Thirteen Things a Middle-Aged Man Can Learn From the Baby-Sitters Club

Publish Date : 2021-12-31 00:00:00

Thirteen Things a Middle-Aged Man Can Learn From the Baby-Sitters Club

I think, with all deference to your extremely interesting approach to this particular problem, that you should do it my way. Actually, I’m a Mallory. Confident. Practical. Would probably be much better off in a boarding school for the terminally earnest somewhere in rural Massachusetts. OK, no. I am none of these things. Or all of them? Hard to say, but what I definitely am is a forty-one-year-old man who has read every single BSC book, every Mystery, every Super Special, all of the California Diaries, and somewhere north of seventy Little Sister books. Today, as it happens, I am embarking on the first installment of the Friends Forever series: Everything Changes. I hope, very much, that everything doesn’t change.

In fact, I have come to rely on the comforting, hopeful presence of these girls in the background of my life. Trapped in amber. Fated to perennially repeat the eighth grade, year after year after year with different iterations (this time, Logan and Mary Anne don’t dance at the Halloween Hop; this time, we see a gentler side of Alan Gray; this time, Jessi pursues her ballet dreams in New York) but somehow still accumulating weight and sadness that couldn’t possibly be contained in a single year: Mimi always dies. Stacey always leaves. Patrick Thomas never, ever learns. The BSC, to me, is not a series for young readers about friendship and babysitting: It is an epic cycle; a mythological world full of triumph, tragedy, and magic. It begins with the hope and promise of a Great Idea, and ends, inevitably, in fire. BSC #131: The Fire at Mary Anne’s House, to be specific. Everyone’s mostly OK, but the house is never the same.

Of course, this may be the sort of slightly off-kilter viewpoint you get when you read all of these books in your middle age. It’s not how they’re supposed to be read. It’s not even how I originally read them. I first read the Baby-Sitters Club series when I moved (suddenly) to the United States from England as a nine-year-old in 1988. My best friend was my cousin, and she had her copies (along with the Sweet Valley High books) lined up in order on a little bookshelf in her bedroom. There was an appeal, even then, in the sense of a world contained inside those books, an appeal that was even stronger for me because it was a world that belonged to girls and to Americans, two things I had profound difficulty understanding at the time. At the time, I relished the books because they were an invitation at a moment in my life when I felt like an unwelcome guest.

Thirty years later, I still hadn’t shaken the BSC loose from my consciousness, and from that unfinished business, the Baby-Sitters Club Club was born. My “Great Idea” was a joke: alongside a friend who had never even heard of the BSC, we would read and discuss, for a podcast, every BSC book in order until we got tired of it. The entire substance of the joke was basically, “Why would two grown men do this?” I still think that’s a pretty funny premise for a joke, but after more than four years of reading and discussing a BSC book every single week, it’s pretty clearly more than a joke (and anyone who’s spent time with these books knows how foolish people look who try to dismiss them as superficial). Like the babysitters themselves, we have built a world for ourselves through these books that cannot possibly be contained inside the events of one year in Stoneybrook, Connecticut. Meaning has accumulated. Everything (to be just a little bit melodramatic about this) has changed.

“Luckily,” says Mary Anne, in BSC #4: Mary Anne Saves the Day, “Kristy dresses more like me than like Claudia and Stacey. It’s nice to have someone to feel babyish with.” These are the words of one of literature’s most iconic babysitters as she embarks on a storied sitting career in which she will “save the day” dozens if not hundreds of times. Mary Anne exists in the great babysitting tradition of Bithiah, the pharaoh’s daughter who found baby Moses in a basket; Faustulus, the humble shepherd who babysat Romulus and Remus until they were ready to found Rome; and Mary Poppins (British nanny, umbrella), and yet she exists in this moment at the intersection between “sat” and “sitter,” longing at once to “feel babyish” with her friend and to take on the heavy mantle of responsibility that all great sitters must bear.

It is this tension that drives Mary Anne, and it exists in all of us. When we are sat, we long to sit, and when we sit, we long to be sat. The sat will inevitably become the sitter, and the sitter contains the sat within herself. Or as Wordsworth has it, “The Child is father of the Man.” As a middle-aged man who reads a frankly shocking number of books for tweens every year, this tension is something I think about a lot.

2. Not Every Idea Is a Great Idea . . .

The temptation to have a Baby Parade can be a strong one. You will be sitting in your armchair reading a book or idly watching sports when the idea to assemble the town’s babies onto a large float that you have built yourself with the grudging support of your friends and colleagues will lodge itself in your brain, and you will feel a compulsion to act.

“I was sure that my friends would be excited about the baby parade, too. Maybe Jessi would want to enter Squirt! And there are lots of other babies whom we sit for. This could be a great activity for the whole club!”
— BSC #45Kristy and the Baby Parade

But the distance between your fantasy about how such a project might turn out and the final product can stretch further and further as your daydream meets reality. For instance, when I started writing this item on the list, I thought there was going to be a lot more to it.

