The BSC Project – #0.5/The Prequel “The Summer Before”

The Summer Before
goodreads.com

And so The Project begins. I was a little apprehensive about reading this book, partly because starting this whole project is a daunting task, partly out of fear that I very well might have roped myself into reading a mountain of books with gigantic print, and partly because I have a deep-rooted fear of commitment that apparently extends to long-term reading projects. I was able put it off for a bit because I had a surprisingly hard time finding this book in my local bookstores, and had to order it online (boo). But once I had it, I couldn’t justify delaying for much longer. Sometimes you just have to do the damn thing, so I jumped in.

This book, a prequel that was actually written 10 years after the original stories ended, is set before the Baby-Sitters Club is officially formed. It revolves around the four original babysitters, Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, and Stacey. Fittingly, the prequel starts with 11-year-old (!!!) Kristy, a seasoned babysitter (AT 11) who was clearly born to be a boss babe. She is a tough little thing whose vulnerability only tends to show when she is struggling with the harsh realities of her father’s abandonment and her mother’s desire to move on. Then there’s Claudia, the gifted artist with strict-ish parents, a genius older sister (literally), and a kind grandmother who is her best friend and ally. Claudia, almost 12, has a growing interest in fashion and boys, and is afraid she’s outgrowing Kristy and Mary Anne, who have been her closest pals since forever. Mary Anne is trying to grow up, but her controlling/obsessive-compulsive dad is determined to keep her in pigtails, frilly outfits, and a vomitous pink bedroom. She is also struggling to know more about and connect with the memory of a mother who died when she was an infant. And Stacey, still living in New York through most of the book, is trying to cope with a disease her parents want to keep secret (it’s just type 1 diabetes, for god’s sake), and with her former friends who mysteriously start bullying her at school. So, these girls are dealing with a lot. I think most of us can relate to that.

In this book, each chapter is narrated by a different girl, so we get to see how different plotlines play out from different perspectives. For example, we see how Claudia’s blinding infatuation with her new boyfriend (who is 15…while she is just barely 12…) quietly distances her from Kristy and Mary Anne, or how Kristy’s misguided hope for her dad to be a better person inspires sadness, graciousness, and strength in the other two girls. We also see how Mary Anne’s father’s issues (setting down his paper involves adjusting it to perfectly fit the corner of the table) and suffocation affect the way people view Mary Anne. We even get glimpses of how something as simple as Mary Anne’s effortless act of decency towards new girl Stacey makes Stacey feel included and good again after the weeks (months?) of bullying and ostracism at her old school.

I was initially somewhat skeptical of the content, format, and style of this book. However, I very quickly remembered why I loved this series so much. The writing is simple but not overly juvenile, and the quality of the plot far outweighed any issues I might have had with the writing style. These girls are just young people dealing with universal problems, making mistakes, and trying to learn from them. It’s really the small moments that make these characters so lifelike and endearing, like watching Kristy waste her whole birthday, which her mother and brothers try to make really special, wishing and waiting for a dad who never shows up. Or when, at the end of the disastrous birthday night, Mary Anne sits down next to Kristy and wordlessly puts her arm around her friend. Ugh! The bond these girls share is enviable. A major part of what is really fantastic about these books is that they show young girls helping each other out and supporting one another, rather than the tired old tropes of girls constantly in competition for a boy’s interest, or girls putting each other down, or girls fighting over who’s prettiest. These books portray female friendships as they really are: complex, sometimes confusing, and generally pretty rad. It’s this portrayal, rather than some twee or sensationalized, cheap, unreal TV version of how girls treat and compete with each other, that helps make this series so wonderful.

I want more friends like these four little ladies in my life, but making friends as a grown up is as hard now as it was as a kid, if not harder. So until some awesome new lady friends magically appear, I suppose I’ll stick with the ones I find in books. These ones set a pretty good friend precedent, anyway.

