
My delight in reading continues to this day, and I know the time I spent poring over the pages of Dawn on the Coast and Stacey's Ex-Best Friend is one of the reasons why. I loved The Baby-Sitters Club and the world they lived in, and I'll always be fond of those entrepreneurial girls who taught me about friendship, loyalty, taking charge, and how to survive if you're in a sailboat race with the kids you're babysitting and you get caught in a storm and stranded on a deserted island.