When we first found out about We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork from Grown-Up Readers, I knew we’d do a roundtable review of the anthology because this is the most perfect pairing. It’s no secret that many Autostraddle staff members are lifelong BSC fans, and I’ve always felt in some ways Autostraddle resembles the club/group of friends at the center of our favorite childhood series: fun, hardworking, reliable, loving, complicated.
We assembled a group of enthusiastic readers and dove into the expansive anthology, which features an introduction from Mara Wilson and contributions from Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba, Jamie Broadnax, Frankie Thomas, Sue Ding, and anthology editors Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, to name just a few. Much more than just a one-note love letter, the essays in this book critically and carefully explore everything about the Baby-Sitters Club, from the way the series addressed friendship, race, sexuality, fashion, disability, class, and chosen family to the way the ghost writers committed to introducing each character in repetitive detail at the beginning of each installment. The essays and artwork in the book are just as interesting in form and style as they are in content, with more than a few graphics and comic contributions, many personal essays and cultural critiques, a piece that examines the handwriting of each of the characters, and an entire piece analyzing words used in the series as a dataset! No topic is off limits in this guide about the young adult book series that shaped the way so many of us interacted with our worlds as children, and the way some of us still interact with our worlds today.
Here are four Autostraddle staff members with their thoughts on We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork from Grown-Up Readers, out today July 6, 2021. — Vanessa
Ro White, S L I C K Editor
Like the series that inspired this collection of essays, We Are the Baby-Sitters Club holds both triumph and heartache within its pages. That might seem like an overly-dramatic description of a series about baby-sitting, but if you grew up reading the BSC, you know just how high-stakes every story felt. The writers of We Are the Baby-Sitters Club share how those stories were often relatable, offering examples of invisible illnesses, single parenthood, divorce, grief, childcare as a respected form of labor, and, of course, friendship. But sometimes representation fails us. As Chanté Griffin observes in “Jessi on the Margins: Black Characters Then and Now,” “It’s challenging to offer a critique about a writer whose books you loved as a kid, really difficult to highlight what she got wrong when you know that she tried hard to get it right.”
But these writers were willing to go there, calling out ableism in the depiction of the autistic character Susan, colorism in the illustrations of Jessi, queer-coding in the writing characters like Kristy and Ducky without ever letting those characters come out, and more. And their frustration brought up some of my own. I’m a Kristy Sun / Mary Anne Moon / Dawn Rising who grew up crushing on Claudias and Staceys. As a preteen, I related to Kristy’s disinterest in boys, but when later books described Kristy as not being “ready” for boys (instead of just…not into boys at all), I became convinced that my queerness was a sign of immaturity, and if you’ve read the BSC, you know that there’s no worse sin than being “babyish.” As Frankie Thomas concisely explains in “Could the Baby-Sitters Club Have Been More Gay,” Kristy’s eventual heterosexuality is presented as “universal and inescapable, like death.” For a queer kid, that depiction is terrifying.
When I learned that Ann M. Martin is queer (thanks, Autostraddle, for breaking the news to me in 2016!), I felt slighted. I wanted to write off the BSC entirely. But reading We Are the Baby-Sitters Club reminded me that it’s possible to love pieces of deeply flawed media, especially when some of those pieces have stuck with me forever. Despite Ann M. Martin’s weird forecasting of Kristy’s inevitably straight future, I grew up to be a queer Kristy anyway. I wear a uniform (but instead of baseball caps and jeans, it’s black pants and black boots), I still have crushes on Claudias and Staceys, and I still love to be in charge (but after many years of therapy, I’ve learned how to channel leadership more responsibly).
I hope that while the BSC continues on in popular culture, the club repairs its past mistakes. I hope that future iterations of the BSC handle race with the depth and sophistication that young readers like Chanté Griffin craved. I hope that the club’s members stop treating disabilities like they’re shameful secrets. And I hope that Kristy and Ducky get to live out their best queer lives.
Meg Jones Wall, Writer
One of my most distinctive childhood memories is trading in stacks of books during weekly family trips to the town library. I would get as many as I could carry, and the librarians treated me with kindness and generosity, taking obvious pleasure in the nerdy reader with bangs and bifocals who devoured every book she could find. Eventually a librarian gave me permission to start bringing a backpack that I could fill, resulting in tears of gratitude. A full backpack AND an armload of books to get me through every week? It felt like the best gift I’d ever been given. That act allowed me to move even more quickly through one of my favorite series of books, those captivating pastel paperbacks following the adventures of the Baby-Sitters Club. And in reading this anthology, I got to be that kid all over again.
I found so many things to love within the pages of We Are the Baby-Sitters Club. The essays and artwork brought me right back to my awkward childhood, to all the feelings I had while obsessively reading about Claudia’s outrageous outfits and desire to be herself, Mary Anne’s courage in standing up to her overbearing father, Stacey’s struggles to fit in despite an illness few could understand, Dawn’s longing for California and a sense of stability, Kristy’s desire to control her world and live by her own rules. Reading the criticisms and analysis of these books didn’t ruin any of that nostalgia for me — instead I deeply appreciated the opportunity to dig into the racism, ableism, and colorism that remains present in these stories, as well as the ways that Ann M. Martin tried (and often failed) to be inclusive.