The BSC Project – Mills’s Great Idea

BSC Logo

I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was a little kid, I was totally and completely wild about The Baby-Sitters Club. I inhaled it all, from the books (heart eyes) to the short-lived TV series (gold) to the movie (trash). One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories (and Mom memories) revolves around the book series: I must have been around 9 or 10, and I’d already gotten several great Christmas presents, when my mom told me that she and Dad still had the biggest, best present to give me. I certainly wasn’t expecting to get anything else, but then my mom walked in with a GIGANTIC plastic bag full of all of the BSC (Baby-Sitters Club) books she could find, particularly the ones I didn’t have in my collection. I freaked out and generally lost my mind. As I dug around the bag excitedly, I asked, “Are these ALL Baby-Sitters Club books?” I remember her delighted smile as she said, “Yep, all the ones you don’t have yet.” She succeeded in raising a geek; I was ecstatic about getting a bag full of books. Even now I can recall that feeling of intense elation, and I’ll never forget that it was the first time I had the desire to quite literally dive into a pile of unread books and not-quite-literally gobble them up whole.

Then, at age twelve I inevitably entered that dreaded hell, the deepest torture I believed was sent solely to rip me out of childhood and dangle me in that god-awful purgatory, before thrusting me into full-fledged adulthood. I’m talking about that rite of passage known as junior high school. Those were some of the worst years I’ve ever experienced. In junior high, everyone seemed so grown up, and I was really, really not. I wasn’t one of the tallest kids in class anymore (or ever again). Nobody ushered me from class to class. People had boyfriends and girlfriends. Hell, there were pregnant girls in my 7th grade class. Everyone was so cool (aside from the pregnant girls), and here I was, clutching a baby’s book as I buffeted my way through the halls. So I did the unthinkable: I abandoned the BSC, never to visit the hallowed halls of Claudia’s bedroom again.

I had some serious issues putting those books down then, and I still have an issue with that decision now. In an effort to fit in, I let go of something that brought me true joy and comfort, and I picked up JNCO jeans, which brought nothing but utter embarrassment. Also, I don’t think I was developmentally ready to just dump those books, or that part of my childhood. But we all do dumb stuff at that age, and I was no exception. Shocked that I stopped reading my BSC books, my mom questioned the decision and tried to encourage me to pick the series back up again, but I was moody and lacked a basic understanding of my own feelings, hormones, and reasoning. I just wanted to fit in, really, but I had no way to express or even fathom why I felt I had to stop at the time.

So it’s only fitting that exactly 20 years later, as a “mature” adult who generally doesn’t care what people think, I’m choosing to pick them up again. I’ve read such a multitude of books in the intervening years, and have obviously experienced such a shift in perspective between 12 and almost-32, that I’d like to return to the series with fresh eyes. I love reading books for younger people, because I feel like there are great lessons to be learned in them, some that we forget or simply take for granted as we age.

And so, the plan is basically for me to read every Baby-Sitters Club book I can get my hands on. I’m calling this ambitious venture “The BSC Project”. Luckily, I still have all of my original books and they’re in great condition, despite having spent 20 years in a storage shed with tiny spiders weaving colonies in their pages. This is really a way to revisit an old childhood love, and also an honest attempt to relearn some of those lessons I was taught as a kid but could probably stand to hear now. And the 12-year-old in me is also itching to know what the hell happened to those steadfast, fictional friends of mine. 

BSC Bracelet
My BSC bracelet from the ’90s….

THE RULES:

  • The first and most important rule is that I don’t want to have too many hard and fast rules. That’s a surefire way for me to give up. However I will be following a few guidelines, because otherwise I will absolutely quit. I haven’t changed that much.
  • I have to read (and write about) all of the books from the original series.
  • I have to read all of the extra-long Super Specials (which were my favorites).
  • I will read all of the Friends Forever books, provided I can get my hands on them. They are the final installments in the girls’ storylines, and I’ve never read them. I’ll read the prequel too, since Ann M. Martin wrote it, albeit long after the series ended.
  • If I start feeling really ambitious, I might dig into the mysteries too. However I’m not making it a priority to read the numerous spinoffs, like the enormous Little Sister collection, because there are too many issues of them and they are boring. I might pick up The California Diaries that feature Dawn, because I’ve also never read them and they sound interesting; they’re apparently targeted to older kids and are darker than the main series.
  • MAYBE I’ll rewatch the series and the movie. Maybe. We’ll see how I feel. I love the series, but the movie is 90% garbage.

