What the Babysitters Club Taught Me About Diversity
It was with great surprise--and delight--that I discovered recently that the first sixteen books in the Babysitters Club series have been reprinted. These books were a huge part of my childhood. I still remember the first BSC book I ever read, and how my reading habits changed--for the better--after I discovered a copy of Kristy and the Snobs at my school library. Before then, I was barely interested in reading. One chapter in and I realised that I had discovered something very different, and special. This was a series about a group of girls who had got together, formed a successful business and were having a lot of fun along the way. Each girl had a unique personality, whether it be Kristy, an ambitious tomboy, artsy Claudia, fashionable Stacey or shy and sensitive Mary Anne. It was totally different from the types of books that I had read up until that point--Ann M Martin had a unique way of speaking to her readers and explaining a number of otherwise complex issues, such as Stacey's illness and the bullying that she had suffered in New York as a consequence. Over the series, many of their sitting charges would experience a number of issues as well, along with various key characters. Through the BSC I was able to discover what life was like for kids who were different from me. But what really makes the series stand out--is the subtle way that the author introduced diversity to her readers. Ann M Martin may not have always got it perfect (almond shaped eyes, anyone,) but it was always a sincere effort that was never shoved down the readers throats. The characters all had unique family units, and at times the characters struggled with their own roles within those units. There was also a very cool, and very diverse range of minor adult characters--in the BSC books there were female police officers and doctors, and gender was never shown to be a barrier for anything. At one point Jessi had a boyfriend who was a male dancer, while Mary Anne's boyfriend, Logan Bruno was portrayed as a compassionate and responsible babysitter. A number of social justice issues were addressed, including racial discrimination, bullying, divorce and illness. If the Babysitters Club were being written today, I have no doubt that the author would be able to--without fanfare--introduce a family unit that had two mums, or two dads. We might even see characters who are Muslim, and the Hobart family may become slightly less stereotypical. (Another sore point--midway through the series an Australian family was introduced and their surname really was Hobart. I'm surprised the Hobart kids weren't named Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Actually they were named Ben, James, Matthew and Johnny.) Divorce and it's implications for kids pop up on several occasions. Stacey had to cope with her parents divorcing midway through the series, while Dawn and her brother Jeff, had to suffer the consequences of their parents splitting up and their mother's assumption that they would be happy to move across the country, away from their father.
When the series opens, there are four core characters, who have all recently started seventh grade at Stoneybrook Middle School. The narrator, Kristy has recently turned twelve. She's tomboyish, ambitious, and the one who has the idea of forming the babysitting business that will become the core part of the series. Kristy also has a great backstory. She's the third kid in a family of four and the only girl. Her mother, Elizabeth is a working single mum. Kristy's father left when her youngest brother was just a baby, and the family have scarcely heard from him since. Kristy is struggling with the fact that her mother has embarked on a serious relationship with millionaire Watson Brewer who she suspects is a bad father to his two kids, Karen and Andrew. By the end of the first book, Kristy comes to realise that she's been projecting her resentment of her absent father onto Watson and that he is a very different man. Later story arcs would focus on Kristy's adjustment to her mother's second marriage, which involves her moving to a wealthier part of Stoneybrook where she is treated with suspicion by some of the other kids in her street, though they eventually become friends, and she finds romance with a local boy, Bart. In the spin-off Friends Forever series, Kristy's dad makes an appearance and Kirsty learns another valuable life lesson. Kristy's mother and stepfather adopt Emily Michelle, an orphan from Vietnam, midway through the series. Kristy's stepsister Karen resents this. Emily has some developmental delays due to the language barrier.
The second character is Claudia Kishi, who lives across the road from Kristy. Although she is the same age as Kristy, Claudia is a bit more mature than her friend (unlike the others, she is already wearing a bra and takes an interest in boys.) Claudia lives with her parents, her beloved grandmother, Mimi, and her older sister Janine. Claudia's relationship with Janine is quite difficult. The girls are quite different from one another, and one the surface, it seems that Janine, a studious high achiever, is favoured by their parents. Claudia is a talented artist, best remembered by readers for her quirky fashion sense, and her relationship with Mimi. Claudia is described as Japanese-American, and was born in Stoneybrook. Claudia struggles with her grades, and concentrating at school, though it is clear that she has a high degree of intelligence. Her resourcefulness comes in handy on a number of occasions. In one story arc, Claudia is able to identify the source of Emily's learning problems--unlike a number of adults--and is able to address them.
Stacey McGill is a New Yorker. She moves to Stoneybrook after her father gets a transfer. She is an only child (her parents cannot have any more children,) and is suffering from a particularly serious form of juvenile diabetes. Starting afresh in Stoneybrook, she initially tries to keep her illness secret from her new friends, but she soon discovers that the other members of the BSC accept her just as she is. Throughout the series the other characters are careful to accomodate Stacey's diet. The Truth About Stacey focuses on her standing up to her parents are searching desperately for a miracle cure for her illness, and also to Laine, her former best friend from New York who instigated most of the bullying.
