the best friends you’ll never have

Browsing in Ann M. Martin

I vaguely remember the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series from my childhood. I took a lot of it in stride at the time, but upon reading a comment a while back on a post in The Toast‘s series “Children’s Stories Made Horrific,” I realized that these books were pretty messed up–letting your child get so dirty that you can plant radishes on their skin is disturbing, but I remember finding them fun.

So I thought that it was an interesting series to choose to bring back. Indeed, some of it reads as a bit odd now–Ann makes a note of saying that the town, now called Little Spring Valley, is unique because children are still allowed to run around by themselves. It’s a little strange in this day and age to read about children having group sleepovers at a childless stranger’s house. Minus the magic, it reminds me a lot of the Baby-Sitters Club–the parents in this town are all entirely clueless, and instead of trying to raise their own children, they call up someone else, who has no children, and leave the difficult parts of parenting to a stranger.

There is even a scene where Missy Piggle-Wiggle–the replacement for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, her niece, who seems to be in her 20s–conjures up out of thin air what can only be described as a Kid-Kit. So while I had originally thought that this series was maybe an odd fit for Ann, it makes a lot of sense. Stupid parents are Ann’s bread and butter.

I hadn’t read a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book in 20 years, so I checked out a few on Open Library to jog my memory. While Ann’s book relies heavily on the magic version of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle–Missy has a chest of magical cures for bad behavior–the first book relies more on psychology, albeit in an exaggerated way. Basically, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle uses reverse psychology, a la Stacey at the Delaneys’. If your children don’t want to sleep, let them stay up until they’re so tired and want to go to bed on time themselves, and so on. In subsequent books, she suddenly has access to magic, and uses “cures” as well. Ann has also combined Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s two living situations–she lives in the Upside-Down House on the farm, which is also somehow in town, and the Upside-Down House itself is now magical, and kind of a dick.

I would say that my main issue with the book is that the parents seem more helpless than they did in the originals. Whereas the parents would try to discipline their children and call up their friends for advice before turning to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in the original books, the parents are now basically checked out and figure Missy can do their parenting for them. There is a recurring family in the book whose three children all require separate cures for their behavioral issues, but it’s clear from the moment they’re introduced that the only real problem these children have is that their parents pay absolutely zero attention to them. On the other hand, there are two children, Della and Peony LaCarte, who are held up by other parents and even other children as paragons of excellent behavior throughout the book, although we never see them, and I have to wonder if the reason that these are the only children who can behave themselves is because they are the only children in Little Spring Valley with parents who give a shit.

That’s my main problem with this book–these parents are just like, well, the Stoneybrook parents who needed 13-year-old girls to raise their kids.

Should you check it out? If you really enjoyed Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle as a child, or are an Ann completist–then yes. Is this book going to appeal to 2016 children? I’m not sure.

Ann Pop Culture Reference:

  • No Wizard of Oz/I Love Lucy/etc., but for some reason, she does have a child watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which makes me think that Ann had to search far and wide for an example of a terrible movie.
  • She does namedrop her favorite children’s books though, but it seems almost fitting for a reboot of a 40s/50s series, so I’ll let it slide.
  • I’ve been meaning to write a post about the 30th anniversary and all of the interviews and such that she’s done for that, but in the meantime, her new Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book came out yesterday, and I’ll have a review for that once I read it.

    But also, today on my Facebook, a friend of mine reposted something from Autostraddle declaring that Ann is officially queer. Those of us in the community have known this forever–really, it was clear to me from Ann’s crazy Margot Kidder R. biography that so explicitly did not mention any kind of romance in her life–but the interview in Vulture quoted in the Autostraddle piece handles it this way:

    With her partner at the time, Laura Godwin (they’ve since broken up), she wrote four Doll People books, tales of what a child’s doll collection does when no one’s watching.

