The Baby-Sitters Club

In the sixth grade I convinced my friends to form a babysitting club inspired by The Baby-Sitter Club books. At first it was all about fandom and nothing about the business, another of our elaborate imagination games where we each picked parts. I remember feeling torn because the character I most wanted to be like was artistic, unique Claudia, but in reality I felt more like shy, plain Mary Anne. When it came to picking officer titles we were in a real pickle, for one because there were six of us and only four in the original books. The process of assigning offices went more along the lines of relating ourselves to the characters–“Well she has blond hair like Stacy so she should be treasurer,” “But she’s an only child like Stacy so maybe she should”–than talking about our various skill sets and what we each could contribute. We named our club Sitters Unanimous but when we drew up our first flyer for advertisement we spelled it Sitters Anonymous. We proudly showed my mom and she gently suggested we double-check with a dictionary before we had copies made and went out distributing them. Our club lasted at least a year because I remember celebrating our one-year anniversary with an awards ceremony in my living room. And business-wise we actually ended up having a good deal of success. I met a lot of families who I babysat for through the end of high school. I continued to be a fan of the books long after my fellow club mates had moved on to other interests and more sophisticated reading, although I kept my enthusiasm for the books on the down low. You get a lot of weird looks if you bring up The Baby-Sitters Club when everyone else wants to discuss the homecoming dance or their honors English essays for East of Eden.

This series of books is dusted with nostalgia and fond childhood memories for me, so you can imagine how ridiculously happy I was when I came across this article last week about Scholastic planning a Baby-Sitters Club comeback. Not only will they be reissuing the early books (updated to give them a contemporary feel), but Ann M. Martin has also written a prequel. I’ll be very curious to see what she does with that. I have mixed feelings about the updates to the original books though. I understand the reasoning–they want them to be relatable to the sixth-graders of today, not twenty-some years ago. There are a lot of original details that I could see might cause confusion to a new reader (“Mom, what is a perm? What’s a Walkman?).* I wonder how they’ll handle other things too–will the girls still place an ad in their local paper or will they list themselves online at Craigslist? They originally decided to hold meetings at Claudia’s because she was the only one with a phone in her room. With the prevalence of cordless phones and cell phones, I doubt that logic will remain in an updated version. Maybe now Claudia will be the only one with a computer in her room, or Wi-Fi. The entire mystery premise of the second book, Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls is going to need updating in this age of caller ID, call return, and number blocking.

I know my mixed-feelings are rooted in nostalgia. I grew up with these girls and so I prefer the books that reflect my childhood experiences, sans cordless and cell phones, texting, and Internet. Back when my friend with the dot matrix printer was the techie of the group, when the adults got in heated debates over Beta versus VHS, not Mac versus PC. When I still had to get up off the couch and turn the dial on my TV to change the channel from Full House to Alf.

I’m glad they’re reissuing the series for a new generation of girls, and I’m sure I will read them out of curiosity. But for me, the magic of The Baby-Sitters Club will always lie in the yellowed pages of my 80s paperback versions.

*Not that I don’t think young readers could appreciate books set in their original time periods that are different than present day. I gobbled up the original Nancy Drew mysteries when I was a child and never batted an eye at outdated references. If anything, it opened up conversations with my parents about the differences between their childhood and mine or my grandparents’ childhood and mine. Regardless of how much I like these new versions of the BSC and how well they do, when the time comes I’ll be introducing my future children to my original paperbacks for the opportunity they will offer me to walk my kids through a piece of my childhood. (Not to mention by then, these new “contemporary” versions will be dated once again, so why not introduce them to the originals?)

Coincidences and Katherine Paterson

The world is a funny place. I sat down with my breakfast this morning and a book I’d just pulled off the shelf. I wanted something different than the thriller mystery I’m currently in the middle of (I’m not so keen on eating a poached egg while reading the description of a three-day old murdered man). When I skimmed my bookshelf for something to fit my mood, my eyes landed on The Invisible Child by Katherine Paterson. I finished my egg about two pages into one essay, but I sat there to read on, finished that essay and then read two more. When I closed the book it was amazing to me how much I felt like I’d just been in her presence. I don’t know how her voice sounds in reality, but I could hear her talking to me as I read, as clearly as if I’d been sitting in an auditorium with her spellbound by her thoughts and stories. I headed upstairs to get to my work, marveling over how writing can do that–transport a person into your kitchen so you’ve felt like you’ve spent time with them (while they have meanwhile been vacuuming, or checking their pantry to see if they need more chicken stock as they draft their grocery list, or some other activity that keeps them occupied and completely oblivious to the time they’ve also just spent with you in your kitchen). I resolved to read more of her books and then redirected my focus to my day and my To Do list, stopping first to check my email. And there in the subject line of the first new email waiting for me was the name Katherine Paterson.

