What are the stories we tell young children about the world that we live in? How do the toys and books we hand to them leave their imprint upon their sense of self? These are things that haunt me.
As I pedaled furiously down the street of a Connecticut neighborhood, I couldn’t get the image of a set of pastel hand-me-down books I had devoured as a child out of my head. I began to wonder if this series had been a now-obsolete cult classic, whether I had a false memory of them taking place in Connecticut, and if the main characters had been as cool as I remember.
What was this mysterious series that had forced itself upon my subconscious against my will? The Babysitters Club.
As I began my very professional and academic search into the deep convoluted web of Google, I found this series has reached far beyond cult classic status. (And when I say research, I mean hours of clickbait blog posts and binge watching the entire 1st season of the show). It’s being rebooted as a graphic novel series, it’s been republished as a book series, it has a movie and two TV shows. I spent hours reading articles written by millennials discussion every angle of the series from their attachment to various characters to a definitive ranking of the gayness of various cover art. (Not only is this an empire spanning decades, but a somewhat of a bastion for 80s queer representation.)
Could these books possibly be this good? I sat down to reread the first one and find out. Please enjoy this series of rambling thoughts from my brief academic study:
1. The book starts with Kristy, trapped in an overheated classroom, leaping to her feet and shouting “hurray” to celebrate the end of the school day. Her teacher is nervous and unimpressed, assigning her a short essay on “decorum.” As a child who was frequently chastised for being “too loud” and “too much” in middle school, I loved this start to the book. I feel like middle school girl books too often start with “the shy girl who can’t come out of her shell” trope. And it was refreshing to see an acknowledgement for the way schools don’t know what to do with “unruly” girls. Characterization? Already impressed.
2. Next we meet Mary Anne. Personally, I’m with Kristy who shares the opinion that her strict dad “could let her wear her hair down instead of always braids, or give her permission to ride her bike to the mall.” We are mere pages in and we already have interesting commentary about the way parents attempt to police the “innocence” of their teen girls as well as the impact of trauma (since Mary Anne’s mom has passed away). It’s nice that Kristy openly acknowledges that this system feels wrong to her instead of accepting or pitying her best friend’s father.
3. Kristy says “My mom is really great,” and so far I have to agree. Intentional time to listen to every child every night? You go single mom.
4. Oh yeah, how could I forget that Claudia is the actual coolest teen on this green earth? In her first scene she is wearing lavender overalls, a fedora, and red high tops. What an inspiration to self conscious teen girls everywhere. Excuse me while I go buy a fedora.
5. A bunch of 12-year-olds start their own business. I love that all the adults in this town are already into it. Especially Kristy’s perfect mom.
6. Kristy is quite mean to her mom’s new boyfriend. But she has already explained that her dad is basically AWOL in her life and remarried. So once again, effective depiction of trauma reigns supreme. There was this absolutely mesmerizing scene in the new TV show where Kristy has a complete breakdown over her dad and punches this bag of chips to smithereens. She was crying, I was crying. Emotions really do come to life no matter what we do to suppress them.
Is this book a work of literature? Probably not. Does the conflict wrap up neatly at the end like a nice little TV Land sitcom? Surely yes. Does Claudia feel a bit like a token minority? Painfully, also yes. But does it also offer stories of three-dimensional children feeling all the small and the terrible moments that populate all teenage lives? One hundred percent.
The more children can see other children navigating and feeling hard emotions, the more I support the media. Long live The Babysitters Club, and the emotional validation that it creates in kids.
Susannah currently lives in New Jersey and works as a 7th grade ELA teacher in East Harlem. When she is not teaching or writing, she can be found exploring independent bookstores, going backpacking, and trying to roller-skate on all the cool trails in the city. She is also recently experienced in the art of citrus skunk repellent (I know you’re impressed).