    We knew all this, of course, except for the fact that Ann and Laura broke up, since that’s not the kind of news that makes Page Six, but it’s just nice to see that she can, in her own shy way, let us into her personal life a little bit. I haven’t read any of the other pieces on her done in the honor of the 30th anniversary, since I wasn’t going to do it until I started writing about it, but as far as I know, this is the first time she’s revealed anything about her past relationships or anything like that. So, yay Ann, and I’ll let you know how I feel about this Piggle-Wiggle book.

    I completely missed that this book was coming out. I guess there has been so much focus on Rain Reign that this book kind of slipped through the cracks. It is the last book in the Family Tree series, and since it also serves as a wrap-up of the entire series, its format is a bit different. Instead of just talking about Georgia, the main character in the book, it also focuses on the other three protagonists from the series, kind of like a Super Special.

    Out of all the books, this was probably my second favorite. I think Abby’s book was the most interesting. Also, one of the major issues with these books, especially since a fair amount of time passed from the time I’d read one to the time I’d read the next, is that I kept on forgetting things. Like I don’t really remember what the relationship was between Francie and George in the book before this one. I think these books could have benefited from a Chapter Two, or a literal family tree at the beginning that briefly explained things.

    Actually, I think the best way to read these books might be as one long novel. That way, you could remember the progression of the characters’ lives better. It really is one long story anyway.

    Overall, I thought this book was a satisfying end to the series, even if the kids in this book, whose childhood was the 2000s, got very, very excited at the prospect of watching an I Love Lucy marathon.

    The weird thing about blogging like a subject like the BSC, which ended (unless you count The Summer Before) fourteen years ago, is that eons can pass with no news at all, and then all of the sudden there is a TON of news.

    First of all, two new books by Ann, The Doll People Set Sail and Rain Reign, have come out. Because of RR especially, Ann has been doing some interviews, including the Elle one I linked to recently and one at Bustle. The best part of the that interview is where she says that she now thinks Dawn would be an environmental lawyer or something like that, whereas before she just said Dawn would be in California. Taken with the way she answered the question about a potential reunion book in the Elle interview, I hope this means that this is something that Ann is beginning to really consider. I think it would be awesome if she did something like Meg Cabot is doing with The Princess Diaries and The Mediator, where she is writing new books about the same characters for a slightly older audience (SUZE AND JESSE OMG!!!). Hell, I’d even be okay with a Karen in middle school book, or something; to my knowledge, Ann has never written for adults or older YA.

    The other extremely exciting thing going on is that Scholastic/Graphix is rereleasing the first two graphic novels in color. Not only will it look cool, and obviously I will need these in addition to the non-color copies I already own, but to me, it’s a sign that the ebooks are generating enough interest for Scholastic to pour some real money into BSC. My hope would be that the color versions will be so successful that Raina will be asked to do a fifth book. Of course, we don’t even know if Raina would even want to, or if she’s too busy with her other projects. But still, we could dream. What book would you want? The Ghost at Dawn’s House is the obvious choice, but seeing Sea City in Boy-Crazy Stacey would also be fun.

    I am taking all of this renewed interest in the series that has been going on in the past few years as a very good sign, and will keep on hoping for a reunion book!

    Lately, I’m finding that I’m less inclined to read BSC Snark than I used to be. I’ve never been the biggest fan of snark, and it’s never been the focus of my interest in discussing the BSC. But recently, I’ve found that the snark has taken a quite virtriolic turn, and often ends up reading like long personal attacks against Ann herself. I don’t find it amusing or pleasant to read, the way I do a funny snark by my personal favorite snarkers, 3-foot-6 and alula-auburn.

    I do think that Ann could have done a better job in the series with, say, her portrayal of overweight people–Ethel Tines, Norman Hill–and she could have had a class of people in Stoneybrook besides “lawyers.” Reading Ann’s newer books, however, I think she has gotten a lot better with all of issues that people complain about in the books, and from the readalong I did of her earlier books, I’d say the BSC books are an improvement.

