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The Babysitter's Club vs. Reality


We all know Ann M. Martin's Babysitter's Club series set many young girls up for disappointment. What do you mean, 13 isn't that magical age where you're practically a grown-up and get to do whatever you want? What do you mean, most parents would never leave a teenager and a pre-teen in charge of seven kids overnight? Claudia and Stacey's outfits, makeup, earrings, vacations, mall trips...these girls could do anything on just a few bucks an hour. No wonder so many adults who read the series as kids are bitter snarkers now

Just kidding. Honestly, I know there's a lot more snarkable material in the books than just its weird view of teenager-hood, but I for one admit to thinking 11 and 13 were way more mature and was bitterly disappointed when it turned out that I still had to follow the rules and wasn't allowed to just go to the mall or spend money on whatever I pleased. And yet I did anyway, and my lack of budgeting skills has followed me well into adulthood where I still can't balance a checkbook. (Not that I need one, thanks to online banking, but still.) It's said that Ann herself believed the teen years were the most magical of one's life; did she just have an unusually smooth adolescence, a rough one that made her wish it could be that good for other teens, or did she prize the good over the bad? I'm going to assume the third option, and admire her optimism.

"It doesn't work that way!"

Martin is subject to a lot of criticism for her lack of realism across the board, accused of not understanding how certain things work. In book #6, Kristy's mother is able to organize her wedding to Watson Brewer within a week thanks to Kristy and the rest of the club looking after fourteen kids. Now, she had determination and plenty of hard workers on her side, but planning a wedding is a big deal. If they'd been going for a small, simple affair it would be one thing but this was a pretty big deal, and it still went off with barely a hitch. Compare this to Beatrice and Hobart's wedding in Ramona Forever, which took quite a bit more time and there was considerable drama over Hobart forgetting to order the flowers. Yeah, it takes more than a week to plan a big wedding.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. For years, I believed processed cheese was as forbidden to diabetics as sugar and was surprised to see a diabetic classmate eating a slice of pizza in the cafeteria one day. As an adult, I discovered not all diabetics had to give up sugar, just keep it limited. Or that some even needed sugar in their system. Plus, Stacey's insulin shots are pretty obsolete these days with new, quicker ways to test and take insulin. Also, when I was in 7th grade and extra thirsty on a hot day I mistakenly believed I was becoming diabetic thanks to book #43 and Stacey's story in Super Special #11.

When Watson and Elizabeth decided they wanted to expand their family, they adopted a little girl. That's all well and good, but Ann wrote it as if they were adopting a puppy from a shelter. Adoption, especially adoption of a child from Vietnam, is a long and involved process that involves tons of paperwork and meetings and bringing it up with the rest of the family. Instead, Watson and Elizabeth drop the bombshell on the kids the day before the little girl is set to arrive and expect the whole family to adjust quickly. It's no wonder that in Babysitter's Little Sister #6, Karen is angry and frustrated with her new sister rather than charmed by her. Even the most ardent haters of Karen feel sorry for her and place the blame on her parents for their hasty and ill-planned choice.

And then...there's autism. This isn't exclusive to the BSC, Martin's written three other books focusing on the autistm spectrum, two of which were written before the spectrum was given proper study and focus. But Kristy and the Secret of Susan (BSC #32) is especially cringeworthy; Susan's portrayal is a caricature rather than a real child and it seems neither her parents nor her babysitter knows how to properly care for her. Her parents shut her away in a special school and pin all their hopes on the new baby her mother is expecting at the end of the story, while Kristy tries too hard to help Susan fit in with the neighborhood kids. Oddly enough this book is notable for being one where reality does kick in for our intrepid 13-year-old heroines; Kristy's intentions are good, but Susan is like no one the kids have ever had to deal with before. It's not a simple case of "this boy is deaf, so let's learn sign language", Susan cannot function among other people. Only one boy seems to care for her very much, the others reject her or use her as a circus sideshow act when they learn about her ability to recite any date or play any song on the piano. Even the public school's special ed program can't give Susan the care she needs.

