'The Baby-sitter's Club' Grows Up. Do Tweens Care?

By Suzanne Merkelson
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Scholastic

I always wanted to be Stacey from the Baby-sitters Club. Kristy was too bossy. I knew I wasn't cool enough to be artistic, funky, junk-food loving, pre-hipster Claudia. But Stacey I could aspire to. Stylish and sophisticated, the treasurer of the Baby-sitters Club dated high school boys, was good at math, grew up in New York City, AND had the fabulous luck of being an only sibling. Stacey got her hair permed and dotted all her "I"s with hearts and had diabetes, which all combined to make her kind of glamorous. However, like most fervent fans, in reality I was more of a Mary Anne, the club's meticulous secretary—bookish and shy and sensitive and a good listener (that exact description probably appeared somewhere on my fourth grade report card).

Last Thursday, Scholastic released The Summer Before, a prequel to Ann M. Martin's Baby-sitters Club series—with 176 million books in print, one of the most successful series in publishing history. The Summer Before follows Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey through the summer before seventh grade—when the club was created in the original series' first book, Kristy's Great Idea. Kristy grapples with her parents' divorce, Mary Anne struggles with her overprotective father, Claudia has her first major crush (on a ninth grader!), and Stacey moves to town from New York, where her best friend turned on her after she developed diabetes.

In a further attempt to reach out to a new generation of young babysitting aspirants, Scholastic is also re-releasing an updated version of the original series. The changes are mostly cosmetic—scrubbing out references to VCRs and Walkmans, Stacey's perm (you know, the one that made her almost die when she got trapped in a snowstorm on the way home from the salon) is now an "expensive haircut" and her diabetes treatment has been updated to reflect current medicine—no more insulin shots.

The series has already left its mark on the 20- and 30-somethings who grew up reading the series. A BSC-themed fashion blog has popped up at What Claudia Wore. Jezebel has written an open letter to Ann M. Martin on behalf of the club's dowdy junior member, Mallory. Even the literati-beloved McSweeney's has come up with a list of titles in an imaginary The Baby-Sitters Club: The College Years series including Kristy's Softball Friends Don't Buy It That She's Dating a Dude and Dawn Gets Into a Heated Discussion on Post-structuralism.

And it's no surprise members of Generation Y are enchanted by the BSC. The business-savvy, girlfriends-before-boys, diversity-embracing BSC crew spoke to the girls who became the women who surpass male peers in college graduation rates, who are finding first jobs during the "mancession", who have grown up fully expecting fulfilling careers and equal partnerships.

But what about today's tweens? Looking at everyone from Miley Cyrus to the Obama girls, the Los Angeles Times'Ada Calhoun asked: "Has there ever been a better moment for tween girls?" My generation got to choose among seven middle-school aged babysitters to emulate—we could be California casual or bossy athletic or a beautiful dancer with a cute younger brother named Squirt. Today's cohort of tweens can be Hannah Montana or Taylor Swift or Bella Swan. Will they be interested in the BSC?

I called my little sister, a sophomore in high school, and asked about her friends. They're Twilight and Taylor Swift girls (my sister went to a Taylor concert last year and touched the singer's face). A few of them have read the BSC books and played the "Which member of the club are you most like" game. More of them hadn't. Still, there's hope for the re-release. Caitlin Flanagan wrote about the "secret emotional life" adolescent girls require for The Atlantic in December 2008, concluding that reading allows a young woman "to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others."

The BSC offers a stable of realistic yet admirable characters to identify with and aspire to. These girls aren't getting it on (or daydreaming about getting it on) with vampires and werewolves. They're coming up with great ideas like Kid Kits to entertain their charges, going to summer camp, riding bikes around the neighborhood. The BSC—extraordinary in their ordinariness—lets adolescent girls escape into that kind of emotional life and feel less alone.

Scholastic's updates to the BSC can't change the essence of the series. This facelift will only bring the series and the annoyingly endearing characters to a new group of tweens. If the BSC has taught us anything it's that change—moving, parents splitting up, making new friends—is scary but can be for the best, is inevitable but not world-ending.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/04/the-baby-sitters-club-grows-up-do-tweens-care/38880/