Say hello to your friends: why we still love Ann M Martin’s The Babysitters Club
The series made us readers, prioritised creativity, entrepreneurship and independence over looks or boys, but above all it gave us not just friends but a model of female friendship
“Ann M Martin has such a warm, immersive writing voice and the books were an important part of millions of young readers’ childhoods,” says Sarah Webb, the author who used to run the children’s department in Waterstones. “We had a whole bay of Babysitters Club books – they were hugely popular and I loved talking about the plots and characters with my young customers”
“So what would you put in a Kid-Kit today?” I ask the 60-year-old writer to my right. She’s in Dublin to promote her new book, How To Look For A Lost Dog (Usborne, 2016), published as Rain Reign in the US in 2014; she is the author of more than 30 well-received novels for young people, including the 2003 Newbery Honor book, A Corner of the Universe, ranging from entertaining stories about the children of vampires or talking dogs to sensitive portrayals of family crises in both the present and the past.
But for most people, Ann M Martin is synonymous with a particular series that occupied her from the mid-1980s up to the dawn of the new millennium, a series that she (somewhat remarkably) hasn’t grown sick of answering questions about. So I want to know: what would she put in a babysitting kit today? (Classic children’s books and arts and crafts materials – no iPads. I would definitely trust her with my imaginary kids.)
I have been justifying my great love of The Babysitters Club for more than 20 years, ranging from my youthful “I learned some important vocabulary words from this book, so there, Mom/Dad/Teacher!” defences to sustained academic arguments. The summer I wrote up my master’s thesis on the series, the main response from people – aside from launching into a rendition of the TV adaptation’s theme song – was a sense of being impressed that I had somehow got one over on the examinations board, wrangling my way into writing seriously about a silly little girls’ book series.
We tend not to take such things seriously. Even when critics look at series – the Nancy Drew books, for example, have received a great deal of attention – the focus is on how adults can use series fiction to get children reading “real” books. And series for girls – and about girls, heavens! – are even more prone to being dismissed, because of longstanding tendencies for young male readers to avoid female protagonists even as their female classmates gobble up books prioritising male characters.
For all that I could bore you with the way in which the series itself engages intelligently with ideas of reading – the Nancy Drew titles, for example, feature heavily, alongside a variety of Martin’s favourite childhood titles, and attitudes towards reading both in and out of school are explored – it’s perhaps worth considering something more basic when trying to convey the significance of the series: its huge popularity.
Author Sarah Webb, who used to run the children’s department in Waterstones, recalls: “We had a whole bay of Babysitters Club books – they were hugely popular and I loved talking about the plots and characters with my young customers. Ann M Martin has such a warm, immersive writing voice and the books were an important part of millions of young readers’ childhoods.”
Over the course of 14 years (1986-2000), 131 titles appeared in the regular series, alongside various special editions and numerous spin-off series – closer to 300 titles in total. 176 million copies of the series have been sold in 21 countries and in 19 languages, with interest in the series being maintained well into this decade with the appearance of a prequel, The Summer Before, in 2010, re-releases of earlier books, graphic novel adaptations by Raina Telgemeier, and digital editions being made available for the first time.
Martin, whose writing career began in 1983, didn’t pen all the titles herself, as one might reasonably deduce from those figures; as the series progressed she took on more of an editorial and story development role. Ghost writers were cleverly acknowledged in each book using the following format: “The author wishes to thank [name] for their help in preparing this manuscript”, nodding to the involvement of others while also ensuring Martin remained the definitive “author” of the work. Her letters to readers at the end of many of the later titles connected her own life to the experiences of her characters.
Fans know, for example, that outspoken and bossy Kristy is partly based on Martin’s childhood best friend, that artsy Claudia is named after a college roommate, that shy Mary Anne is the closest in personality to herself, that she does not share glamorous Stacey’s love of maths. We learn about Martin’s own babysitting experiences, and are given advice about babysitting too – the glue that holds a group of diverse girls (and one boy) together across the series.
It’s not just a club, though, as the characters often remind us – it’s a business, too. “They were the original girl bosses,” Jess O Sullivan, deputy editor of Irish Tatler magazine, recalls. “That’s what I loved about them!” And while each club meeting (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5.30 on the dot) was taken very seriously, we also saw the strong friendship among the characters. Sarah Bannan, author of Weightless and head of literature at the Arts Council, recalls the “great great female friendships”. Throughout several moves in her childhood, the series offered “comfort, and fun, and escape”: “I learned, at a really young age, that reading was not something that had to be endured, but that reading was something that could sustain you, could keep you company, buzzing and happy, even if your real life kinda sucked. No matter what godforsaken part of America my parents made me move, I had Kirsty, Claudia, Mary Anne, Stacey and Dawn.”
Jacq Murphy, Book Range Planner at Eason’s Department 51, cites the series as the books that gave her “a life long love of reading, which has led to my current career.” For her, the club members “were characters that I could both relate to and aspire to be more like”. Lisa Corr at Dubray Books who cites the series as crucial in shaping her as a reader, notes Martin’s “way of capturing the emotions and aspirations of young girls” as “her strong suit”, evident also in her latest novel. Another bookseller, Lorraine Levis, remembers the series as one which “told you that everything was going to be okay and even if you didn’t fit in, there were still people who would love you no matter how different you were.”
The TV theme song so often warbled at me in that thesis summer invites us to “Say hello to your friends (Babysitters Club!)”, and as kitschy and early-1990s as it is, it does seem to echo precisely that feeling of opening up one of the books and stepping into a world of girls who were not only friends with one another but also somehow yours, too. This is what series fiction at its best does. Critic Victor Watson, who argues we grow “into” rather than “out of” it, reported a young reader’s explanation of its appeal: “When you begin a new novel . . . it is like going into a room full of strangers, but reading the latest book in a series which you already know is like going into a room full of friends” (Reading Series Fiction, Routledge, 2000).
The series made so many of us readers, and it offered up a template of female adolescence that prioritised creativity, entrepreneurship and independence over looking pretty or finding the right boy. But most of all it provided us with friends, and a model of friendship and support for young women, and for so many adult readers today – evident in how often the still-prolific Martin is asked “where would they be now?” while speaking about new titles – it remains one of the best examples we have.
Romance writer Livia Ellis is delighted her daughter is now at an age to discover the books: “I’m suddenly cooler when I can introduce her to something she decides is awesome.” The later books in the series remain difficult to track down in hard copy, but their availability in digital editions along with numerous recap and nostalgia blogs about the series means that The Babysitters Club is still a presence for readers. Once you find your book-friends, you tend to keep them close.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor, and creative writing facilitator based in Dublin. Her next novel, Nothing Tastes As Good, will be published by Hot Key Books this summer