I have a lot of feelings about Ann's handling of autism, but that's a rant for another time. Basically, while A Corner Of The Universe and BSC #32 made me cringe, I can forgive her for her lack of knowledge due to the time period. That, and we didn't have Google or Wikipedia to turn to for a quick reference check back then.

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Book #32 isn't the only time reality kicks in for our heroines. In #57, Dawn goes on a crusade to save the planet and alienates her friends and classmates by going overboard. You'd expect her to win the election for head of the school's new recycling committee regardless, but instead she loses to a more understanding teacher and discovers just how disliked she's become among her peers. It's a hard blow for Dawn, who actually runs to the bathroom in tears; she's often said not to care what people think of her, but it's clear she's just as insecure as any teenager would be. And in book #58, Stacey tries too hard to divide her time and attention between her divorced parents only to make a mess of what was supposed to be an important weekend for her and her father. She learns the lesson that she can't be everything for everyone, and the complications of being a child of divorce are stressed constantly throughout the book. In #56, the club deals with racism and prejudice when they babysit for a family of bigots; not only are they unable to change the mind of the mother who dislikes 2/3 of the club's members, they're unable to help her three children break free of the values foisted upon them.

But more often than not, the girls manage to win the day. Back to the subject of parents, the mothers and fathers of the girls' charges tend to get the short end of the stick quite a bit. Oftentimes a kid will be acting out and it's up to the heroine of the particular story to figure out what's going on and clue their parents in. And rather than feel resentful that a 13-year-old (or in the cases of Jessi and Mallory, 11) presumes to tell them how to raise their kids, the parents will be grateful for the revelation and advice and turn over a new leaf. And while some of the changes stick (the Arnold twins grow into their own as individuals, Mrs. Barret becomes more efficient), half these families are never seen again after the problem is solved, much like in a Very Special Episode of a TV sitcom or drama.


In Defense of This Loose Reality

Is the loose definition of reality really such a bad thing, though? A lot of critics of the series say so, snark communities will happily point out every hole or flaw in the featured story's logic, bring their own life experiences into things. You can't plan a wedding in a week, you can't adopt a kid like picking out a puppy at the shelter, teenagers can't change the world. But even if they bring up valid points, it can be argued that they're going too far the other way, that they're asking too much from a series written for children.

Martin taps into the childish fantasy of being All Grown Up at age 13. You get to make all the decisions that don't require driving or voting, dress however you like, eat junk food whenever you please, have your own phone and go on all kinds of fabulous trips. Babysitters are the unsung heroes of the world who can do almost anything they put their minds to. Friendship is the magic glue that holds everything together, one group of friends can last forever. Granted, the last one is challenged during the Friends Forever books and the club does eventually break up, but until then the bond between the girls seems unbreakable no matter how many big fights they have.

The only points of contention I will agree on is the handling of medical issues and adoption. It's one thing to believe you can plan a wedding in a week, but it's generally not a good idea to learn about diabetes or autism from an author who takes as many creative licenses as Martin did. And adopting a child, especially one from Vietnam who later ends up having some health issues, takes more than some secret planning and a quick visit to an orphanage.

Martin's narratives also held some beliefs I disagree with (only bad girls wear makeup and chew gum, for example, television is dangerous for kids with the exception of PBS and I Love Lucy reruns), but unlike some authors she never used the BSC series as a means of foisting those beliefs on the public. She simply painted a view of the world she wanted to see in her stories. In her world, it was possible to plan a wedding in a week. Thirteen was close to legal adulthood, and adults always listened to teenagers who suddenly knew more about parenting than they did.

And what's wrong with that? Reality doesn't work that way and yes, it's important for kids to know the difference between reality and fiction. But as long as they understand, what's wrong with them indulging in fantasies where the hero is always right and anything can happen in any amount of time? The beauty of fiction is that you can watch characters do all kinds of things you could never do in the real world, and the BSC is no exception.

There's an element of fantasy in this otherwise reality-based children's book series. As adults, we know life doesn't work that way, but what's the harm in indulging your inner child who thinks it does?

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