the best friends you’ll never have

Browsing in time warp

In the past year or so, the Alice McKinley books have taken over the BSC as my “comfort” reading. I read recently that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor decided to have Alice grow up in the series (each book covers roughly four months of her life) because she wanted a challenge as a writer and didn’t want to be stuck in a sitcom.

Of course, this immediately brought the BSC to my mind, where they were, more or less, stuck in a middle school sitcom, only growing and changing as much as staying in eighth grade forever would allow. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I liked being able to grow up along with Alice, starting with the series in 1997 when she was still in middle school and I was ten and being able to read the last book as an adult in 2013. You can trace the evolution of Alice as a person, which I think makes her seem very real.

But one of the problems the Alice books have, which I think ruin the effect slightly, is that Naylor started the series in 1985, and then covered four months a year after that until the last one, so we only got to the summer after Alice’s senior year in high school in 2012. The world is going to change a lot in an almost thirty-year period. Like the rest of the world, Alice had to be introduced to computers and cell phones. Each book was written to be true to the year they were published, so even aging chronologically, you still have a time warp. For the new editions, which is what I read on my Kindle, they have edited some things that date the books, but the books would have to be rewritten completely to make them all 100% modern. I noticed this when I was reading the end of Now I’ll Tell You Everything, because although Alice entered college with Facebook and email, when they open the time capsule from Mr. Hensley’s class at the end, they open a capsule containing a Michael Jordan poster and newspaper articles about the Soviet Union. So even within this one book, there’s an acknowledgement that aging chronologically can’t work 100%, unless you can keep up a very grueling schedule to have someone age in real time, which is when you need a team of ghostwriters.

With that in mind, I don’t think I would have preferred for the BSC to age. You can suspend belief completely, and not really be distracted by time. Maybe aging in real time would have been possible for the BSC, though, since they published a book every month, instead of just every year. In the end, I find the time warp comforting, in a way. I think what the authors/editors chose for these different series works for what they are. The Alice series shows someone growing up. The Baby-Sitters Club shows a friendship and mysteries and fun. They are limited by never getting any closer to adulthood, and sometimes, that’s what we want to read.

Would you have preferred to see at least some aging in the series?

For girls who love mysteries so much, there are lot of puzzling things about Stoneybrook that they just blithely seem to ignore. There is, of course, the infamous Time Warp, and the Mystery of Sabrina Bouvier. Nobody ever brought up how they were able to go on so many vacations and celebrate holidays multiple times. They were in a Twilight Zone episode, but Rod Serling didn’t pop in at the end to hammer the point home to the viewer.

Rod Serling

“Seven middle school girls stuck in a world where no one ever ages and doomed to never enter the hallowed halls of Stoneybrook High School. This meeting will now to come to order… in the Twilight Zone.”

There is one major plot point of the Baby-Sitters Club that just seemed to fall off to the wayside, and it has always bothered me. Sure, we can chalk it up to “Ann Hates Mal,” but perhaps there is something more sinister afoot. I am talking about, of course, the death of Ben Hobart’s and Mallory’s relationship. I wrote about it briefly here, but I’d like to go into more detail today.

Now, Mallory and Ben had a rocky relationship. Who could forget their fight over the card catalog, or the Caroling Debacle in Here Come the Bridesmaids!? He did, however, play a Loganesque Supportive Boyfriend role in Mallory Hates Boys… and Gym. But Mallory and Ben were together, and he warranted the occasional Chapter 2 mention and visions of future redheaded children surely danced in Mallory’s head.

Look how cute they were at the dance!

Somewhere along the way, it all went sour. In Abby and the Secret Society, we see that Ben has now become a client of the BSC, and is participating in a bathing cap decoration content with the other clients. He makes a “shark attack” cap, which seems perfectly eleven-year-old boy to me, so I don’t think it was a ghostwriter/editing error in this case. They did not, say, mean to write “James Hobart.” Although frankly, if you can’t tell the Hobart boys apart, you have no business writing BSC books, amirite. He was also in Christmas Chiller, annoying Mallory and also seeming eleven-year-old boyish. Yet in neither book is their romantic history ever mentioned. No “Ugh, ex-boyfriends are SO LAME,” as would be appropriate in the case when a former flame does something totally embarrassing.

