Because nobody actually asked for it: Baby-Sitters Club snark, part 1

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So here I am, waiting anxiously to see if Kevin makes it through to be Top Chef  (nobody spoil me!), and meawhile staring at a copy of The Baby-Sitters-Club #56: Keep Out, Claudia!, which I have contracted to recap.

In case you hadn’t noticed, my life is weird.

At any rate, welcome to the Very Special Episode in which the babysitters learn about Racism. Although… they don’t actually learn much about it, and now that I think about it they don’t do much about it either. And frankly the title sounds more like the kids won’t let Claudia join their Kewl New Klub, or something.

 

Generally, in this situation, these series would go for something like Claudia and the Horrible Secret or Claudia and the Terrible Discovery. Except, whoops, they were saving those for the Anorexia and Child Abuse VSEs respectively. So racism gets the comparatively subtle treatment.
At least, in theory. In practice, ever since Jessi the One Who is Black showed up that’s all she does, book after book, is be black and sensitive about it and thus demonstrate that all is not entirely sunshine and roses in Connecticut suburbia.

So my fourteen-year-old-self can be excused for thinking that an *entire book* dedicated to racism would at least involve skinheads, or a plague of swastika graffiti. Say, it would be awesome, no? The BSC could get all concerned as their little charges learn to spit on the sidewalk, and learn about piercings in places other than ears *sound of Mallory’s head exploding*, and then discover that the graffiti artist was really the nice kid whose parents work too hard, and everyone would learn a Valuable Lesson about not judging people by the number of their tattoos.

OK, back in the real world, we get #56. The cover blurb reads "Who wouldn’t want Claudia for a baby-sitter?" Um, people with taste? Seriously, as you’ll recall, this series takes place in the late ’80s/early ’90’s. I forget exactly when the whole Pokemon-causes-seizures scandal broke, but I bet more than one Stoneybrook parent looked askance at Our Heroine’s fashion sense after that.
On this cover, though, not so much with the eye-searing. Just the standard leggings/tunic combo beloved of all trendy middle-schoolers at the time — except that the tunic is neatly buttoned right up to the throat. An odd note, but frankly the way the Children of the Corn over there are staring at poor Claud, I do not blame her in the slightest if she feels the need to keep her neck protected. Creepy neo-Nazi spawn are creepy. Especially the teeny navy blazers.

Moving inside. I gather by this point most of the books were ghostwritten — and just parenthetically, this general discovery totally messed up my tender preteen mind. From an adult POV, you of course can’t expect any sane human being to single-handedly crank out a monthly teen soap over years and years, but as a kid, it’s nothing short of betrayal. Francine Pascal, guru of cool, was FAKING IT! I was crushed… good thing, too, or Shoe Central would probably be totally cluttered up with Harlequins by now. Instead, here I am snarking away. There is probably grant money in deciding which is better for your mental health.

Anyway. Meet BSC vice-president Claudia Kishi, whom most readers would recognise by now as the artsy, unconventional one. Why, she’s so open-minded she even likes classical music! Don’t knock Bach, she informs us; he may never have made it on MTV, but he’s not too shabby for an old dead white guy… OK, that last bit may only have played out in my head. But it’s moments like this when I suspect the ghostwriters had their own ways of relieving boredom.

Not only does Claud go to bat for one of the greatest musicians in history, she’s cool with gingers, too! Right, probably not the point of mentioning the Rodowsky kids’ hair colour before even their names, but still pretty funny. I had assumed we were setting up for an Irish-American history lesson, but later we learn that they’re actually Polish. Driven to emigrate by the legendary Warsaw Potato Famines, no doubt.

Shea The Oldest Redhead is practicing piano, yelling ‘Bullfrogs!’ every time he screws up, and oooooo-kay, I guess the writers were even more bored than I thought. Probably the editor called to check on the ‘cute kiddy filler’ quota just as the Jack Daniels ran out. That’d also handily explain why Jackie The Komically Klutzy Redhead is suddenly being shown understanding on a level with a Lifetime movie. Cheer up, little walking disaster! Someday, they’ll find a cure!

Meannwhile, Claudia is evidently working on her multi-page essay on why the entire world should just shut up about the responsibility thing and appreciate her for the in-duh-vidual she is. As noted, this is her whole schtick, that she’s literally too cool for school (but not to wipe up drool 24/7, apparently). Which is completely frelling hilarious, given she’s a character in a preteen book series and all. Anything resembling actual coolness in one of these suckers would probably cause the universe to implode.

