Babysitter’s Club Novel Study

It would be easy to dismiss The Babysitter’s Club as an outdated storyline aimed at channeling girls into careers in childcare, turning them into good little obedient baby-machines and not much else. However, never judge a book by its title, right? (Because a lot of the time authors don’t choose their own titles anyhow.) And I’d never actually read a copy.

After hearing The Babysitters Club series is was recently reissued as ebooks I decided to actually read one, for the first time in my life. You’d think I’d have read a number of the series already because I was nine years old when the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea was published, and therefore in exactly the right demographic.

My Own Backstory With Babysitter’s Club

In year six a school friend invited me to her house for a playdate and I was impressed to see that she owned the entire series. Her parents had bought her a weekly subscription and they had arrived in the mail. My Trixie Beldens and Famous Fives and Secret Sevens remained incomplete on my bookshelf — not only that, some were hardbacks, some were paperbacks — my books just didn’t look as neat as these super attractive pastel-coloured spines lined up in all their complete numerical order. In hindsight I don’t know if it was the stories I coveted but the books as works of art.

And those covers! Now that Photoshopped images are ubiquitous, those photo-realistic depictions of happy-looking American adolescents were an unusual sight in graphic design back then. It’s easy to forget that. I have memories of gazing at those covers marveling at how the pictures fit somewhere between photo and paintings. What skill, I thought, to be able to paint like that!

Ann M. Martin

Unlike the authors of other series of the 80s, such as Sweet Valley High and the never-die Nancy Drew, the author of The Babysitter’s Club is a real woman and that is her real name. Given Martin’s high work output, and the generic sounding everyname, I had wondered if she were a group of authors contracted to write a few books each. But no, Ann M. Martin obviously cares very much about her work — as much as any other authors writing under their own name.

As for the books themselves, I’m pleased to report that yes, they have dated (in a good way) and no, they are not the least bit sexist. In fact, they’re a damn sight better than a lot of the series being published now. If you can pick up a series of Babysitter’s Club cheap second hand and give them to your middle school daughter, you’ll be doing good.

*I have since handed my second-hand Babysitter’s Club books to a friend whose son loves them. Yes, son. He read them all voraciously at age 8.

BABYSITTER’S CLUB #1: KRISTY’S GREAT IDEA

Kristy is responsible for looking after her little brother David Michael, but so are her two older brothers. Likewise, we learn that while Kristy refuses (initially) to babysit for her mother’s man-friend, one of her older brothers has already volunteered. So right from the outset, babysitting is not portrayed as a task for girls. Kristy knows her own mind, and will not be railroaded into doing something she doesn’t want to. The brothers are possibly more pliable than she is.

Kristy’s mom (who is divorced) “likes the fact that she can support us so well.” The mother has a ‘very good job at a big company in Stamford’… ‘but she still feels guilty‘. This reminds me of feminist conversations that would have been happening back then, before the 90s kicked in, and everyone assumed women had achieved equality now, so most people stopped writing things like this ‘out loud’. In the mid-eighties, divorced families were more of an oddity too. This sort of family situation is a lot more common today, and more young readers will identify with antagonistic feelings towards a parent’s new partner. I would add that this book is looking a bit too Brady Bunch at this point, because Kristy seemed to bond with her step-father-to-be quite easily in the end. I hope there will continue to be real-life blended-family issues in following stories.

The girls are inventive. First, there’s the Babysitter’s Club itself, which is spurred by Kristy herself. Their inventiveness is an historic kind; the girls have already worked out a way of communicating between the houses at night using torches. This is the sort of detail which dates the book, but not in a bad way.

There are other cultural references which set these stories firmly in the 80s, with references to G.I. Joe and Sesame Street, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these childhood icons are still about. At any rate, the cultural shock for a modern kid reading a story from the 1980s would be no more stark than that of a little New Zealand kid reading these same stories back when they were new. I still have no idea what a fudgesicle or a jawbreaker is. (Hello, Internet. Turns out a jawbreaker is a gobstopper. A fudgesicle is a chocolate icecream popsicle.)

“Mary-Ann and I ran home together.” For me this was a lovely scene of two adolescent girls enjoying the last of their childhood. Very soon I expect they will stop running, and become more aware of the expectations of ladyhood. I had a flashback of running along under the covered-way at my own very large high-school when a group of boys older than me yelled something disparaging about the fact that I was running instead of walking. I stopped running after that, having learnt that very day that high school girls do not run. (Also, cool people in general do not run. They don’t even walk. Cool people swagger, and make space on the footpath for no one.)