The fourth and possibly most under-appreciated character in the series is Mary Anne. The child of a strict lawyer, Mary Anne was, initially, forced to adhere to a strict dress code. She was also described as a crybaby. In Mary Anne Saves the Day, the first novel to be narrated by Mary Anne, the characters learns to stand up for herself after the members of the club have a spat that lasts several weeks. Realising that she has allowed herself to rely too heavily on the others, Mary Anne begins to branch out, first making friends with Dawn, a new girl at their school, and then taking charge when one of her babysitting charges has to be rushed to hospital. Later, she realises that life is short and finds a way to reform the babysitters club, with Dawn as the fourth member. Her newfound maturity impresses her father, who drops the dress code and repeals some of the stricter rules. Most of the series focuses on Mary Anne's relationship with Logan Bruno. Although Mary Anne likes Logan, she has no trouble standing up to him, and broke up with him at one point when he became too controlling. In the final book in the original series, Mary Anne's house burns down. The spin-off Friends Forever series focuses on Mary Anne coping with the aftermath of the fire.
As the series continued, more members of the club were added, beginning with Dawn, who along with her brother is suffering the after effects of her parents divorce and being relocated to the other side of the country. Dawn eventually makes the decision to return to California, and a number of books in the series are told about her adventures over there. She eventually gets her own, series that focuses on topics that are a bit too dark for the core BSC series, and was aimed at a slightly older audience. The California Diaries later ties in with the Friends Forever series.
Mallory and Jessi were a bit younger than the other club members. Mallory was initially a babysitting charge, but as the series continued and the characters aged, Mallory became a member of the club, along with Jessi, who had just moved to town. Jessi was the only black character in the club, and indeed, her family were the only black family in Stoneybrook. She suffers some discrimination from this. Jessi is one of the most compassionate members of the club, and most of her stories focus on Jessi helping others--whether it be a fellow dancer from her ballet school who has developed anorexia, learning sign language so that she can communicate better with one of her sitting charges, or her unsuccessful attempts at trying to convince the other kids not to bully a substitute teacher at their school.
Throughout the series, there was a number of quite believable departures and arrivals at the club. The first member to leave was Stacey, who returned to New York when her father was offered a promotion. Stacey later returned to Stoneybrook with her mother after her parents divorce. By the time that Stacey returned to Stoneybrook, Mallory and Jessi had joined the club. The seven member club continued from book 28 to book 67. Later, Dawn departs for California, and a new character, Wendy joins the club. Wendy finds the club too restrictive and soon leaves. Shannon, a minor character from the series then joins the club in a full time capacity. Only one book--a special non-cannon readers request--is told from Shannon's perspective and tells of her struggles with her overly-attentive mother. Unlike the other characters, Shannon attends an upmarket private school. She initially comes across as quite snobbish.
Peer group pressure occasionally exists between the characters. In book 12 the other members of the BSC become jealous when Claudia makes a new friend at her art classes. Ashley herself is quite controlling of Claudia, while the other girls become bullies. Later, Mary Anne falls out with the other members of the club after she gets a new haircut. Mary Anne stands up for herself and eventually, it is revealed that the others, particularly Dawn, are jealous.
And then came what was perhaps the BSC's most controversial moment. In book 83 Stacey quits the club just as Kristy is about to fire her. The story itself deals with conflicts of interest and maturity. Stacey has found a boyfriend and some new friends, and is enjoying taking part in normal teenage activities. This leads her to resent her duties with the BSC and their seemingly constant neighbourhood activities. In short, Stacey is enjoying having a life outside of the club, and feels as though she has outgrown it. She starts neglecting her duties and doesn't invite all of the BSC members to a party that she and Robert is hosting. Things come to a head and Stacey decides that it's time for her to leave the club. The timing of the release of this one is quite interesting--it happened just at the point when the generation of girls (and, I suspect, a few boys,) who grew up with the books had outgrown them. In fact, this was the last BSC release that I took much notice of.
Later, a more mature Stacey rejoins the club--after discovering that some of her newfound friends have been using her. By then, other characters have had a chance to grow and mature as well. Soon after Stacey's return, the club gains another new member. Abby is Jewish, asthmatic and has a twin sister who would rather play the violin than babysit. Along with Shannon, she lives in Kirsty's neighbourhood. Abby's father died some years earlier in an accident. Despite having a solid backstory, Abby has never been terrible well remembered by fans, probably because she arrived so late in the series.
I think the diversity works so well in the BSC universe because it is so subtle. It's just there. Claudia happens to be Japanese American. Abby is Jewish. Stacey has diabetes. A professionally employed person that the girls get advice from just happens to be female. It's never pushed on the reader, which allows them to simply accept it. And I think that's great.