middle grade

Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Babysitter’s Club: The Summer Before

The BSC returns!

When this ARC arrived at the store I begged to have first dibs. Not so many years ago I was a BSC addict. I even went so far as to read the Babysitter’s Little Sister series, despite the fact that the reading level was far too easy for me. I just wanted more. More Stoneybrook, more of the Warren/Thomas household,  maybe a little glimpse of what Claudia was wearing, more of the small town drama I could relate to. Scholastic has announced that in addition to the prequel, they are giving the original series a bit of a makeover, including new covers and updating some of the language so today’s modern kids won’t balk at things like “cassette player,” or my personal favourite, a “perm.” Claudia would be so proud. (Side note: I am of mixed feelings regarding updating language in popular kids books that are reissued, such as Sweet Valley High, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret…but this is a topic for another post.  I must get back on topic. What would Kristy say?!?)

Interestingly, Scholastic is aiming the series at a 7-10 audience instead of 8-12 year olds, who were the original target audience. Is this the publishing industry recognizing that most kids read up, or are our children just that much more sophisticated these days? Hard to say. On one hand, my key BSC reading days were grades three through five, which puts me closer to the 7-10 group.  And unlike some series which are *ahem* devoured by younger readers before they’re really old enough to get it, the BSC is generally harmless. The books deal with real issues (Kristy’s absentee father, Stacey’s diabetes, first crushes, Mary Anne’s strict father, etc), but no one is running off to drink in a basement or, say, taking off for Italy to save the *much* older boyfriend who has treated her like crap for the past year, but ONLY BECAUSE HE LOVES HER!!! But I digress.

I’m excited to introduce my customers to this series which was so formative in my own reading. Whatever your opinion on perms and cassette players, I believe the series as a whole stands the test of time. What’s not to love about four twelve year old girls who exercise both their burgeoning autonomy and business acumen by forming their own business, all the while creating a safe and supportive space for them to grow and learn about themselves? Aren’t these behaviours we want to encourage in our own tweens? 

Now for the prequel. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is told in chapters alternating between Kristy (sporty, still convinced boys have cooties, uber responsible, desperately hoping her father will show up for her 12th birthday), Mary Anne (gentle, still blushes when she has to talk to boys, crafty, desperately hoping her father will recognize that she is old enough to, among other things, babysit by herself), Claudia (artistic, boy crazy, popular, trying desperately to balance her first crush and her old friends, who seem so much younger all of a sudden), and Stacey (City girl, interested in boys, learning to deal with her diabetes, caught between desperately wanting to leave NYC and have a fresh start away from terrible, horrible, no-good mean girl Laine and worried about life in Stoneybrook.) Most of Stacey’s narrative occurs in absentia, as she has yet to move to that Eastern American haven of leafy streets and lemonade stands, Stoneybrook.

Ann M. Martin is a comfortable writer; her prose is smooth, unfettered, and easy to read. She gets right to the point and balances showing and telling the reader how her characters are feeling. There are entire writing courses devoted to the age old maxim, SHOW DON’T TELL, but in children’s fiction you need to be able to balance the two. Don’t underestimate your reader, but remember that they are emerging readers who are just getting their footing in the literary landscape. She also writes with a great deal of warmth. Her characters, though flawed, are loved, and the world in her books, which has hard moments, still feels like a safe place. This is important to many young readers.

Two scenes in the book stand out in my mind. The first is a girl-boy pool party that Claudia throws for her 12th birthday. Kristy and Mary Anne arrive in embarrassingly baby-ish bathing suits and proceed to ignore the boys the whole time, much to Claudia’s horror. Claudia’s sister invites a boy who Claudia promptly falls for, despite their age difference and her sister’s feelings for him. Anyone who has spent any time with 12 year olds understands and will recognize the mixed emotional bag that is adolescence. Martin illustrates the agony of maturing before your best friends with painful accuracy.

The second scene is an example of vintage BSC antics. Mary Anne organizes a street wide event called Kristy Day to celebrate her best friend, who has been down of late due to her father’s complete lack of interest in her. Kristy Day includes a parade of the never-ending Pike children, a misspelled banner, and the kind of small town support that I’m worried only exists in children’s fiction. Still. The scene is thoughtful, heartfelt, and feels completely believable. These two scenes demonstrate what sets Martin apart from her peers and also what makes her series, despite it’s mid 80s fashion crimes, relevant.  BSC forever!

 The Babysitter’s Club: The Summer Before will be avilable in April 2010.

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