Excellent feature profile of the Babysitters Club series author:
The painfully shy 61-year-old children’s-book titan is leading me through the front hall and explains that her pet was the reason she stopped living in Manhattan full time in 1998. “Sadie was just beside herself in the city,” Martin says softly. “Everything scared her.” (Martin grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and went to Smith, so her voice has a slight Waspy affect.) The two decamped to Martin’s house in Shokan, a hamlet just outside Woodstock, and now she comes to the city about once a month: “I feel a bit like a tourist whenever I’m here,” she says as we take a seat in the living room. “Every now and then, I’ll go out looking for a restaurant I liked and it’s gone.”
Martin is wearing a pink knit polo under which an undershirt daintily peeks out just below her collarbone. Her sandy-gray shoulder-length hair matches the sandy-gray living room: Years of direct sunlight have given the couch, chairs, and carpet a somewhat faded quality. Martin tells me that though she likes her “aloneness” upstate, she’s been taking in foster kittens through the ASPCA. “I’ve probably fostered hundreds of cats,” she says. “Right now I have five kittens, and their default setting is making the tiniest little hisses you can imagine,” she says. “Taking care of them is like my version of babysitting.”
And suddenly that word jolts me into remembering why I’m here: The demure woman sitting across from me is the almost-mythical author whose name my friends and I would utter excitedly in between mouthfuls of our Lunchables ham-and-cracker sandwiches.
The Essential Ann M. Martin: Kristy’s Great Idea, 1986; Super Special No. 1: Baby-sitters on Board!, 1988.
Ann M. Martin is, of course (if you are a young woman who was in grade school in the early ’90s), the author of the Baby-sitters Club series, which she launched almost exactly 30 years ago with Kristy’s Great Idea. (She’s also the author of Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure, out September 6, the first of three books that will attempt to reboot an earlier children’s series, Betty MacDonald’s 1950s-era Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.) Kristy’s great idea was to start the Baby-sitters Club, a group of four middle schoolers who’d get together three times a week to field phone calls from local Stoneybrook, Connecticut, parents looking for babysitters. Before Martin ended the series in 2000, her premise spawned over 300 middle-grade books, including spinoff series, with some 178 million copies in print today.
It’s hard to overstate the ravenousness with which young girls would devour these $3.99 tomes. At the time, a Baby-sitters Club book was about as close as we could get to a Snapchat-style look into the life of an early-’90s 13-year-old. The books were where a lot of young women first learned what it was like to experience divorce, the death of a grandparent, a first boyfriend, or a lost kitten. (If the concurrent Sweet Valley High series was a soap opera, the Baby-sitters Club was a family sitcom — Growing Pains, say.) Today, the books still resonate; BuzzFeed regularly churns out BSC-related nostalgia posts, and Martin’s own Facebook page has become a popular place for former readers to convene. A recent post she wrote on the series’ 30th anniversary was viewed, she says, 12 million times.
The idea for the series wasn’t actually Martin’s. The young writer (she was 30 when the first one came out) had penned three rather under-the-radar children’s books when Jean Feiwel, her editor at Scholastic, approached her with the idea for a short series about a babysitters’ club. Together, they developed what this vague concept might look like, and the first four books, each focused on a different member of the club, were released over the course of 1986 and early 1987. They did relatively well, and Scholastic asked for two more. By the sixth, which came out in July 1987, Martin says, “everything exploded.” Scholastic started ordering up 12 books at a time, at which point Martin and her editor David Levithan hand-selected a crew of writers to help keep up with the grueling pace. “But I outlined each and every book, figured out the plot, and line-edited them afterward,” she says.
All these years later, Martin still seems baffled by her success. “Kids just attached themselves to the characters,” she says. Among the most attachable were Kristy Thomas (the club’s tomboy founder), Claudia Kishi (the artistic one), Stacey McGill (a “boy-crazy” former New Yorker), and Dawn Schafer (a laid-back California transplant), and, the most Martin-like, Mary Anne Spier (the club’s introverted secretary).