Granted, it is realistic for thirteen-year-olds to be this oblivious. I’m not sure they realistically express it in terms cribbed from their guidance counsellors – shouldn’t Claudia be too busy gluing bottlecaps to her Barbies to have picked up words like ‘hypotenuse’ and ‘dowdy’? – but there you go. By the 100+ ‘funky’ outfit, we should probably be just be glad the liquor store re-opened in time.

Back at Aesop Central, piano practice continues, and there’s some kiddy-level chat about how great it would be to be famous… uh-oh. The hamster just got on the wheel in Claudia’s head. I’ll spare you the details of the latest ‘out-of-the-mouth-of-babes’ subplot for the moment, but trust me, you’ll want to get out the teeny little Wile E. Coyote umbrella now and save time.

Speaking of dowdy, she gets home and OH HAI JANINE DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE I WAS BLINDED BY MY OWN SPARKLINESS. See, Claudia’s older sister is a ‘genius’, but she somehow managed to lock herself out of the house, ha ha! Janine’s traditionally a featured guest at Claudia’s pity-parties, because while she can spell and other boring stuff, does she have fashion sense? No she does not.

But super-inclusive Claudia loves her anyway! Seriously, she really says this. Then she invites Janine up to her room and patiently shows her all her art projects. Apparently the writers thought there was a telethon for the heartbreak of frumpiness.

This whole thing with Janine the uber-nerd – besides being severely ironic in a book about stereotyping, given that the Kishis are Japanese-American — is just incredibly annoying; she’s dowdy and a bookworm and speaks in broad Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness… basically, y’know, me.
Even more so, when I was fourteen and in love with words. Even now, the family gag is that I speak in paragraphs instead of sentences (I know, hard to believe, huh?) So the only conclusion I could come to was that ANM and/or Scholastic either a) figured really smart people wouldn’t be caught dead reading these books, or more likely b) just didn’t care, like the rest of the world, ergo I really was a loser. Thanks, guys!

Oh, and BTW: I grew up to work in high-end fashion for a national department store. Because I can spell.

Eventually, Janine leaves — because really, there’s only so long you can try to find Acceptance via a ceramic cactus without cracking up — and we segue into Chapter Two: Meet the Best Friends You’ll Ever Have!TM

Aka middle-aged ghosties trying to reproduce girlish gushing over other girls. Which means we basically got the Mad-Lib edition of Lolita every damn month. These girls have a LOT of hair, and most if not all of it is ‘silky’ and ‘shiny’. Eye colour is carefully noted. Jessi, the dancer, has ‘endless long legs’ and, in this book at least, ‘skin the colour of cocoa.’ Etc. Ahem. Hilights:

–Kristy Thomas is the one who came up with the idea for the Club, ie. that the moms in the ‘burb can call one number three times a week (M-W-F) and reach seven pro sitters. It worked out brilliantly, because the adults of Stoneybrook apparently would never dream of waking up on, say, *Thursday* morning and deciding to explore the wide world. I am guessing they’ve been confronted by one too many times by pitiful-eyed young clubmembers muttering “But, I can’t… you don’t know what she…” Kristy Thomas: community benefactor or hellspawn from “It’s a GOOD Life?” You decide.

At any rate, she’s short, loud, bossy, sweatshirt-wearing, and in real life the more ‘sophisticated’ BSC types would not be caught dead hanging out with her. In fact it was kinda hard to see why any one of them would hang out with each other. But anytime one tried to explore life beyond the club, the others reacted like she’d just shattered the Fellowship of the One (Teething) Ring.

Which is partly why we got this entire chapter each book – they had to spend that much time explaining that the core three grew up as neighbors, then Kristy moved away when her mom married a ‘genuine’ millionaire (which sounds stupid, until you realise preparing girls to fear fake ones wasn’t such a bad idea at the time).

Mary-Anne, her inexplicable BFF from birth, is sweet and shy and frankly neurotic – ah, that is, sensitive. Right. Because her mom’s dead, and her dad insisted she wear pigtails and little-girl clothes until age twelve, and boy is it a pain when Daddy’s all disturbingly creepy and controlling, amiright, young female readers?
But it’s OK, now she can wear her hair down (bad Shoebrain! Come back from there! Bad!) and is, in Claudia’s words, ‘slowly becoming trendier’. No kidding. A couple books from now she’ll chop off the hair and buy flowered leggings. After which her uber-inclusive pals will go all Balrog on her butt and force her to apologise. Go ask your Mommy what ‘masochism’ means, girls! It’ll be fun!