But in Stacey and the Stolen Hearts, Ben and Mallory write each other Valentine Grams! This book was published a mere three months after the release of Christmas Chiller. What happened in the interim? Was there some sort of Pike-Hobart melodrama that we never got to witness, and the other sitters weren’t even aware of it? Was it too painful to Mal herself to mention in various books and her chapters in Christmas Chiller? To me, it is a great oversight that Ben and Mallory’s relationship wasn’t given the attention it deserves. We knew about every fight Logan and Mary Anne had, every time Kristy was embarrassed by something involving Bart, Every Stacey Boyfriend Ever, Claudia’s problems finding a steady guy and later being torn between two men… Hell, even Jessi and Quint, her fellow eleven-year-olds, got a satisfying resolution to their story. But Ben? He was vaguely mentioned, I think, during the Spaz Girl era, but Mallory wasn’t in the mental state to deal with the issue.

This still doesn’t explain, however, how Ben was suddenly reverted to Sitting Charge. I want, nay, demand a satisifying explanation and resolution to Ben Hobart and Mallory Pike, Boyfriend and Girlfriend. For all the nerdy girls with wonky noses and glasses, who didn’t deserve to be given such short shrift in the books, we want an answer for the callous treatment of Nerd Love.

This is quite apropros, since we’re coming up on the holiday season. For my choice, if we think about holiday books in terms of the complete mindfuck that is the BSC Time Warp, I’m going to go with the darkest timeline.

I don’t think there is a terribly popular opinion, but I am a pretty big fan of the Super Mysteries and read them probably more frequently in comparison with other books. The stakes are just a little bit higher and the danger heightened.

So anyway, for favorite holiday book I’m going to go with Christmas Chiller. This one also comes with the added bonus of an Ethan-heavy storyline, so, score. I do realize that Fright Night could also be considered a “holiday” book, but that one is slightly more boring since it does not have ETHAN. And isn’t that the book where Mallory is really annoying about needing the special Mystery Notebook, and somehow cajoles an SMS faculty member or their spouse to bring the Notebook to Salem? Relax, Pike.

But yeah Ethan Carroll forever! Even if he dated a psycho named Sybil and really, ghostwriters, couldn’t you have been a little less obvious and NOT picked a name associated with mental illness for this character?

One of the major themes of the series is thirteen as a turning point, the age where one is Grown Up. You can baby-sit at night. You can go steady. You don’t ask your parents for help in 95% of the cases where you really, really should. Mallory and Jessi see thirteen as the magic age where they will get sparkly sweatshirts, contacts, and nose jobs. Shannon Kilbourne even titles the essay that frames her portion of the The Baby-Sitters Remember “Thirteen,” which is a sort-of coming of age story.

Apart from the whole “no sitting at night” thing, Mallory and Jessi actually have a fair amount of autonomy for eleven year olds, especially by today’s Helicopter Parents standard. How many eleven year olds do you know, for instance, who go to New York City to visit a boyfriend? How many eleven year olds are allowed to spend a weekend baby-sitting their siblings? (Sorry, Jessi, but I have to agree with Aunt Cecelia on that one. That’s just plain illegal.)

So one would assume that, despite all the whining from Mal and Jessi, that being eleven in Stoneybrook doesn’t really suck that much. Parents are more than lenient. Despite the fact that the Pikes have nixed the nose job idea, Mallory has more independence than would be considered prudent by commentors on parenting blogs, even the “hip” ones. But the same cannot be said for Mallory and Jessi’s peers. It is, in fact, one of the great mysteries of the BSC.

When we are first introduced to their characters, Tiffany Kilbourne is a sitter and Ben Hobart is Mallory’s Australian doppelganger/boyfriend. (Kind of creepy, if you ask me.) Yet somehow, over the course of the series, they are both on the receiving end of maturity downgrades. Rather than being pissed that the BSC has stolen her and Shannon’s sitting “territory,” Tiffany becomes part of the territory and becomes a BSC client. And Ben shows up at events that the BSC are running/involved with, and there is no mention of the fact that Ben and Mallory go out sometimes.

Sometime after December 1994 (Ben and Mallory have a fight about carolling in SS12), Ben and Mal’s relationship fizzles out. Perhaps all of the fighting about carolling and card catalog usage got to him. He shows up at the Greenbrook Club bathing cap contest. He plays an innkeeper in the church Christmas pageant and pisses off Mallory because he adlibs some Faux-stralian flavor into his lines. There is never any mention that hey, at one time, Ben and Mallory might have looked deeply into each other’s glasses and held each other’s sweaty palms. No, all has been forgotten–the scars from those card catalog/carolling fights go too deep. He is excised from Mal’s Chapter Two segments. The first cut is the deepest, indeed.

