When Scholastic announced the return of the Baby-Sitters Club—with the publication of a brand-new prequel and the reissue of the four original books in the series—reader response was enthusiastic and immediate, even frenzied. I posted the news on The Book Case and commenters gushed about favorite characters and individual books. The New York Times interviewed author Ann M. Martin, and blogs buzzed with memories of the series, which debuted in 1986 and went on to include 213 titles. Ten years after the publication of Graduation Day, the final book about the babysitters, there are still active fan sites on the web.
Although Martin does not consider herself a “huge browser,” she has seen a number of these Baby-Sitters Club tributes. “People have sent me links,” she says. “I certainly have seen the comments and things and I find it incredibly rewarding. I’m just so gratified that the appeal has lasted for this long.” In fact, fan devotion to the series, which follows the lives of middle-school girls who start a babysitting business, played a part in its renewed life.
In a phone interview from her home in the Hudson Valley, Martin says, “I had heard lots of requests for another Baby-Sitters book—mostly, I have to admit, for stories that would be set in the future: high school reunion, college reunion, members of the Baby-Sitters Club are all grown up and have kids of their own.”
But because her favorite age group to write for is “that really solid middle-grade group,” Martin decided to write a prequel and address what led the four original members of the Baby-Sitters Club to come together.
“What was going on in their lives that would make each of them need something to belong to?” she asked.
The answer is revealed in The Summer Before. In the novel, Kristy Thomas, the girl who would come to found the Baby-Sitters Club in Kristy’s Great Idea, is counting down to her 12th birthday, hoping that her absent father will show up for the party. Mary Anne Spier, whose mother died when she was a baby, longs for independence from her overly strict dad; she wants to babysit on her own. “Fashion plate” Claudia Kishi, the artist and struggling student, gets her first boyfriend, alienating friends in the process. And Stacey McGill, the character who normalized diabetes for many now-20- and 30-somethings, is moving from New York City to Stoneybrook, Connecticut, where she’ll escape a catty friend group and meet the girls who will change her life.
A theme of the novel is drifting apart, as the characters face different challenges in the months before seventh grade. Toward the end of the summer, Kristy makes a comment that foreshadows the Club:
“My mom always talks about the glue that holds people together. You know, common interests or experiences or whatever. What kind of glue is going to hold the three of us together?” (At this point in the story, Stacy hasn’t come into the picture.) Soon after, Kristy has the lighting bolt idea that will lead to the Baby-Sitters Club.
Although Martin won’t completely discount the prospect of an eventual reunion special—in her mind, the girls would still be friends in later life, albeit scattered across the country—she feels most comfortable writing for a younger group.
“Partly, those are really good years in my own life,” she says. “It’s the voice that seems to come most naturally to me, and I’m not sure why. Because the books are not necessarily—some of the issues that are tackled in older books can be more sophisticated, but I would say some of the issues that were tackled in Belle Teal and A Corner of the Universe”—two of Martin’s post-Baby-Sitters Club books, the latter of which won a Newbery Honor—“were equally as sophisticated, but somehow they wound up being written for younger readers.”
That may explain why some of the more serious Baby-Sitters Club books now rank as Martin’s favorites, such as Kristy and the Secret of Susan, in which the girls babysit for a child who has autism. Or Claudia and the Sad Good-bye, in which Claudia’s grandmother dies, written not long after the death of the author’s own grandmother.
Topics such as these were part of what made the series so popular—Scholastic printed 176 million copies of the books—and Martin thinks they will remain interesting to contemporary readers. “I think that most of the themes in the books are pretty timeless, “ she said. “School, family, friends, friendship problems: those are things that appealed to kids 25 years ago when I was starting the series, and they still appeal to kids.”
When confronted with the issue of children being more distracted today—the recent Kaiser Family Foundation study comes to mind, which reported that kids spend more than seven hours a day engaging with electronic gadgets—Martin cites a real-life example.
“I look at kids like my nephew, who’s 12 now and who does have his own cell phone, and he texts with his friends and he has an iPod and he likes to use his parents’ computer. But what is his passion in life? Baseball. And that’s the same thing for other kinds of kids whose passion is their friends or their after-school activities. Those sorts of things haven’t really changed. Also, in terms of the characters themselves, they’re the kinds of characters that most kids relate to—they could be your next-door neighbor or a kid in your class. And I think that hasn’t changed.”
Throughout her long career, Martin has received letters from parents or teachers who write of reluctant-turned-avid readers, thanks to her books. She has been contacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Starlight Foundation, about kids whose wish is to spend the day with her. In 1990, she founded the Ann M. Martin Foundation, which supports organizations that benefit education and literacy, neglected and abused animals and children.
And she is still at work writing, having recently finished a draft of a book called Ten Rules for Living with My Sister.
Martin is grateful for these opportunities, for getting to know “incredible kids and families,” and having the chance to work on so many kinds of books—the series books and everything that came after. She says, "I do just feel really lucky.”
BookPage reviews of Ann M. Martin’s books