These 12 year old girls are never late for a job. This is spelled out, and is one example of how Kristy is a good role model for adolescent readers. Via the running of the Babysitters’ Club, readers learn the basics of  business management: how to run meetings, members of a board, dealing with interpersonal issues, in-coming and outgoing expenses… This series would be a good introduction for any kid with aspirations of starting her own small company. A criticism might justifiably be: The teaches our kids to be little capitalists. But then, isn’t that what they’re expected to be? Economically self-sufficient?

Fashion has changed a lot and the descriptions of clothing is entertaining. Claudia is held up as the goddess of fashion with her ‘short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and a red high-top sneakers without socks… I felt extremely blah compared to her.’

Claudia’s older sister Janine has an IQ of 196, and is quite an annoying character. I can’t think of many examples in school stories in which the nerdy genius character is female — it’s more often a male trope: ‘Her second best friend is her computer.’

So I only read one, but if the stories continue in that fashion, I would be perfectly happy for my daughter to take a liking to them when she’s older.

RELATED LINKS

The Babysitter’s Club: Idea And Phantom from Beauty And The Armageddon

Graphic Novels Aren’t Just Comic

12 Facts About The Babysitter’s Club from BuzzFeed

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Things You Notice Reading as an Adult from Beauty and the Armageddon

The Babysitter’s Club at TV Tropes

Ann M. Martin is still writing books. (Not Babysitter’s Club books.)

I need to insert an apostrophe. Does that missing apostrophe bother you, too? (It bothers me in the same way that the title Gilmore girls does not capitalise Girls.) Anyhow, there are internet discussions on this.

If you’re into 80s fashion and derive pleasure from learning what the members of the Babysitter’s Club were wearing during their suburban adventures then you might check out Buzzfeed’s Definitive Ranking Of Babysitters Club Cover Outfits (and they even put in an apostrophe for you).

Broadchurch Pilot Episode TV Writing

broadchurch-poster

Broadchurch is a TV murder mystery in which a village is a miniature for society. As one reviewer points out, “the death which happens at the beginning incites all sorts of unexpected human behaviour, with repercussions all around the town. Initially the show seems to be making the banal point that the residents of this bucolic town are not what they appear at first glance. But they are not what they appear at second glance either.”

Genre: Broadchurch takes the classic buddy detective template (she’s by the book, he plays by his own rules) and gives the procedural depth by showing the emotional aftermath of an unspeakable crime (drama).

Anagnorisis: This comes later in the series, no doubt. For now we see the set up. Ellie has compared herself to the more experienced Met guy and realised she may not have what it takes after all for the job she so wanted. She has probably overestimated her own abilities as a detective because she hasn’t been significantly challenged.

Ghost — Alec Hardy has a ghost which may or may not ever be revealed to us (it never was in Casablanca, in which we never really learn why the hero left America). But it’s only hinted at. (Later we’ll learn he’s hiding a serious health condition.) But Ellie on the other hand, has been living in a kind of paradise world, symbolised by her returning straight from holiday. In a paradise world, a ghost is not possible.

Ellie’s inciting incident: A friend of her son has been murdered. The inciting incident connects Ellie’s need with her desire: She needs recognition and she desires to help her friends to achieve justice by finding out the truth. This is a good place to put the inciting incident, because Ellie just thinks she’s had the worst day ever, not getting the job she wanted, but then that pales into insignificance when the murdered boy is found. This plunges her into the most harrowing career challenge of her life. (Another character asks if she’s ever done a murder case before — she says no.)

Setting

broadchurch looking out to sea

The town of Broadchurch in Wessex, England, is bracing itself for an annual influx of holiday tourists. This is a quaint village right next to the sea. The sort of place where even police officers can enjoy ice creams while in uniform.

broachurch icecreams pier

The Sea

A walk along a clifftop leads to a steep drop onto the beach, which is the scene of the crime, and sets up this town’s relationship to the sea: 

The oceanic nature of the setting is echoed in the camera movement as the pilot episode opens. The very first shot is of a choppy ocean. Next we have a camera ‘swimming’ around the neighbourhood, zooming in on various houses, panning across rooms, as if all of this town is underground and we’re seeing it as a fish. The oceanic colour scheme is even used in Danny’s mother’s room, which is painted out in an oceanic theme. This colour blue is seen again in the grandmother’s shirt, in Danny’s lunchbox (which he is not there to collect.)