As a kid, I saw pieces of myself in all of the babysitters, but as desperately as I wanted to be a Claudia, I knew I was a Stacey/Dawn hybrid, with bits of Mary Anne sprinkled in. Those girls that never quite felt like they were home, that were always yearning for another place, that were wrestling with questions no one else seemed to understand — there I was. A California-to-New-England transplant, a queer kid trapped in a homophobic church, a chronically ill preteen who didn’t understand why her body couldn’t do what others did with ease. Those girls made me feel seen, even if every detail didn’t line up perfectly, and I was glad to see their stories get explored more within this collection. I really appreciated Marisa Crawford’s essay, “I Want to be a Claudia But I Know I’m a Stacey,” which deftly explores the identities we crave in contrast with the identities we actually hold, as well as Kim Hutt Mayhew’s piece, “What the BSC Wore (And What it Meant)” digging into why we’re all so obsessed with the fashion of these books. And I took great delight in the explorations of the handwriting samples (my own penmanship looks remarkably like Dawn’s), the data-driven analysis of the most common words and phrases used for each character, and the most popular BSC couples in fan fiction.
The book feels like a treasure trove, balancing nostalgic joy with necessary critiques of the original series — and as soon as I’m finished finding my favorite BSC pairings on AO3, I can’t wait to read this collection again.
Stef Schwartz, Vapid Fluff Editor
Like so many other precocious nerds, I inhaled every Baby-Sitters Club book I could get my hands on. While so many of the contributors to We Are the Baby-Sitters Club talk about wanting to be a Claudia or a Stacey or even a Kristy, I wasn’t even cool enough to be a Mary Anne. I knew in my heart that I was a dorky, horse-obsessed Mallory. It wasn’t glamorous, but someone had to do it.
I don’t remember ever really having nuanced conversations with my friends about the series, so I relished the opportunity to lovingly analyze it through the eyes of so many different writers. It’s true that the books often fell short in their attempts to tell more diverse stories, and essays like “Skin the Color of Cocoa: Colorism and How We See Jessi” and “Kristy and the Secret of Ableism” eloquently criticize obvious flaws in Ann M. Martin’s universe, while still paying tribute to the more poignant elements of the BSC that were so important to so many kids.
I particularly adored Yumi Sakugawa’s “Claudia Kishi, My Asian Female Role Model of the ‘90s,” which imagines several possible scenarios for Claudia’s adulthood (should she ever leave the eighth grade). One thing I had never spent much time considering before reading this book was the infinite time loop the BSC existed within. The primary members of the Baby-Sitters Club are in eighth grade, and every June they graduate from eighth grade, and every September they begin the eighth grade anew. While the Baby-Sitters Club seems like it has existed for years, and while the experiences and lessons from previous books seem to have been remembered, they remain frozen in time. Eternal eighth grade keeps the BSC innocent and prevents the stories from becoming too adult for their target demographic, but it also sounds like my own personal hell.
KaeLyn Rich, Writer
There are two types of BSC readers — the type who always skipped chapter 2 and the type who forced themselves to read it each and every time. Ever the completionist, I was the latter and I devoured every word of every single book in the series up until they were too “babyish” for me and relegated to the storage room of my parents’ house in an enormous paperback stack. They were eventually offloaded in bulk at a lawn sale.
It’s been over 25 years since I was an official card-carrying member of the Baby-Sitters Club Fan Club. (I have the vintage pin to prove it.) I hadn’t thought much about Kristy, Stacey, Claudia, or Mary Anne until the Netflix series came out last year (which I loved). However, the new series on Netflix was an updated BSC for girls today. It wasn’t my BSC. The personal essays, graphic memoirs, and thoughtful critique in We Are the Baby-Sitters Club brought me right back to Claudia’s bedroom, the one I imagined and returned to again and again in my adolescence.
I don’t actually remember the level of detail about the BSC character that many of the artists and writers in We Are the Baby-Sitters Club remember. What I remember, though, is seeing pieces of myself in the characters, particularly in — surprise, surprise — Claudia Kishi. I related deeply to Yumi Sakugawa’s contribution, Claudia Kishi: My Asian-American Female Role Model of the 90’s, including having the same limited Asian-American 90’s role models (Margaret Cho, the yellow power ranger, and Kristi Yamaguchi) and in both the deep resonance with Claudia and the later reflection on how she and her family were treated through an orientalist and racist lens. I deeply, deeply related to fellow transracial Korean adoptee Kristen Felicetti’s ”I’ve Been Thinking About Families Lately”, exploring the nuances of The Baby-Sitters Club #33: Claudia and the Great Search, the cover of which is still seared in my mind. (It’s one of the only covers I can still recall unprompted.) The troubling depiction of adopted Asian children in BSC as well as the desire Felicetti has for adoption narratives that don’t oversimplify and erase adoption trauma speaks to my own desires for my younger self.
We Are the Baby-Sitters Club works purely as a nostalgia hit for millennial BSC readers. It also works as a fun, accessible, easy-to-read critical analysis of a standout piece of 90’s girl power pop culture, understood through a more intersectional feminist lens. From a handwriting analysis of BSC characters in Kelly Blewett’s Scripts of Girlhood to Chanté Griffin’s longing for a culturally conscious representation of Jessi that centered her Blackness in Jessi on the Margins: Black Characters Then and Now, there’s excellent original analysis here, mixed with personal essays, cartoons and graphic art, and an implied sincerity about how much The Baby-Sitter’s Club meant to so many young readers on the margins.
Much like breaking into a stash of Ding Dongs hidden in a hollowed out book during an official business meeting of the Baby-Sitters Club, this is a collection of art and essays that takes itself seriously while leaving room for fun and indulgence.