For a wonder — even Claudia calls it ‘miraculous’ — they do allow M-A to have a boyfriend. Called Logan. Who also serves as an alternate BSC member. Did I mention this series was written by adult women?

Oh, and there’s the standard huge honking deal made about how Mary Anne made friends with a girl named Dawn Schaefer who’d moved back to her divorced mom’s hometown. Where apparently Mrs Schaefer used to – are you sitting down? – date Mary Anne’s dad. Cliché no. 31247856 unfolded right on cue, and the best friends became — stepsisters!

…yeah, them’s the thrills, folks.

So, introducing vegetarian eco-warrior Dawn, the California girl, and the usual amusing tapdance around how she’s annoying as all hell. Er, that is, she’s so outspoken! and principled! and won’t change for anybody! (Unless they have a Y-chromosome, in which case she sets land-speed records for releasing hairspray into the ozone.) And you wonder why Mary Anne cries a lot? In a few years Dawn will be off getting tear-gassed out of her tiny mind in Seattle, but for now we have to put up with her.

Next up is New York native Stacey McGill, Claudia’s own BFF. Stacey is ‘sophisticated’, in that very special middle-school way, meaning she dots her i’s with hearts and perms her hair. She also wears jumpsuits a lot, and undoubtedly thinks Vanilla Ice is, like, way cool. But hark! The Distant Drums of Poignancy start up yet again: Stacey is diabetic. She has to inject insulin, which is icky, but she’s a survivor, which is cool. “In our own way, we’re all survivors,” muses Claudia, possibly referencing her own struggle to learn to spell ‘diabetes’.

Finally – for no discernable reason — we have eleven-year-old junior officers Mallory Pike and Jessi Ramsey, who are friends even though they’re NOTHING alike. You really don’t want to keep emphasising that, book, is all I’m saying. Mallory is ‘white’, homely and the universe’s buttmonkey, while Jessi is African-American, lovely, graceful, talented… and, in this book at least, has the deductive skills of lettuce. I don’t know if there were any BSC Mysteries starring Jessi, but they must’ve been doozies.

They all meet in Claudia’s room, because she has her own phone line. Which is totally something every super-strict parent who forces their daughter to hide junk food and Nancy Drew mysteries would spring for. (Yes, Nancy Drew. Yes, this is supposed to be 1990-something. Frankly I am starting to wonder if there’s a convent in this neighborhood we haven’t been told about.)

There’s an amusing bit at the beginning of the meeting where Claudia pulls out a bag of wholewheat crackers for her alterna-diet buddies, and this is played with the friends in total. Shock. Meaning every other meeting Claudia has been not only carelessly excluding her BFFs, but cheerfully scarfing the gooey goodies right in front of them.

Meeting. First order of business: Claudia’s brilliant idea… ‘scuse me just a sec.

*grabs teeny umbrella*

Right. Now that we’ve learned about the many, many different other things they all could be doing/dealing with/being irritating about right now, it’s naturally time to put on a musical performance with the neighborhood kiddies!

Everybody thinks this is a faboo prospect, since lots of their charges play instruments. Yeah, and if they’re all as great as Shea ‘Bullfrogs!’ Rodowsky there, this should be a show for the ages alright. Hilariously, the ghosties are already giving us lines like ‘they’ll learn a lot just by experimenting’, as if most of it won’t be with each others’ skulls. Why, it’s almost as if, despite their differences, they really all share the same hopes and dreams! Also possibly ADHD!

Finally, the phone rings and we get the A plot underway. New client Mrs Lowell needs a sitter for the Aryan poster kidlets on the cover. Uh-oh… they don’t play instruments, do they? After a goofy bit in which dauntless survivor Claud insists they not call her art ‘show’ a ‘thing’, Mary Anne takes the job.

Chapter three opens with a handwritten blurb about how darling Caitlin, Mackenzie (‘Mackie’) and Celeste Lowell are. This is an ongoing conceit meant to represent that chapter’s sitter, here Mary Anne, writing in the club notebook. In which all of their jobs are recorded in detail because… I have no idea. It always baffled me how they found the time to write or read, since they only have half-hour meetings. I pictured the one writing while the others crowded over her shoulder, because it’s easier than dealing with Kristy after she’s been awake all night imagining what they might be up to.

At any rate, Mary Anne shows up at the Lowells’ house, and is received warmly, albeit is immediately weirded out by Denise Lowell’s quick up-and-down inspection. Uh-huh. Because these experienced pro sitters have never dealt with cautious parents wanting to check out the people their darlings will be hanging out alone with. Never mind the fact that this is Mary Anne, who gets upset when her cat glances at her sideways.