Ben has a chance to redeem himself after Mal’s Spaz Girl nervous breakdown, however. He is seen saying that he has tried to reach out to Mallory, but she doesn’t seem very receptive. No, Ben, your flames of love died out long ago. It happened while you were decorating your bathing cap to look like a shark attack.

Tiffany Kilbourne never gets a similar shot of redemption. She becomes a client and stays a client. Sometimes, I think, her age is even downgraded to ten. She’s eleven in The Complete Guide, but I swear she’s mentioned as ten in some places. Anyone with a citation, hit me up in the comments.

Then, in Claudia and the Recipe for Danger, we actually have a twelve-year-old pretty much being sat for by the eleven and thirteen-year-old sitters. He is the second Tyler in the Kids Kitchen thing, and no one ever really notes WHY there’s a twelve-year-old there, and he doesn’t do much. But it’s still alarming.

My conclusion is that really, Mal and Jessi seem to be the only eleven-year-olds in Stoneybrook who are afforded such responsibility. Perhaps if Ben had been smart like Logan (never thought I’d type the phrase “smart like Logan,” BUT SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO ME, GHOSTWRITERS?!), and become an associate member, he could have kept his lady and his adult-ish status. It seems like being in the BSC is the ticket to maturity, and will help you avoid all of the potential pitfalls of adolescence, like acne, gum-chewing, trying cigarettes, and hiding those tiny bottles of wine in your flop socks. Look at what happened to Stacey and Dawn once they leave the comforting bosom of the BSC for Bad Girl-ism and California! Would Dawn have gone to a restaurant that served “more than just tea” (AKA HEAD SHOP IN THE BACK, DUDES) if she were still living with Mary Anne? Of course not.

The time warp works in mysterious ways. It can make you age so that you seem ahead of your years (everyone in the BSC). It can make you age backwards (Tiffany and Ben). Stoneybrook, Connecticut. An idyllic suburb of Stamford, a convenient train ride away from New York City straight into the heart of… THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

UPDATE: Not even bodily injury can stop Ashley from sharing her vast BSC knowledge. Thank you, Ashley!:

From #70, Stacey and the Cheerleaders:
Shannon nodded. “She missed the Terrible Twos. Instead she’s having the Terrible Tens. Even her teachers are complaining.” (p.23)
Tiffany is a ten-year-old version of Shannon – physically, at least. (p.60)

But in #112, Kristy and the Sister War, Tiffany is 11 again, though she is still getting sat for.

Reading the BSC often requires a suspension of disbelief. The shy, mousy girl getting the guy (pre-makeover, even!), middle school girls of diverse personality and interests and social standing being the best of friends, thirteen-year-olds being entrusted with the care of infants–if you started to list everything about the BSC that wasn’t realistic, you’d be listing for a long time. The most glaring logic problem in the series, though, is obviously the Stoneybrook Time Warp. How many Christmases, Summer Vacations, and Valentine’s Days can you have and still never make it out of eighth grade?

This bothers some readers. They wish they could have seen the girls experience high school, and all the challenges that brings. A series that comes to mind that displays a different model of dealing with time is the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. We start with Alice in elementary school (granted, the three prequels came out long after I’d be interested in reading about an elementary schooler, so my Alice knowledge begins with The Agony of Alice), and I’ve read that once Alice graduates from high school, Naylor plans to write a book about Alice’s life through middle age. Unlike the BSC’s rigorous publishing schedule in the 90s, Alice books come out once a year or so. The reader, I suppose, might pick up the earlier books in their elementary school library, and then discover the more YA Alice books in middle school and early high school. Alice ages along with her target audience. As her readers get more mature, so do Alice’s experiences and perspective.

Some would have liked to see a similar model for the BSC. Spend 50 books or so in the eighth grade, then move the girls up to ninth. I, personally, am not in this camp. I don’t even want to see a reunion book. Keeping the girls in the eighth grade allows the books to maintain a certain innocence and element of escapism. Although I suppose that in real life, eighth grade is less innocent than appears in the BSC (the most scandalous thing in the books is some tiny wine bottles hidden in push-down socks), it is believeable to maintain a lack of real-world issues as long as the girls are still in middle school.

In California Diaries, although four of the five core characters are also 13-year-old eighth graders, the move to the high school building alone makes for a more serious, mature series, which deals with tougher issues is a more realistic way than the BSC ever does. In BSC, when they do tackle serious issues (outside of divorce and death), they’re happening to someone not in the Club. It’s a friend, a neighbor, a client. The core characters are only observers. In California Diaries, it’s Maggie, it’s Amalia, it’s Ducky, it’s Sunny. Only Dawn remains a passive observer. Perhaps she brought an amulet with her from Connecticut to keep these things from happening directly to her. Regardless, the mere setting change from middle school to high school brings about a whole new set of questions, even though they’re still eighth graders.

