Most cultural products, in some way or another, for better or for worse, surprise you. Stranger Things is more melancholy than you expect, Philip Roth is funnier. 2001 is a space movie that begins with apes and ends with a fetus.
The Baby-Sitters Club, though, gives you precisely what you expect. That was true for the untold thousands of girls who curled up with Ann M. Martin’s comforting novels in their original run from 1986 to 2000, and it was true for me when I delved into the series for the first time via two of the newly-released audio editions.
Martin, who personally wrote the first few dozen books before handing the series off to ghostwriters, provides just the right amount of drama, just the right balance between playdates and first dates, just the right depth of backstory.
What distinguishes the books is that they’re comfort food for an uncomfortable time. Girls who were a couple years younger than the tween quartet of Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey could vicariously explore the daunting responsibility of remunerative employment, the increasingly complex interpersonal relationships of adolescence, and life changes from first bras to new stepdads to moving across town.
Millennials who binged on the paperbacks in their youth can now introduce their own kids — or re-introduce themselves — to the series as Audible drops all 131 titles in audio form. The iconic first five books are read by Elle Fanning, lending a little star power to the project.
I previewed two titles: Kristy’s Big Day (1987) and Logan Likes Mary Anne! (1988). For the former, narrator Brittany Pressley brings an appropriately commanding tone to the story of club president Kristy leading the club through a (relatively) grueling week of collective sitting for a dozen-plus kids when relatives come to town for her mom’s wedding.
In the latter, Emily Bauer deploys a more precious voice as the shy Mary Anne starts going out with Logan, a boy babysitter from Louisville. Dropping her pitch for Logan’s slow drawl, Bauer sounds more like a slightly buzzed cowpoke than an eighth-grade transplant to Connecticut…but, whatever. Boys are such a mystery.
The hazard of any audiobook involving child characters is the temptation to make them sound like Smurfs. The Audible productions don’t entirely avoid that tendency, but the narrators do delight in Martin’s sharp ear for kids’ peculiar logic and their vast capacity for moral indignation.
If you grew up in the ’80s, you may find your head spinning a bit with the realization that the world of the Baby-Sitters Club now seems in some ways as distant as Anne of Green Gables’ turn-of-the-century farm life. The girls prep for a party by organizing their tape collections, moms rock jean skirts, and Logan’s way of killing time on the phone with Mary Anne is to describe the plot of Meatballs.
The phone. The phone, the phone, the phone. If anything amazes today’s kids about life before smartphones, it may be just how much effort went into coordinating communication via land lines.
To take jobs, the Baby-Sitters Club needs to designate a time when they’re collectively available to answer the phone. When Stacey wants Mary Anne to come to a party, Mary Anne has to hang up, call her dad, then call her date, then call her friend back to let her know that yes, she’s going to the party. All of this with a ten-minute call limit imposed by her dad, because what if he needs to reach her?
Although the stories are simple, they’re never dumb. In one poignant moment, Mary Anne flees a party when her enthusiastic friends surprise her with a cake: she can’t handle being the unexpected center of attention. She gets home and waits for someone to call and apologize. The phone doesn’t ring, nor does anyone come up the walk.
Eventually, of course, everything works out — there are still 121 books left to go — but Martin lets Mary Anne, and us, just sit for a minute with that ambiguity. Were the club members wrong to pull a stunt they should have known their friend would hate? Should Mary Anne have challenged herself to cope with a challenging situation? Yes, and yes. Growing up is complicated, even when you’re not quite a teenager yet.