    This also came to my mind this week because I recently reread, for the 100th or so time, Beverly Cleary’s two memoirs, which are favorites of mine. As I am wont to do, after I read them, I was googling around, and came across this article from People in 1988.

    It included this quote, which stuck out to me:

    Unlike many other writers, she has resisted the idea that children’s books should be politically relevant. “I write about people, not problems,” she says. She has, on occasion, been criticized for this, particularly by those who wonder why her books include no minority characters. “I write about middle-class America—which, in my experience, is pretty much the same no matter what one’s color may be,” she says. “I like to think that the children in my books are the color of the reader.”

    I think that recent events, such as Ferguson, have really brought to the forefront for people who may have been otherwise unaware that the experience of being middle class and white in America is not going to be universal for everyone who would be considered “middle class.” But Beverly Cleary is of a different generation, where it was a family scandal that she married a Catholic, and her first book came out four years before Brown vs. Board of Education.

    Now, of course, I don’t think you could continuously publish books without non-white characters without getting some pretty heavy criticism. When I was younger, however, I don’t recall there being controversies like the one that erupted over Girls‘ all-white NYC. I got a comment on my most recent Link Roundup post from tintin lachance, who shared a quote from this article with me (titled, coincidentally, “Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?”):

    When I worked in publishing back in the early ’90s, I had a friend who brought me along to sort publisher book donations at a well-known author’s NYC apartment. On our way, my friend told me that the author, who had quietly and modestly started an admirable literacy foundation, had also broken the color barrier in series book covers. She had had to fight to get a black main character on the cover of a book, against marketing resistance fearing the book wouldn’t sell to the series’ great white readership. She won the battle, and that book sold more copies than any of its prior series-mates. This is anecdotal, but I have no reason to doubt its veracity.

    While this is, as it says in the article, anecdotal, I have to agree with tintin that it sounds like they’re referring to Ann and Jessi’s Secret Language. I also can’t think of another children’s book series from my childhood of a similar size to the BSC that had a black main character except for Saddle Club‘s Carole, who, as I remember, was not black in the earlier books.

    My point with these two quotes it that Beverly Cleary is of our grandmother’s generation. Ann was born in 1955, which makes her the same age as Cleary’s twins. She is also a couple of years younger than my own mother, and I was born a month before Kristy’s Great Idea came out. So generationally, we’re dealing with grandmother/mother/current generation of people who are having kids and beginning our reign of dominating the discourse. I think we have to remember that the BSC books were written between 28 and 14 years ago, and some things are going to be out of date. It is the same as when you talk to your parents, and they say something that you find offensive. Should you start a dialogue about it? Yes. Will the result perhaps be, “Well, that’s what I’ve always said, so I’m just going to keep saying it”? Maybe. Society is evolving constantly, and while I think we should always read critically, I don’t think we should expect writers of the past to have the same views as writers of the present.

    I think it’s important to look at the books in their context of their time period. If Ann wrote something egregious in Family Tree or any of her other newer books, then yes, let’s criticize the hell out of it. But for snarks of BSC books, I’d like a return to fun and lightheartedness, and less what comes off as hatred for Ann.

    Now, of course, what Ann has against people who chew gum and watch TV, I’ll never know.

  • The series I wrote about in my last post is still going on. I agree with HelenB’s comment on my post–these seem to be based more on the interests of the girls than their personalities. The former is accurate; the latter is way off. Mary Anne has married Logan and is an executive at a construction company. While I like Executive!Mary Anne, I hate Logan, and see Mary Anne doing something else with her life.
  • Seven California Diaries Moments That Made the BSC Seem So Immature on the Bustle.
  • Ann M. Martin was at the American Library Association’s Annual Meeting.
  • She is also fostering new kittens!!!!
  • Now that I’ve read all of Ann’s non-BSC books from the early part of her career, it’s time to reflect on what I thought about them. Since I did not review most of them very positively, it may seem like I did not enjoy doing this. I did actually enjoy it, but the books themselves I probably would have enjoyed more if I were coming across them for the first time while still in the age group they were intended for, or if I were reading them with nostalgia. As far as quality goes, if these were classics of children’s literature, they’d still be in print, or would have at least been in print during my 90s childhood. So even if I have liked the post-BSC Ann books I’ve read, and can tell that there’s been a HUGE leap forward in quality, I couldn’t really expect these books to be any better than any other more-or-less forgotten 1980s children’s books.