The fish movement camera is used again as Danny’s father walks along the main street. He’s talking about mundane things with friends and acquaintances, but the music tells us something terrible has happened. Who is following him? (Us.) Much use is made of juxtaposition, as his exchanges are cheerful and they’re talking about everyday things. We see a poster for the Broadchurch Fair, presumably a weekly, light, fun-filled event.

Broadchurch is an ‘snail under the leaf setting’. This village appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster.

Character desire is clearly established in the first episode.

Ellie Miller comes back from holiday giving out souvenirs when she is called into her boss’s office and told she hasn’t got ‘the job’. She wants a promotion from detective sergeant to detective inspector. The job has gone to a man. Ellie wants recognition and respect and career advancement. We know this from the very first scene. Compared to solving your first murder mystery, this is a fairly low-level goal, as initial desires should be. Psychological shortcoming: We get the sense that while Ellie may be ready for promotion in her small town, she is not sufficiently in control of her own emotions to do a good job. She needs to be paired with her opposite in order to learn. Ellie wishes to be called Ellie rather than Miller — a symbolic difference in how each detective approaches the job. Ellie can’t work without putting her personality into it. Ellie is a motherly figure, asking for ‘all the gossip’, giving out presents like stuffed toys and lipgloss.

Alec Hardy — Hardy’s reasons for relocation are kept from us for now, but we know that he has been shifted from the Met to avoid the consequences of some kind of scandal to do with a previous, high-profile murder case. Moral shortcoming: Hardy has no people skills whatsoever, bossing people around to get the job done. But the audience will forgive him for this, as he is very good at his job and cares deeply about finding the truth. No doubt Hardy and Miller will each learn from the other. Alec Hardy will be a fake-opponent, and we can see that from the beginning because his skills and shortcomings line up so nicely with those of Ellie.

Alec and Ellie are almost like the mirror image of each other. Normally in a set up the audience gets a very clear picture of the main character’s psychological shortcoming as well as their moral shortcoming, but here Ellie’s psychological shortcoming is highlighted whereas with Alec we get his moral shortcoming.

Beth Latimer — the murdered boy’s mother. We see her in her natural environment, getting her family off to school for the day — she wants her daughter to attend a school event even though the daughter is trying to pull a sickie. Then her desire changes suddenly when she is told her son hasn’t turned up at school (he was supposed to be spending the night somewhere else) and she is hellbent on finding out where he is. Then she is hellbent on finding out whose is the dead body on the beach. In follow-up episodes we can predict that she will be equally hell bent on finding out the truth. Beth is a bit of a ‘rule breaker’, jumping over the boundary police line in a panic over her son. (If a character can’t do that then, when?) The audience wants to see her do just that.

Olly Stevens is introduced in his work office — he is a young journalist who has just been turned down from the last of the big newspapers and now he’s stuck here in this tiny town working on non-event stories. Olly wants excitement, and he needs to prove himself somehow to get his foot in the door of a major paper. Moral shortcoming: He needs to start respecting other people’s privacy. He leaks the name of the murdered boy to the press even though his police officer aunt has told him not to.

Trendy young vicar — Moral shortcoming: using the death of a boy to spread the word of God.

Ally/Allies — Ellie’s main ally is a fake opponent, the new guy from the Met. Her husband is her emotional support. She is friends with people on the staff, though her boss has things she is not telling her, as evidenced by a secret conversation with Hardy while they eat ice cream on the pier.

Opponent — We don’t yet know who the main opponent is, but it looks like it’s going to be a web of people, including her own son, who deletes files from his C-drive as soon as his mother tells him his friend has been found dead. In the village we’ve also briefly met a creepy newsagent and a middle-aged misanthrope who is always lurking off to the side.

Mystery — Ellie must first uncover her opponents THEN defeat them. As far as she’s concerned, the whole town is on her side. In the detective genre there must be a mystery to compensate for the missing opponent because these stories deliberately withhold the opponent until the end. So we need something to replace it: the mystery of who murdered the boy. In a different genre, this would be when the opponent is introduced.