So they go inside, and we get a totally non-sequitur riff on the sequence in The Sound of Music where the Captain calls the kids to come line up in uniforms to meet the nanny. Which proves that… racists just naturally think in military terms? They still have Whites-Only private schools in this universe? Musicals are evil? (Hey, sign me up for that newsletter.)

Anyway, she’ll be back at five,here’s the emergency numbers, yada yada yada Mary Anne’s… sitting credentials? In book #56 of The Baby-Sitters Club series? I guess that’s another suefire way you can tell racists, kids: they’re extremely conscientious parents. Try that one out the next time you want to up your curfew.

Actually, of course, this is what in the trade is called manufacturing suspense. When they’re not trying to convince us that thirteen-year-olds playing preschool band directors is a spiffy idea, the ghosties are going to great lengths to keep the Horrible Secret of the Lowells’ beliefs intact until the Lesson is taught (or the word count is reached, whichever.) Unfortunately…well, I’ll be charitable here and assume the writers didn’t know the artist was going to put Nietzche’s grandkids on the cover, but still.

Therefore it spoils nothing to note that Mrs. Lowell is actually a really inept racist, even as they go. I mean, would anyone make cold calls, even in an upscale suburb, and just assume she’d hit the WASP jackpot? We’ve established she asked around about the BSC, why not casually get names at the same time? “Then there’s Claudia Kishi, she’s a little offbeat but – what? Oh, Chinese, I think. Or something. It’s always so hard to tell those people apart, you know…”

So she finally does leave, and the kids crowd around Mary Anne and drag her screaming off to the backyard to ber sacrificed to He Who Walks… wait, no, that’s my brain petulantly demanding sustenance, never mind. Really, they just start asking questions.

“Tell us about your family!” they demand. M-A is taken aback. “Do you have any pets?” they clarify, and suddenly M-A is all relaxed because she ‘loves curious kids’. That, and she realised the first option might involve explaining Daddy’s pigtail fetish. The readers hear ya, girlfriend.

Instead, kitten named Tigger and how many brothers and sisters and guess what my stepsister’s my best friend and oh God, this stuff is the definition of pointless filler. Even worse, it’s repeat filler, from the infodump last chapter. I suppose Mary-Anne may hope that if she affirms that her stepsister isn’t a self-absorbed bitch often enough, eventually it’ll become so. But I don’t see why we have to listen to it. C’mon, ghosties, would naming her favourite breakfast cereal or something really shatter the Continuity Plane forever?

Finally, we’ve exhausted the possibilities of kitties and cute kids to the extent that even elderly Grandmas are screaming “Uncle!”, and it’s time for the first Big Clue that things Aren’t As They Seem. When told that Mallory has seven brothers and sisters (M-A sounds noticeably more excited about this than the stepsister/BFF bit), eight-year-old Mackie says ‘She must be Catholic’. Then they ask M-A what religion she is.

Point for the ghosties; this isexactly the kind of stuff kids pick up from grownups and blurt out at the worst (best?) possible times. There was a recent case here in Canada where a little girl was removed from her home after telling her teachers, roughly, “We don’t like black people at our house!”

Of course, nothing like that will happen to the Lowell kids. In fact, nothing much will happen for the rest of this chapter, because the ‘mystery’ must be preserved, if only for the two people who haven’t yet twigged because they’ve just emerged from a decade under a rock being hit with a stupid stick.

In my head, this little dialogue continues with baby Celeste asking ‘What’s a Catholic?”, and before M-A can say anything Mackie informs her that they’re weird and stupid and Mommy says they don’t know any better, etc. M-A cuts him off, shocked, and tries to correct things. Then later, heading to the BSC meeting, realises she doesn’t actually know if Mallory’s Catholic. It’s just never come up. And the reader gets a chance to examine their own attitudes and hence think deeply about prejudice – plus, bonus ragging on Mallory! Whooo!

Also, frankly, I have always wondered what the deal was with the Pike family breeding machine. It could just be a childless-outsider thing, but as far as I’m concerned, families that large should be prepared to be objects of at least mild curiosity.

Never mind, gotta hurry to advance the moronic B-plot. Mary Anne gets to the meeting and Claudia immediately announces the latest wrinkle in her Great Idea. “That’s my job,” smiles Kristy — isn’t it cute how she toys with them before flaying their flesh in narrow strips? – but she, too, thinks helping the kiddies form a band would be terrific. Why aren’t there support groups for teenage stupidity, again?

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