3. . . . So You Have to Learn to Recognize a Great Idea When You See One

But the Baby Parade Fallacy™ has an inverse, and you ignore it at your peril. The older you get and the more failed Baby Parades you have in your past, the stronger the impulse becomes to find fault with your own ideas. To envision a disappointed audience rejecting your finished product before you’ve even put pen to paper (or baby to float, or whatever).

Any writer knows these twin demons — the one who builds up impossible expectations of success so high that you’re afraid to start, and the other who mocks and belittles whatever spark you have until it goes out. They work together. And the only way to defeat them is to embrace your inner Kristy. Because one admittedly catastrophic Baby Parade is a tiny price to pay for Kristy’s Krushers, Kid Kits, the Baby-Sitters Club notebook, and yes, the BSC itself, without which none of us would even be here. Kristin Amanda Thomas is a powerful reminder always to err on the side of doing something.

4. If You Don’t Know, Maybe You Don’t Want To

The most profound question Ann M. Martin ever asked was this:

“Kristy + Bart = ?”

Even saying it out loud feels like a paradox: I like to pronounce the question mark as a questioning sound — a “hmmm?” with a rising intonation; other readers like to just say “question mark” or “what” in its place. But there is no right or wrong way to speak the riddle and, as with any great kōan, the meaning resides in the search for an answer, not in the answer itself.

And so while Martin chooses not to solve her own equation in BSC #95: Kristy + Bart = ?, it is a novel full of wisdom, and it has taught me to listen more carefully to the quiet voice in the back of my mind that says to me (during meetings always, and parties sometimes, and, for three whole years, at least once every day I walked into the office), “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Sometimes it’s good to listen to that voice. Usually the worst case scenario is just that it’s a little bit weird between you and Bart for a while.

5. If You Can, Quit Your Dumb Job to Spend More Time With Your Family

This is essentially a corollary to Item #4 above, but I learned this one from Watson and not Kristy. Ann M. Martin had to give Watson a heart attack to teach him this lesson (BSC #81: Kristy and Mr. Mom) and my personal route to a similar place has been . . . complicated . . . but my job was dumb and my family is great, so it really should have been a no-brainer. Nobody even knows what Watson does anyway. It’s not important.

6. You Can Be Someone Else Somewhere Else

This is controversial, but I don’t believe that Mallory Pike really became who she was meant to be until she left the Baby-Sitters Club (technically she’s still an honorary member, but we all know that’s a meaningless distinction to keep Kristy from losing her mind) and went to boarding school in Massachusetts (BSC #126: The All New Mallory Pike). And the Dawn of California Diaries is almost unrecognizable compared with Dawn in Stoneybrook, where she wore her California past like a disguise, or protective gear, rather than letting it grow with her into the person she was becoming.

The Baby-Sitters Club is a series about place as much as it is about anything else. Stoneybrook is safe, for the most part, but it’s also static. Time does not pass in the normal way in Stoneybrook. Yet outside its boundaries, you can become something else. New York Stacey and New York Jessi are the promise that Stoneybrook holds in abeyance, as are California Dawn and Boarding School Mallory.

Having left my own small town, and indeed my country, at a fairly young age, I know that a place can define you by its absence in you just as much as your presence in it, and so I sympathize with Dawn and Stacey, whose presence in Stoneybrook is almost fully defined by their desire to leave it and return to their homes. But it is ultimately (and surprisingly) Mallory who escapes to a place of her own, somewhere entirely new where she can embrace a new identity rather than inhabiting an old one. There’s a power in that.

7. We Will Never Know What Happened on June 10

In BSC #32: Kristy and the Secret of Susan, Kristy’s autistic babysitting charge, Susan Felder, has the gift of being able to tell you the day of the week that corresponds with any date in history:

Zach consulted his paper. . . . “Okay, June tenth, nineteen sixty-two.”
“Sunday,” said Susan in her monotone voice.

Previously, in the author’s note (what I like to call the “Happy Reading” section) for BSC #29: Mallory and the Mystery Diary, Ann M. Martin offers this encomium to diary-keeping:

I have never been a diary or journal keeper, but when I was young — in fact, starting on the day I was born — my mother kept a diary for me. I love looking back through the diary to find out all sorts of things — what my first day of school was like, when I (finally) learned how to ride a twowheeler, or simply what I did on June 10, 1958. I’m so glad my mother kept a diary for me, but I wish I had kept one for myself, too.

In Little Sister #76: Karen’s Magic Garden, also a novel about the secrets we keep in diaries, Karen Brewer finds a diary that refers to an event that will occur five days after June 5:

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