    My main issue with these books is that I felt that these books sometimes took on too many serious issues at once, and didn’t get deep enough, psychologically. I suppose it’s hard to do that in the space allotted to a children’s book, and for the level you’re writing for, but I feel like people Lois Lowry and Judy Blume can deliver that. Obviously, not many children’s authors reach their levels, but still. They show it’s possible. I haven’t read A Corner of the Universe or any other of Ann’s Very Serious more recent books, unless you count The Family Tree series, but from what I have read, I haven’t had the same feeling of the stories being a very shallow portrayal of the issue she’s writing about. Perhaps it’s because Ann tackled issues that are SO serious, like suicide and missing children and losing a parent, before she was an author who was experienced enough to handle them, that makes these books read that way. Like, at this point of her career, she should have stuck to plots on a Stage Fright level, and not tried to tackle things that were so heavy.

    Another thing I noticed was that everybody in these books is wealthy, except for maybe the parents in Inside Out. Like, think of how many kids you knew growing up who had houses with a third floor. I mean, if you’re in an area with a lot of Victorian houses, it’ll be more common, but it seemed like half of the kids in these books had these humongous houses and their parents were all advertising executives or whatever and jetting off to St. Barths for their honeymoons. None of the main characters were treated as being from wealthy families, even though they obviously were. I suppose it’s not that different from Stoneybrook, with everyone’s dad being a lawyer and Stacey’s dad’s glamorous life, but the houses weren’t quite noticeably as extragavant. It is very noticeable in these books, and seems kind of tone deaf. I can’t say if a child reading it would notice all of the clues sprinkled in them about mega-wealth, though.

    The biggest surprise, though, was that the books I enjoyed the most–Inside Out and Ma and Pa Dracula–were books featuring male protagonists. I had always asusmed that Ann wouldn’t be very good at writing from a male perspective, but I think it actually forced her to stretch a little more and go outside of herself and she ended up with two books that were a lot better than the rest.

    These are the major conclusions I came to during this Readalong. If you’ve read them, what do you think of Ann’s early work as a whole?

    (Camp NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow! If you want to join my BSC cabin, email me at or leave a comment below.)

    The Rosso family is back. This time it’s summer, which they’re spending in Fire Island. First off, I have to ask why Fire Island. No such explanation was needed in Just a Summer Romance, because Fire Island is a reasonable place for a New York City-area family to own a beach house. This time, however, the Rossos are going there for the first time, and they will be going for the entire summer, and Mr. Rosso will have live with relatives in NYC for the week, since the commute is too far. Now, considering the Rossos live in New Jersey, which has many fine beach towns within commuting distance of New York City, this decision is just baffling to me. Also, I can only imagine how expensive it is to rent a house with seven bedrooms for an entire summer.

    The house, by the way, is named Sandpiper House. Stacey and her father stayed in “the Sandpiper” during their trip to Fire Island. I am not sure if it is the same house, but I like to imagine it is, but I don’t know why Mr. McGill would rent a house with so many bedrooms. Perhaps he was anticipating the entire BSC coming. I did look to see if the Sandpiper is a real house in Davis Park. I did not find a house called that, but there is a street called Sandpiper Way, AND there was a club open from 1965-1979 in Fire Island Pines called The Sandpiper that was apparently the birthplace of disco. If Ann was hanging out in gay nightclubs in the 70s, she is much more interesting than any of us could have ever imagined.

