the best friends you’ll never have
I have written about Beverly Cleary before. One thing I have meant to blog about for a long time, and somehow never got around to doing, is Beverly Cleary’s First Love series, a quartet of YA (for the time) novels written in the ’50s and ’60s.
Beverly Cleary is now 99, and in her most recent interviews, from the time of her 95th birthday, she is asked how her work has managed to stay relevant and popular for so long. She answers, “I think [it has remained popular] because I have stayed true to my own memories of childhood, which are not different in many ways from those of children today. Although their circumstances have changed, I don’t think children’s inner feelings have changed.”
If you read her young adult books, I think this still holds true. She remains very true to the emotions of what it’s like to be fifteen and sixteen, and to enter the world of relationships for the first time. Now, I think some people might be under the impression that kids today grow up faster, but since the early ’90s, teen pregnancy has decreased and teenagers are waiting longer to have sex as a whole. While there have always been the Staceys who have tons of boyfriends in middle school, if you’re reading this blog, you were probably on the nerdy side and most likely didn’t attract any interest in that way until you were 15 or 16, like the girls in this series.
I recommend all of these books, each of which explores an aspect of “first love,” as the series’ title might suggest. (I’m not sure if they were originally written as part of a series, or if later publishers/editors have just decided to package them this way.) Fifteen deals with self-esteem and being yourself around guys, and not acting like some bitch who presents herself as sophisticated. The Luckiest Girl is about understanding the difference between being in love and being in love with idea of someone, as well as the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship. Sister of the Bride may be the one that seems the most out of date, somehow, but it contains the themes of generational differences and what marriage is in reality vs. fantasy. It also contains the important lesson of, “if you need to bake cookies every day to keep a boy coming around, don’t bother.” Another interesting thing in Sister, which I absolutely would have never known if I hadn’t read this book, was that at the time of publication (1963), it was considered that young people were getting married younger than ever. I had always assumed that this was a demographic trend that went steadily up with time, not up and down.
Anyway, Jean and Johnny, for me, is the one that really feels the most real, the one where there are scenes that are hard to read because I just cringe with secondhand embarrassment and recognition. Jean is helping set up decorations at a lodge where there is a dance going on. She is asked to dance for the first time in her life by a very cute older boy, who also happens to go to her school, the titular Johnny. It may seem reminiscent of Dawn and the Older Boy, but it is far more realistic and relatable. (Travis’s motive has never made sense to me.) She acts the way many girls with a crush do, and she tries to sneakily track information down on him and see him at school when she thinks he’s not looking. He does start to notice her, and pay attention to her, but, as her family says, she shouldn’t accept crumbs from a boy like Johnny.
I think it’s a book about how you move through stages in adolescence, sometimes rapidly. In the beginning, both Jean and her best friend, Elaine, have crushes on Kip Laddish, a teen idol with a weekly TV show. As the story progresses, Jean moves onto her crush on Johnny, leaving Elaine behind. At the same time, Jean’s older sister, Sue, has moved beyond crushes like Jean’s on Johnny, which was really not that much more based in reality than Jean’s crush on Kip, to a dating a guy whom she may well marry. Despite the things that may date the book, like sewing being a class that a high school girl would take, it all rings as very true and universal. In her memoirs, Cleary mentions a professor she had in college who stated that the proper subject for the novel is the universal human experience, and Cleary just nails that so well. The feelings and experiences in these books feel universal, even if the particulars of your own experience are different.
The relationships in the BSC, in contrast, have always seemed flat to me. They are simply adult relationships, minus sex. I don’t think there’s ever been a person in the world who has said, “My eighth-grade boyfriend was just like Logan Bruno!” It is just as much fantasy as Middle Earth is in Lord of the Rings. At 28, I still don’t feel like I’m reading about middle schoolers. They seem to conduct themselves like my peers.
In Beverly Cleary’s books, it’s like going back in time, and not just in the sense that these books were written 50, 60 years ago. She conjures up exactly what it is like to be that age, and to have a boy like you for the first time, and to go on your first awkward dates. I STILL feel like I’m not as mature and adult as the BSC, and over twenty years has passed since I read Kristy’s Great Idea for the first time.
Part of it is, I think, the way middle-grade/YA books are written. Middle-grade books are written for an audience that is younger than the people who feature in the stories, and same with YA. The world they depict is just as much a fantasy for their readership as the world of actual fantasy books are. BSC definitely presents a fantasy–a world of fancy vacations, mysteries, independence from adults, and mature, yet sexless, relationships.
Jean and Johnny, the other First Love books, and really all of Cleary’s other books (besides the mouse ones) are firmly grounded in truth and the universal human experience. They are books about the emotions and experiences that accompany our lives as we grow and mature. The relationships in the BSC are presented in a way that is unrealistic because everything is unrealistic, and that is what is appealing about them. The relationships in these four books are presented in a realistic way that rings true, and that is what makes them enduring.
While cleaning my room, I found a pretend magazine I started writing and never completed sometime around January 2000, when I was thirteen. Why was I creating fake magazines at 13? Because I had no friends. I was a Mallory without the Club. The cover claims that there will be an article inside on “Through the Eyes of a Misfit Queen: Life on the Other Side of the Fence” (obviously autobiographical) and “21st Century Girl: Living in the Now!” and “Quiz: Your Social Stereotype.” I wish I had written these, because they would have been funny to read now, but I only wrote three things: a Letter to the Editors Page, an FAQ (where I explain that the magazine was handwritten because no one has time for Microsoft Publishing), and…
“BSC: An (Almost) Shocking Exposé.”
Here is the text in full.
Ahh. The Baby-Sitters Club. In their passage to adulthood, most, if not all girls, read at least one. Currently, there’s almost 200 altogether.