How weird is that? It is totally mind-bending to me when coincidences like that happen. I think, “I should call my mother” and then the phone rings and it’s my mother. Her book wasn’t even the book I had in mind when I went to my bookcase, but the blue spine of The Invisible Child winked at me and I couldn’t resist.

Since typing this, I’ve had two more emails come in with Katherine Paterson as the subject, the reason being she was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature this morning, succeeding Jon Scieszka. An excellent choice I think. Having freshly finished those essays, I’m especially curious to see what she does over the next two years.

Switching gears a bit, I’d like to thank the handful of you who have continued to check in over here on my little patch of internet. This blog has been neglected for sure, but it wasn’t forgotten or abandoned. Since my last post many months ago, I’ve half-drafted about a dozen posts but never finished any for various reasons. I’ll just say, 2009 was a challenging year for me. Emotionally turbulent, is the best way I can think to summarize it. It’s the type of year that I can now see might be one I look back on in a decade’s time as being pivotal, although that never occurred to me in my present day-to-day as I was going through the year. It was just a year of hurdle after hurdle, and just when you think you’ve leaped over the biggest one and are finished with the hurdles for awhile, you run smack into the next and land on your a**.

So, sincerely, thank you to those of you who have come back to check in. Your interest has been motivating and uplifting. I do have plans for future posts, some ideas I’d like to pursue for interviews with writers, and an inclination to spruce up the place around here a bit, so please keep coming back.

Catching Up: A Three-Part Series

In which I cover three book- and/or writing-related things that have been keeping me busy since I last posted.

Part Three: Friends recently welcomed their first baby and in celebration I co-hosted a shower for them. The theme: Build Baby’s Library. The mom-to-be had made a comment many months ago that she thought one of the best gifts you can give to expecting parents are books for the baby. And of course, me being a book lover, I made a mental note of that comment. The theme worked well too, I think, because this was the last of three showers that were thrown for them so they had already received many of the baby necessities.

There’s so much you could do with this theme, don’t you think? Ours was a very casual affair held at my friend the co-host’s home. The expecting couple was showered with books as gifts, of course. I made invitations using a vintage Mother Goose postcard. I glued a copy of the postcard to cardstock and printed the party info on back along with urls for Indie Bound, to encourage shopping at local independents, and Vintage Children’s Books, for finding copies of old favorites. Very simple to make and it only took me a few hours to print, cut, and assemble everything. The cake was actually cupcakes decorated and arranged to look like Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar. We initially planned to make the cupcake caterpillar ourselves—and I do think it would be a fairly easy do-it-yourself project—but we wussed out and ended up taking a picture to Target, where they do cupcake-cake creations of pretty much anything you’d like. I didn’t think to take a picture of our cupcake caterpillar (it turned out really well though), but here’s a cute version made by a professional baker I found online:

Speaking of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar, did you know that the book recently celebrated its 40th anniversary? 40 years! That’s amazing for a picture book to stay in print that long. To create something that has remained relevant and popular for 40 years would be incredibly gratifying. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts has been high on my list of places I’d like to go for years now. I’d love to take a road trip with my husband along the east coast and make that one of our stops. Also, did you know that Eric Carle keeps a blog?

Here is a video of Eric Carle talking about creating The Very Hungry Caterpillar (which was originally about Willi the Worm, a worm who ate too much. Isn’t that funny? Good call in changing it to a caterpillar.)

Catching Up: A Three-Part Series

In which I cover three book- and/or writing-related things that have been keeping me busy since I last posted.

Part Two: Sara Gruen. My husband gave me tickets to the Denver Pen and Podium series, and Sara Gruen was the author I was most excited to see. I love her book Water for Elephants. She wrote a great article for Writer magazine about the research she did in preparation for writing Water for Elephants. And she’s an animal lover, so I was pretty sure I would enjoy hearing her speak.

She was initially scheduled to speak in November, but had to postpone until February due to illness. At her lecture in February, the person who gave the introduction informed us that Sara Gruen had come down with the flu that morning but was determined to speak that night. Because she was ill though, she wouldn’t be signing books. This was a bit of a bummer, as I’d brought a first edition of Water for Elephants with me and was excited to get it signed, but what can you do, right? And the second she came out and began talking it was clear she was truly ill, and not just staging a diva illness to cut the evening short. (Incidentally, I recently read that she also canceled a March appearance with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation due to illness. Three doozies of a cold or flu in five months’ time is a lot! Wonder if she’s allergic to Colorado? Her next book was scheduled to come out this spring but publication has been postponed, which may or may not have anything to do with this string of illnesses. Kind of makes me worry that she’s seriously ill, but I hope it’s just been a run of bad luck with germs and cooties.)