    Anyway, like Ten Kids, No Pets, each chapter of the book is about a different Rosso kid. Once again, I think the book would have been improved if it were just about one of them, or if it were like a Super Special and each child had several chapters. For most of their stories, we just don’t have enough time to care. The only story where it feels like it has some resolution is Candy’s, where she thinks the house next door is haunted, because Hardy’s chapter of the book also focuses on this. Once again, Abbie’s chapter is at the beginning, and she meets Justin Hart, Melanie, and Lacey. She becomes friends with them, but because it’s at the beginning of the book, we don’t really know all that much about it, only snippets here and there from other characters. Bainbridge’s chapter, conversely, is at the end, and he apparently had a girlfriend all summer whom we didn’t hear about at all, and now her grandfather is sick and she has to leave. But we don’t really care, because we haven’t been following their story all along.

    I can see why these two books in particular have retained more popularity over the years than Ann’s other early books, but I find them almost frustrating to read as an adult. The chapters are just not long enough for us to really care about the characters and what’s happening to them. (I suppose if Ann were a master of the short story, she could do it, but, well, Cheever she ain’t.)

    Random thoughts:

  • Faustine: children’s literature’s first vegan?
  • Hannah is a little sociopath. She takes great joy in seriously scaring her sister Candy and ruining Abbie’s social life (by telling Justin Hart that Abbie has a crush on him). For these transgressions, Hannah gets punishments like “no allowance for a week” or “grounded for a day,” and never has to actually apologize to her sisters. Another Karen Brewer.
  • If you are a pain in the ass on a movie set, you get a bit part instead of just being an extra. Thanks for the lesson, Dinnie!
  • Lyme Disease is very easily cured. (Do not read Ira’s chapter if you have a phobia of clowns.)

    External links:
    Kirkus Reviews came to the same conclusion I did.
    BSC Chronologically‘s take.

    This was the last book in the Readalong. Thanks to everyone who read along and commented! I will post a wrap-up post on my overall thoughts about the books, and then for the rest of the summer, I’ll stick to the Monday blog post/Friday BSC link post schedule I mentioned in a previous post. I’ll also be participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, as I mentioned before, and I’ll be posting what I write on Babysitters100 (livejournal/dreamwidth). I have started a private cabin on there for BSC fanfic, so if you want to spend July working on a BSC fanfic, just let me know your screenname there in the comments and I will add you.

  • After last week’s mess, this book was a welcome respite. Ma and Pa Dracula seems to be on the same grade level as, or one above, Little Sister. It even has pictures! There are no chances for an important issue to be glossed over or handled clumsily.

    I’d like to address one thing, though, Over on the Boards, where I’m also writing about these books every week, there was a remark to the effect that it seems like I’m not enjoying these books. I will write more in depth about this in my wrap-up post, but I am enjoying myself. It’s not just not the same as reading these books when you’re a kid, I guess, or even as an adult who read them as a kid and has some feelings of nostalgia. Also, since I’m blogging about them, I am looking at them with a critical eye. This is fun for me because I am a nerd.

    OK, onto the book. The book is about a boy named Jonathan. He lives with her parents and his tutor/governor, Mr. Saginaw, and he knows no other people. His family sleeps during the day and is active at night. Jonathan has been isolated his whole life, and believes that the things that he has read about in books, like TV, are imaginary. His family also moves around a lot. One day, while his parents are sleeping, he sneaks out of the house and meets a girl named Tobi, and he discovers that his parents have been lying to him and everyone else is awake during the day.

    His parents, despite raising him in such an odd, isolating way, are pretty easygoing and agree to let him go to regular school. They also reveal that they are vampires, and instead of going to work, they turn into bats and seek out blood banks. That is why they move so much–once a blood bank starts getting suspicious, or the supply runs low, they have to move on.

    Honestly, I don’t have any major complaints about this book. I thought it was cute. I liked Tobi, who is a tomboy in the grand tradition of Harriet M. Welsch. There are parts, such as his adjustment to school, that could have been done with more depth, but since this is a book for younger kids, I think that it’s fine the way it is. I also like the ending–the blood bank runs low, and Jonathan realizes that even though he likes his school and his friends, he has to move on. I thought that was a better ending than Jonathan being happy at his school and staying forever.