Too much would have had to happen to let the BSC mature from eighth grade to ninth. Probably certain elements of the Club would have been rated as socially undesirable by other, more popular elements. A wider world would have meant new friends and new experiences, which would have shaken the Club to the core and probably rendered it unable to exist. By keeping the Club in an eighth grade purgatory, it allowed the publishers to churn out stories for fourteen years, without ever having to demonstrate real maturity or growth. Which is just fine, because that’s exactly what people wanted from the BSC. It wasn’t a series that you were supposed to read for ten years; I would say that most read for one or two and then moved on to something else. They didn’t need to mature with their readers, the way Alice does.

I have to say that I prefer the Time Warp model for the BSC. It takes you to a place removed from the troubles and stresses of everyday life. Ahh, the idyllic suburb of Stoneybrook. Even with counterfeiters and jewel thieves and psychotic fans running around, it still manages to retain its bucolic quality.

One of the marked features of the time warp is that no matter when someone’s birthday supposedly falls, after Logan Likes Mary Anne!, if you’re in eighth grade, you’re thirteen, and if you’re in sixth grade, you’re eleven, and so on. Even if you’re Dawn and your birthday is in February, if it’s an eighth grade June, you’re stull not fourteen.

Having everybody be thirteen in eighth grade and so on is kind of strange, because at least where I come from, it was common for people to be older. People like Mary Anne and Abby, who were born in September and October, respectively, usually wait a year to start kindergarten. Even kids with late July birthdays like me are often spend an extra year in pre-k.

There is only one exception that I’ve been able to find, and it’s sixteen-year-old sophomore Ducky McCrae in the California Diaries. Maybe his parents were too busy travelling to remember to enroll the Duckster in school. Maybe The Powers That Be wanted a character who could drive, thus giving the girls more independence, but didn’t want their friend to be a Junior in high school. But James Kodaly is a junior, and Amalia dates him, so that kind of makes that theory a bit strange.

Oh, and Mark Jaffe is thirteen and in seventh grade, because Claudia dates him for his “maturity.”

Are those two the only exceptions?

I haven’t written in five days… a long time, I know. I do have a reason, of course. School is starting for me so I’ve been busy with registration, settling in, etc. Anyway, I felt that now is a good time to address this issue, a sticky one in the BSC books. The First Day of School.

#10 (Logan Likes Mary Anne!) is the last BSC book with a normal first day. We see Mary Anne excited about her school supplies (a blue binder with dividers for each subject, some gum) and schedule comparisons. After this book, the Stoneybrook Time Warp began and the BSC would be stuck in eighth grade until Graduation Day and go through a billion Christmases, Valentine’s Days, etc.

It gets even weirder around book 100. Here, Kristy is planning the Fall Into Fall Festival Block Party, and everyone feels that with eighth grade starting, they have more work. In 101, Claudia Kishi, Middle School Dropout, everyone is really excited about starting eighth grade because they feel like the teachers are really starting to treat them like adults. This is pretty stupid because they had already been in eighth grade since #10. I can deal with the Stoneybrook Time Warp, but not to this extent. They could have just said, Oh Claud is just really struggling in school. Instead they had to make this whole big deal about starting eighth grade. Claud should be fine with starting eighth grade by now; she’s done it at least ten times. So, are there any books besides CKMSD where we see the girls starting eighth grade and making a big deal about it? In most books that take place in the summer they just don’t mention the whole grade thing, I think, or just say that the girls are eighth and sixth graders at SMS. Usually I can ignore the time warp, but as I said, this one is particularly annoying.

On another note, here is a quote from Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls that really bugs me: “Now hear this!” shouted Kristy. “No yelling, no running, and no jumping inside this house – and I mean it.” She saw that Rob was about to say something, so she added, “One false move and I’ll punch your lights out. That goes for all of you. Do you hear me?”

OK Kristy, threatening to punch little kids.

Here is another quote that is just funny, from Kristy and the Walking Disaster: They are Claudia Kishi, Mary Anne Spier, Dawn Schafer, Mallory Pike, and Jessi Ramsey, and they are all different and special.


ETA: I just realized upon rereading this post that I said #10 was MA vs Logan. It most certainly is not. I think that was a typing Freudian slip that displays my intense hatred for Bruno, which I surely will touch on another time.