Fake-ally opponent — We have the strong sense that Ellie is not yet aware of the extent of hidden allegiances and deceptions going on in this town (helped with the symbolism of the sea). Her son may fit into this category, even if he’s too young and naive to be deliberately oppositional. Ellie’s boss may be a fake ally — in this genre the boss often ends up making things difficult for the spunky underling. Since fake-ally opponents are usually revealed after the main opponent (or mystery) has been revealed, we’re likely to find out what the allegiances and alliances really are in the next few episodes.

Reveals — Reveals are things the hero learns as the story progresses, and each reveal is supposed to be more significant than the last. Since this is a TV series there will be significant reveals much later on, but there will be minor reveals right the way through. Ellie’s first reveal: She hasn’t got the job of DI. But the guy from the Met who botched that other murder did get it, and she’s going to have to work with him. This is great, because the best reveals are about the main character’s opponent. Ellie’s second reveal: That the death of the boy is suspicious. Ellie’s decision: Her decision to solve the murder with her new boss will help her to gain the respect she craves, which means her new desire is a ‘bend’ of the original desire rather than a completely new one, which is perfect. (A river changing course.)

Plan — The new DI speaks clearly to the family and to the camera — he promises to find the killer. Ellie is along for the ride with him. There are bound to be problems along the way, with the audience wondering how these two can possibly solve such a difficult mystery. They’ll have to change strategy several times along the way.

Opponent’s plan — we already see the son hiding information that may be helpful to Ellie. But we don’t yet know what else is going on behind the scenes.

Drive — this will come in subsequent episodes. For now, Ellie is in reactive mode, looking stunned.

No Roses For Harry! by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

No Roses For Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham is a sequel to Harry The Dirty Dog. I like this story less due to its increasingly outdated message about masculinity.

WHAT HAPPENS IN NO ROSES FOR HARRY

No Roses For Harry Cover

Human grandmother sends partly anthropomorphised pet dog a coat for the dog’s birthday. The coat has roses on it, and the dog does not like it. He goes to great lengths to lose the coat. It ends up being used by a bird to make a nest.

Harry gave his sweater to a bird

 

WONDERFULNESS OF NO ROSES FOR HARRY!

I feel I must preface this part by saying that the entire story is based on the ‘universal given’ that if a male character looks like a female character (ie wearing a sweater covered in roses) then this is an inherently shameful thing. This is an idea that you don’t see so much in modern picture books, and that’s a good thing. These days you’re more likely to end up with stories such as My Brother Bernadette (by Jacqueline Wilson), in which a boy or boy character dresses like a girl and manages to subvert reader expectations, with the message that everyone should be able to dress how they feel comfortable without judgement. In this way, the storyline of No More Roses For Harry is dated. A more generous, less feminist reading of this book has me believing that Harry dislikes the roses because he is a dog, and in my experience of dogs, they prefer the smell of cow dung and dead things found in the undergrowth. Then again, the degree of personification of Harry leads me inevitably back to the first reading.

As is Zion’s storyline, Margaret Bloy Graham’s illustrations are ‘genuinely retro’. There have been numerous artists since who emulate this retro style by restricting colour palette and using paper and ink rather than a computer to recreate the feel of the fifties. But if you’re looking for a genuinely 1950s book, you get it right here. In this story you have the nuclear family, with a little boy and girl; you have visits to a 1950s style American department store; you see middle-aged women wearing fur stoles and 1940s headscarves.

No Roses For Harry Grocery Section

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

If I had to pick, I’d say the illustrations of the Harry books are more masterful than the text. This observation is borne out by the fact that the illustrator went on to both write and illustrate many books, and two of her earlier books had won major awards. The writer ended his career after the Harry series. It would be interesting to know the extent to which the writer and illustrator collaborated on this project, because there are parts of the text which repeat information adequately provided by the illustrations. This of course is also an editorial thing, and leaves me wondering if it’s mainly modern picture books that have evolved to avoid this, because you don’t see it much in picture books published 2015.

Harry didn’t know it, but a bird was watching.

The reader can see from the picture that the bird is watching. Bloy Graham has positioned the bird in such a way that the reader can’t miss it, in fact. In modern picture books, I feel that sentence would have been edited out.

That said, there is some nice ironic counterpoint here and there:

When [Harry] got home, his friends were waiting to play with him. But Harry didn’t feel like playing so they left him alone.

This page shows three dogs sitting in close proximity to Harry, smiling at him and waiting for a response, showing that they didn’t exactly leave him alone at all.