    Random thoughts:

  • The only thing that really bugged me is that once again, Ann just did not bother to bust out the Wikipedia page.

    “Think about our names,” said Pa. “They tell part of the story. For instance, our last name is an anagram. Switch around the letters in ‘Primave’ and you get ‘vampire.’ And my first name,” Pa went on proudly, “is Vladimir. I named myself for Vlad the Impaler, a horrible Romanian ruler of the fifteenth century. His father was Vlad the Devil. ‘Devil’ can be translated into the word ‘Dracul.’”

    Or perhaps it’s because Pa named himself before encyclopedia were around. Vlad the Impaler’s name was not “Vladimir.” In Romanian, “Vlad” alone is a name, and he was “Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia.” He also often signed his name as “Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum.” So you can MAYBE make a case for “Vladislav,” but not “Vladimir.”

  • At the beginning, Jonathan speaks without contractions. I was afraid it was going to be like Little Sister. But no, it was just a way to signify how formal he was compared to a regular kid who was not raised by vampires.

    External links:
    I didn’t find any this week. If you’ve blogged about it, let me know in the comments.

    Next week, I will read Eleven Kids, One Summer, and this experiment will be over. I do have something else planned for July, though, so stay tuned.

  • Ugh. This BOOK. Just WHY.

    One thing a fiction writer should do is research the hell out of what they’re writing about. Perhaps we should blame Ann’s grueling BSC schedule for the fact that she did not research adoption like, at all. The lucky Basini kids in this book, however, got an entire month to adjust to the reality of a new adopted Vietnamese sister coming, unlike the Thomas-Brewers. But of course, they were preparing for a toddler boy and ended up with an eight-year-old girl because the agency messed up, and the Basinis were like, “Whatever, that’s cool. Oh, and her name is too hard for us to pronounce or even acknowledge, so we’re just gonna have our nine-year-old daughter name her.”

    There are literally NO REFERENCES to what Jackie’s life was like in a Vietnamese orphanage. Her birth name and her prior life are not mentioned at all. She basically did not exist before she landed in America and met her adopted family, and pretty much has no issues and everything is great. What bugs me about this book is that the whole adoption plotline was pretty unnecessary. You could have had the same basic story about two sisters, one dyslexic and the other advanced for her age, without adding in the adoption part. You could have had stepsisters, if you wanted them to be new siblings. If you don’t want to do the research to do justice to your plotline, then don’t use that particular plot.

    Perhaps the most offensive part of the whole thing is Ann’s worst use of dialect transcription ever. Logan’s “Southern drawl” is eyeroll worthy, yes. But at least it’s the right language. Jackie’s “accent” consists of mixing up “l” and “r.” Now, the 80s are the decade that brought us Long Duk Dong, so perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. But there is nothing on the Wikipedia entry on the subject about Vietnamese native speakers mixing up “l” and “r” in English. This is something commonly associated with Japanese, which is not related to Vietnamese at all. Asia=Not one giant country.

    Shirley’s dyslexia isn’t dealt with all that well either. Her Resource Room teacher gets her to learn how to enjoy reading using the magic of Beverly Cleary. The end.

    It does have a nice ending, where Shirley feels fulfilled through art and writes a really nice essay about her family and gets a prize. She also stands up for Jackie. But ugh, Ann should just have never started with the whole Vietnamese adoption thing, either here or in BSC. I think they did a slightly better job with Emily Michelle, which tells you how clumsily and offensively it’s handled in this book.

    Random thoughts:

  • Dad is an English professor, not a lawyer. I was shocked too. But the best English professor dad of all time is Myron Krupnik.
  • Older brother goes to a really good school that is never named. Five bucks says Ann had Princeton in mind.

    External links:
    Kirkus was much more gentle in their review.

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