So there’s got to be a subversive message in there somewhere.
In Logan Likes Mary Anne! (#10), Logan says that no girl every fooled around with him the way Mary Anne did, they usually try to prove how well they can “dance.” I guess Mary Anne really came out of her shell, hmm?
For a book aimed at elementary school kids, it sure doesn’t promote abstinence. They might as well have titled it Mary Anne Gets Laid.
In the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers refers to Alotta Vagina as “the village bike: everyone’s had a ride.”
The village bikes of the BSC are Stacey and Claudia, hands down. A tag team of skankiness, they just can’t seem to settle down. At least Mary Anne is monogamous.
Dawn, poor, poor Dawn. Although we don’t know what happened in California (you need the California Diaries for that), apart from a pen pal (tee-hee), she never had a good relationship. The only real relationship I can remember is that older man, Travis, who just USED her. Maybe Mary Anne can give her a few pointers on boy pulling. Sisters should stick together in times of crisis, Mean Mary Anne!
Even Mallory and Jessi, the sixth graders, get more action than Dawn. I can’t remember many long-term relationships in sixth grade, but apparently these two are experts. Quint, Curtis, Ben–who can keep track? They’re a tag team of skankiness-in-training.
This is in NO WAY to be taken seriously! Also, we have no right to use Ann M. Martin’s characters and stuff.
Next Month: Analyzation [sic] of The Giver. Stirrings, anyone?
KRISTY: INNOCENT TOMBOY?
For someone who didn’t care about makeup or clothes, Kristy sure had a full dance card.
First there’s that old standby, Alan Gray. She poured Yoo-hoo down his shirt once. A bizarre mating ritual, sure, but erotic nonetheless.
Let’s not forget her cruise ship affair, a 70-something named Rudy. THERE ARE GRANDKIDS INVOLVED YOU WHORE!
Her third main lover is Bart. She got grounded for monkeying around with him on a couch with no parental units around, then claimed he was moving too fast for her. Tsk. She called Mary Anne for advice, hah.
Lastly, there was Steve, Kelsey’s BMOC. Kristy was smart enough to turn him down. That boy was STD city.
So ends my “articles” for my “magazine.” I don’t know why I was so mean and focused on slut-shaming. That’s the magic of middle school, I suppose.
I would actually start the first incarnation of this site a year or two later. I used to have a version archived here, but the link no longer works for complicated technical reasons that has to do with the fact that I made it so that if you go to stoneybrookite.org/.com/.net, it all goes to this blog. In the coming weeks, I will post my old writings on the BSC on this blog.
Did you ever write stupid things like this as a child/adolescent? Were you as mean as I was?
Stacey’s style, like Stacey herself, is always referred to in the books as being “sophisticated.” We know she likes to wear black, and buys clothes at Bloomingdales and other expensive places. She likes Betsey Johnson, which, while I wouldn’t exactly call it “sophisticated,” is pretty logical for what a stylish thirteen-year-old-girl would like.
The covers, however, tell a different story. On many covers, she looks so mature that she ends up looking more like someone who would call the Baby-Sitters Club for a sitter, rather than its treasurer.
Take the cover of Stacey’s Broken Heart, for example.
Stacey, you are no Kathy Santoni.
Only one image can come to mind for fans of both Full House and the BSC, and that is from the episode “Back to School Blues,” where DJ shows up for the first day of Junior High wearing the same outfit as the lunch monitor.
I think we all can imagine Stacey showing up to school in the outfit depicted on the cover of Broken Heart and realizing she was dressed just like Mrs. Ensign.
Now, later on, Stacey’s outfits are pretty much in line with how I remember the mid-90s. Lots of sweaters with stripes around the middle, for instance. Her hair is bobbed instead of permed. But really, is it sophisticated? To me, it looks just like what you could buy in any juniors’ department in the country at the time. So I’m not sure how they could have communicated that Stacey was a sophisticated dresser without it looking like she was middle aged mother or your typical teen. Maybe more black?
Stacey’s fashion, like so many other things in the series, was told to us, rather than shown. How would you have dressed a sophisticated thirteen-year-old girl from 1986-2000?
If you really think about it, the Baby-Sitters Club was a genius idea. Obviously, those at Scholastic and Ann know this already, since I am sure that it paid for many houses and several college educations. But they hit upon a formula that works very, very well when you consider the target audience.
When writing for the middle grade reader, you’re generally advised to write about characters a few years older than the reader. That’s why so many successful books for this age group are about kids aged 13-14–old enough to be seem very glamorous to someone in fourth or fifth grade, but not old enough that they have to deal with issues that you’d find in YA. The BSC, written about seventh and then eighth graders (except for Mal and Jessi), fits this mold exactly.
The Baby-Sitters Club added a little something extra, though, that you don’t see in Girl Talk, et al. And that “something” is… baby-sitting. Why was the inclusion of baby-sitting genius? Yes, baby-sitting is one of those things, like thirteen-year-old boys, that seems much more awesome than it is in reality. You’re a kid, you get baby-sat, it seems like the coolest thing in the world. But naturally, plotlines involving baby-sitting will also involve children. These children are, in many cases, the age of the intended reading audience.
So what the Baby-Sitters Club was able to do was bring the glamour of middle school (everyone who has been through middle school is laughing at the idea of it seeming cool, but you know you thought it was!), but have characters who are the same age as the reader that they can relate to. This way, you get a series that covers all the basis: cool older kids, relatable younger kids.
And that is why Scholastic editors from the late 80s-early/mid-90s were all able to buy yachts!*
I had surgery last month, which explains my lapse in posts. But I will now return to a more regular posting schedule.