Apart from black and white, the illustrations have been done with a very limited palette of — unusually — fluorescent orange and khaki green. I say ‘unusually’, because many picture books from this era, when ink was very expensive, have been printed in black and red, a more common colour combination. This modern edition, purchased 2015 in paperback form from HarperCollins, has been printed in off-white, yellowish paper, which makes the book seem retro, as if it’s been sitting on the shelf for a few generations already.

The drawings of the human characters remind me quite a lot of the Flintstones, and I believe it’s down to the black ovals for eyes.

For some strange reason, the eyes of Wilma and Barney are drawn as dots while the other characters get more realistic eyeballs.
For some strange reason, the eyes of Wilma and Barney are drawn as dots while the other characters get more realistic eyeballs.

When illustrators depict animals with human emotions, they often add eyebrows where there are none. Humans convey a surprising range of emotions via the eyebrows, and trying to draw a dog or a cat or a horse without them is very difficult.

Angry Harry

Then again, any illustrator who is going to create books with animal creatures had better be a good observer of animals. Below is a picture of Harry in typical shamed dog pose, with his ears down, looking up. Dogs don’t have so much whites in their eyes, so the eyeballs, too, have been personified.

Harry shame

 

The facial expressions on the dogs add humour to the story. The humour is amplified because Harry’s cranky expression juxtaposes with the delighted faces of both human and canine onlookers.

There is humour again on the final page, in which Harry is wearing a sweater that has exactly the same markings as the dog himself. This visual humour is used to great effect in the must later Z Is For Moose, in which the zebra wears a zebra-striped shirt.

One plot knot the writer had was: How to have Harry lose the coat when it was tied onto his body? I feel this part of the story is its weak point.

When [the children and Harry] went into a big store to shop, the children took off his sweater and let him carry it. This was just what Harry wanted.

Unfortunately, we never see a picture of Harry ‘carrying’ his sweater, which lead my seven-year-old daughter to ask, ‘How would Harry carry the sweater?’ When she thought about it, she said, ‘Oh, I know how he would have carried it,’ but she didn’t let on to me how it would have been achieved, and now that the question has been posed, I feel completely in the dark on this matter. (If you think kids don’t notice things in picture books, you’re wrong! They’ll be reading the pictures better than their adult co-readers, who are by necessity and training, focused mostly on the words.)

Another small hole in the plot is that Harry runs home and the children, who accompanied him on the outing, are nowhere in sight. The dog and the children make it home independently, and not a word is mentioned of Harry’s running away after the bird who unravelled his sweater. However! I think this is something child readers can accept without too many questions.

 

STORY SPECS

746 words

All editions are 32 pages.

First published 1958, this is the second in the Harry series. (Harry The Dirty Dog had been published two years earlier.) There came another two after this.

Margaret Bloy Graham grew up in Canada but moved to New York to be an artist.

Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham were a husband and wife team. There may well have been more Harry books had the couple not divorced.

After the divorce, Margaret Bloy Graham continued to illustrate and also to write. She came up with a new series of dog books. This time, the dog was called Benjy.

Benjy's Dog House cover
published 1973

Bloy Graham was also awarded two Caldecott honors early in her career: All Falling DownThe Storm Book.

As for Gene Zion, he published no more children’s books after his divorce from Bloy Graham. He had been trained as a graphic designer.

Bloy Graham’s obituary in The Guardian

 

COMPARE WITH

Hairy Maclary From Donaldson's Dairy Cover

Zion and Bloy Graham’s Harry series is one of the ancestors of the very popular Hairy Maclary series by New Zealand author Lynley Dodd. Harry is similar to Hairy Maclary in that:

  • He, most obviously, is a beloved pet dog who lives with a family, trying his best to get along in what is essentially a human world.
  • He displays emotions which are identifiably human (though dog-lovers would argue that these are all emotions that are felt just as keenly by dogs!) Harry is a little more like a human than Hairy Maclary and friends, though not by much. For example, Harry looks into a mirror and recognises the reflection as his own. He feels self-conscious. This is not something Hairy Maclary would do, though Hairy Maclary does seem to feel some self-consciousness when he wins the prize for ‘scruffiest cat’ after barging into the local cat show.
  • Harry goes on trips out into the human world, having adventures that children themselves can rarely have simply because they are more closely supervised. This was true in 1958, but is even more true now.

My Brother Bernadette deals quite differently with a boy who dresses in stereotypically feminine clothing. No attempt is made to ‘cure him’ of this problem.

published 2001
published 2001