Her voice was raspy and faint from laryngitis, but she told us many stories about the research involved in Water for Elephants (some of which you can find in that article in Writer magazine—I would provide a link but the website says the article is available to subscribers only. You can find it in your library’s magazine archives or order the back issue from the magazine’s website. I want to say it was February 2007). She told us how, in order to buckle down and finish writing Water for Elephants, her husband set up a desk for her in the closet and she sat in there for hours at a time wearing soundproof headphones and working on an Internet-less computer so she could get completely lost in her fictional world without distractions.

My favorite part was listening to her talk about her latest research with Bonobo apes. Her soon-to-be released book is called Ape House and it’s about Bonobo apes that become part of a reality show. She spoke to us about visiting the Great Ape Trust of Iowa where she befriended two of the Bonobo apes. Apparently there is a bit of a process in order to be allowed to visit the apes, and Ms. Gruen wanted to make sure they would welcome her. So she asked the scientists if she could bring backpacks full of goodies for them, which were a huge hit with the apes. She said when she first arrived, she asked if she would be able to visit with the apes and the scientists—who had previously told the apes about her visit and that she was bringing gifts—said, “Oh, yes. In fact, they are insisting on it!”

It was quite touching and fascinating to hear about how well these apes communicate and understand people. If you’d like to read more about her visit at the Great Ape Trust, there is an article about it here.

One last bit that I thought was funny and sweet: after her visit, Ms. Gruen was worried that the apes might forget her. So as a gift she gave them a subscription to a fruit-of-the-month club so they would get a tasty reminder of her month after month. Wanting to maintain a friendship with apes—that’s my kind of person!

Catching Up: A Three-Part Series

In which I cover three book- and/or writing-related things that have been keeping me busy since I last posted.

Part One: The American Library Association Midwinter Meeting.
This fell at a busy time for me, and I almost didn’t go, but I am so glad I did. You might think this ALA event is just for librarians and a select number of published writers and illustrators (I used to think that, anyway), but it’s not. Anyone can purchase a day pass, which is good for the whole weekend, and browse the publisher’s stalls where they have what seemed like their entire current catalog of books on display. They also hand out advance reading copies (ARCs) of upcoming books from their 2009 lists. Initially, I was most excited about the ARCs, but I soon realized the truly beneficial advantage for a writer (and I would think for an illustrator too) is browsing the publisher’s stalls.

Browsing the publisher’s stalls is an excellent way of doing market research. The book displays give you a visual overview of each publishing house. You can quickly assess if their lists are novel-heavy or picture book-heavy or a fairly even mix; the ratio of fiction to non-fiction; the types of books they seem to be interested in—if mysteries or chick lit or historical fiction dominate a collection, for example. You can also quickly note the authors and illustrators who publish with each house. Imprints are grouped together with their larger publishing house, giving you clarification on which imprints go with which house. Representatives from the publisher staff the booths—sometimes marketing people, sometimes editorial—and everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic and interested in talking about their books. You get a sense of each publisher’s personality and how well your work might fit in with them.

Current trends are also very apparent—this didn’t come as a surprise to me, but many publishers had a paranormal romance (Twilightesque) that was front and center or in its own display. (And remember, it’s often said that if you notice a trend in what is currently being published, then you can assume that acquiring editors and agents have moved past that and are looking for the next thing. Although, in any case I try not to think about trends as far as my writing goes, although I do think it’s important to be aware of what’s currently popular.) In addition to noticing who was promoting paranormal romances, I also paid attention to who wasn’t. This may not be an accurate assessment, but it seemed to me that any publisher could jump on the Twilight bandwagon if they wanted to, so the fact that they didn’t told me something about their publishing interests.

This is all research, of course, that you can accomplish on your own with a little extra legwork or mousework (except perhaps the talking one-on-one with marketing and editorial representatives about their work). But if you have the opportunity to attend an ALA meeting, I think it’s really a worthwhile event for any writer or illustrator. Seeing many of the publishers together in one place is impressive and informative, and if you are a keen observer (or even a so-so one) I think you’ll be amazed at the additional information you are able to pick up.

And now, for your Saint Patrick’s Day viewing pleasure, watch Beaker bring it on home with “O Danny Boy”: