Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The lives of the babysitters

leave a comment »

Yesterday, I took my five-year-old daughter to the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. It was her first comic book convention, as well as mine—I’ve been to a couple of Worldcons, but they aren’t quite the same thing, and we both had a great time. We were there mostly for the sake of an artist and writer named Raina Telgemeier, the author of such graphic novels as Smile, whose work we discovered a few months ago and haven’t been able to stop reading since. The trajectory of any artistic influence can be hard to predict, but I suspect that Telgemeier’s books may play the same role in Beatrix’s life that Peanuts once did in mine, and they’ve already led us to actively seek out other graphic novelists, including Svetlana Chmakova and Victoria Jamieson. (When you’re the parent of a small child, anything that you can enjoy reading together for forty minutes at a time represents a major breakthrough.) My personal favorite may be Chmakova’s Awkward, but Telgemeier is the genre’s unquestioned star, and we spent a total of four hours at the convention to get her autograph and attend a panel on which she appeared with R.L. Stine and Gale Galligan. Stine was the only one whose byline would have meant anything to me a year ago, and he was clearly the big draw for much of the crowd, but when the event opened up for questions, you kept hearing the same words at the microphone: “This question is for Raina.” She may not be a household name yet in the mainstream, but she will be, and in the meantime, her funny, observant, quietly riveting books are affecting the lives of countless young readers.

And it’s noteworthy that Telgemeier’s big break was adapting The Baby-Sitters Club into graphic novel form, in an ongoing project that she has since handed off to Galligan. I didn’t read the series growing up—although my wife sure did—and I didn’t have much of an attachment to it before reading the recent adaptations aloud to Beatrix. Yet I was immediately drawn into the lives of these characters, and I think that the result may still be Telgemeier’s masterpiece, with an enormous assist from the original books by Ann M. Martin. A recent appreciation of the series by Jen Doll of The Wire neatly captures its appeal:

Kristy Thomas, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi, Stacey McGill. They were the originals, the quartet of female friends who preceded the ladies of Sex and the City and came well before the foursome in Girls…Along with the main characters and their gradual development throughout the series, we were immersed in the world of Stoneybrook, Connecticut—the kids being babysat, the family members and friends of the girls, the school that they attended and its teachers, the neighborhoods, the lifestyles.

And it’s Stoneybrook and its huge supporting cast that impresses me the most. A character glimpsed for a few panels in one installment can emerge as a crucial presence in another; multiple plots unfold in parallel; and suddenly you seem to be experiencing the equivalent of a prestige drama for preteens, the kind of story that you could follow with vast absorption for years.

It doesn’t take long, in fact, to realize that a lot of writers grew up reading The Baby-Sitters Club and are proud to acknowledge its influence on their tastes, careers, and inner lives. Writing for The New Yorker, Brooke Hauser recalls:

I came of age in the late eighties, when Ann M. Martin’s young-adult book series The Baby-Sitters Club peaked in popularity…[and] the slim pastel spines of Martin’s books lined the shelves of my bedroom closet…Approximately a hundred and eighty million copies of the books have been sold to date—and some untold number of girls who read the books, myself included, tried to start babysitting businesses. “I got lots of letters back then from very enthusiastic readers who had tried to start their own clubs, and they hadn’t worked,” Martin told me recently, over the phone, when I told her about the failure of my own such effort. She added, “I still wanted to present this idea of girls who could be entrepreneurial, who ran this business successfully, even though they were not perfect.”

And it’s impossible to read this series without taking inspiration from these characters, if not to start your own babysitting service, then at least to see yourself as a protagonist in your own life. As Martin told Hauser: “I felt it was important for them to create the rules themselves—for the rules not to be imposed on them or even suggested to them by an adult.”

As far as I can remember, I didn’t really have the equivalent when I was younger. The only book series that I read seriously was The Hardy Boys, to whom I couldn’t exactly relate, and most of my favorite novels were designed as forms of escapism. Experiencing Martin and Telgemeier’s books now with my daughter has reminded me that there are few things more absorbing than a finely detailed picture of a world that we can recognize. The stakes may seem relatively low, but they don’t feel that way in the moment. When the girls fight, there’s something genuinely at risk, and the specter of parental divorce looms over the entire series, as it does in many of the graphic novels that we’ve been reading. It’s oddly appropriate that Telgemeier—who cites Martin’s books as among her favorites—started her career here, and it isn’t a coincidence. (According to Telgemeier, she was asked to pitch projects to Scholastic, and when she mentioned that she loved The Baby-Sitters Club, she eventually landed her dream job.) Telgemeier’s original works, particularly the memoirs Smile and Sisters, are founded on the same close observations of the lives of middle schoolers, and they honor and extend the values that we see in Ann M. Martin. They’re among the most encouraging developments that I’ve seen in young adult literature in a long time, and they remind me that I can do much more for Beatrix than simply introducing her to the books that I liked when I was her age. I didn’t read The Baby-Sitters Club when I was growing up, but if I had, these novels might have made me a slightly better person. And there’s no reason why they can’t do the same thing now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: