This article is part of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life” — autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.
There are any number of books I could have written about for this series — like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, which gave me a completely new appreciation for my parents’ experience as immigrants in this country, or Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which is changing my life as we speak. But at the end of the day, when I think about the books that were most formative for me, I keep coming back to The Baby-Sitters Club, Ann M. Martin’s classic series about a group of middle-school friends in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.
When I first picked up these books, I was a 6-year-old child of immigrants, just starting public school for the first time. I had lived my entire life in Michigan, but there was so much about American culture I didn’t know; my parents grew up in post-war Taiwan, after all, and did not play soccer or wear Halloween costumes or attend school dances. There was much about life in the US that they couldn’t teach me. These books served as my education.
A few things I first learned about through this series:
- Divorce, remarriage, and blended families (#6, Kristy’s Big Day; #28, Welcome Back, Stacey!; #30, Mary Anne and the Great Romance; #31, Dawn’s Wicked Stepsister)
- Adoption (#24, Kristy and the Mother’s Day Surprise)
- Sibling rivalry (#7, Claudia and Mean Janine)
- Losing a grandparent (#26, Claudia and the Sad Good-bye)
- The importance of being yourself with dudes you like (#50, Dawn’s Big Date) and not dating a-holes (#37, Dawn and the Older Boy). Did Sixteen magazine not cover dating and relationships?
- Diabetes (#3, The Truth About Stacey; #37, Stacey’s Emergency) — an issue of particular importance to me now, as I am married to someone who is diabetic. Good thing I already knew about it, thanks to Stacey McGill.
- Eating disorders (#61, Jessi and the Awful Secret)
- Autism (#32, Kristy and the Secret of Susan)
- Dyslexia (#63, Claudia’s Freind Friend)
- Leukemia (#48, Jessi’s Wish)
- Deaf culture (#16, Jessi’s Secret Language)
- Racism and Japanese American internment (#56, Keep Out, Claudia!)
- Summer camp (Super Special #2, Baby-sitters’ Summer Vacation)
- The wonders of New York City (Super Special #6, New York, New York), which include bagels with lox and cream cheese.
- Pro and con lists (#28: Welcome Back, Stacey!), which Stacey used to decide whether to move with her mother to Stoneybrook or remain in New York with her father. I used the same tactic shortly thereafter to determine which wallet to order from the Lillian Vernon catalog; years later, I used it again to decide where to go to grad school.
Of all the things I could’ve been reading about in 2nd grade, these weren’t bad. Sure, there were also plots involving secret admirers (#38, Kristy’s Mystery Admirer), potentially haunted passageways (#9, The Ghost at Dawn’s House), and island shipwrecks (Super Special #4, Baby-sitters’ Island Adventure), but alongside this escapist frivolity, these books were tackling serious issues — in some cases, long before they became mainstream.
And that was just the beginning. In hindsight, I see that The Baby-Sitters Club taught me much deeper lessons, too. It showed me that there were so many different ways to be a girl — and, since I idolized these characters, so many different ways to be cool: You could be bossy, you could be laid-back, you could be shy; you could be an tomboy, you could be an artist, you could be an introvert who loved to read. It showed me that, like Stacey, you could love math and still be cool, which warmed my little nerdy heart; you could also love math and fashion without any dissonance.
As Stacey illustrates, the girls weren’t particularly stereotyped, which I especially appreciate now; the Asian American girl was terrible at school, the black girl was a ballet dancer. (Okay, so there was one stereotype: Dawn, the girl from California, was a blonde, vegetarian environmentalist. But she did teach me about carob and recycling. Also, in retrospect, I don’t like the repeated description of Claudia’s eyes as “almond-shaped.” It was the late ‘80s and ‘90s, I know, but still — that kind of subtle (and inaccurate) other-ization wasn’t helpful.)
On top of its varied and fairly nuanced depictions of girls, The Baby-Sitters Club did an excellent job of illustrating healthy female friendships. The girls occasionally got in fights (being Mary Anne’s stepsister wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, apparently) and were sometimes jealous of each other (Kristy didn’t love sharing the honor of being Mary Anne’s best friend with Dawn), but generally, they got along well and were really accepting and supportive of each other, even though they were all very different. Looking back, I’m glad that this was the picture of female friendship to which I was first exposed — one in which encouragement and support were the norm, not the exception, and differences were seen as assets, not hindrances.
I learned an especially formative lesson in book #36, Jessi’s Baby-sitter, in which Jessi’s aunt, a strict disciplinarian, moves in with her family and wreaks havoc on the lives of Jessi and her sister. At the end of the book, when Jessi and Aunt Cecilia are reconciling, her aunt tells her that as a person of color, she needs to work twice as hard as a white person to be considered as good. Coming from a white children’s book author in 1990, this was pretty progressive stuff. It was not a message that I had heard from my parents — but when I brought it up with them and asked them what they thought, they vehemently agreed. So I might have Jessi Ramsey to thank for introducing me to the implications of race in our society and starting me on the path of exploring race and culture.
Perhaps most significantly, these books gave me a window into the lives and minds of very different characters in very different families. They fostered an interest in the experiences of people who didn’t seem all that much like me and gave me a sense of empathy for them, a sense that I could identify with them. And that might be the most important gift that books can give us, especially when we’re young.
So, Ann M. Martin:
Thank you for the education in issues great and small.
Thank you for characters whom I loved so deeply and from whom I learned so much.
Thank you for connecting me with Caryn, my oldest friend in the world, when we discovered our mutual love for this series in Mrs. Trenkle’s 3rd grade class.
Thank you for fostering a love for reading that continues to the present.
And thank you for bagels with lox and cream cheese. I am deeply grateful.