It’s hard to say exactly how many books I’m missing at this point, but I fully expect to spend hours upon hours reading, and to pay exorbitant amounts of money to complete my collection. I’ll do my best to chronicle it all and explain everything as I go along. And I imagine I’ll learn some stuff along the way. There will still be normal-person posts, though, because this is definitely a long-term project and my blog isn’t solely dedicated to this book series. It’s going to be a long ride, but a good one. I can feel it. I’m about to say hello to my (old) friends!

BSC TV Show
wikipedia.org

5 Books That Changed My Life

I just got back from a little summer vacation in the tiny, sleepy, hot-as-hell, artistic town of Marfa, TX. The trip afforded me lots of free time, especially because the WiFi in the casita where my beau and I were staying was not the best (which was decidedly for the best). Almost everything in Marfa closes at around 8pm, so there was plenty of time to sit back and catch up on some books I’ve been needing to finish. I even had time to delve into a new, weird “children’s” book that I’m not totally certain is actually for children.

There was also a lot of quiet time for me to chill out and contemplate my life – specifically where mine is going at this very moment. I quit my 8 year, steady job about 8 months ago, and I’m trying to decide exactly what I want to do now. This break from steady work brings up a lot of things that I never really had time to think about when I was working my butt off every day, and I’m trying to decide in what direction I’d like my life to go. I’ve been freelancing and thinking about the things and creative pursuits I love the most, and attempting to decide how to make them into careers. In these ruminations, I’ve realized that if I know one thing, it’s that I love books. They have made an enormous impact on my life, so much that I might even venture to say that books are basically my life. So this thought pattern led me to evaluate which individual books have changed the course of my life over the years (maybe in the hopes that I’ll stumble across another one that will knock me onto the correct path).

It’s undeniable that every book I’ve ever read has changed me in one way or another, but there are really only a handful of books that I can say have truly changed the trajectory of my life. Today I thought I’d share these books as a way to sort of commemorate where I’ve been. Though I wouldn’t say that these are my all-time favorite books or anything, they have absolutely each altered my world at some point in my life.

I’ve listed these books in my own personal chronological order, from the first I discovered to the latest ones to affect me.

1) One Monster After Another by Mercer Mayer

 One Monster After AnotherThis is the first book I learned to read by myself. I was very close to my grandmother, and she was a voracious reader who passed her love of literature on to me. She spent her retirement watching me, my sister, and my two cousins while our parents were at work, and it was in this time that she taught 3- or 4-year-old me (obviously can’t remember the exact age) to read. I remember sitting on Grandmother’s lap and making her read One Monster After Another to me over and over while I turned the pages and memorized all of the words. I read this story about one letter’s fantastical, roundabout journey until I made the connection between letters and words, and could read the book on my own. As you can see, my copy of this book has been read to death, and I imagine it will only get worse if I ever have children. I don’t care. I’m keeping it forever. It jump started my life’s passion.

 

2) The Baby-Sitters Club Series by Ann M. Martin 

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54772-scholastic-releases-baby-sitters-club-e-books-with-classic-covers.html
publishersweekly.com

Yes, this is a series and not an individual book. As a kid, I was absolutely OBSESSED with the Baby-Sitters Club books. It’s the first book series that I ever started collecting, and it was at this point that I distinctly remember starting to carry a book (usually more than one) with me at all times to read. Reading this series also helped me acquire the skill of being able to keep story lines separate and read more than one book at a time. But what was the most revelatory for me about this series is that it definitely shaped my views on girls and on female friendship. The main characters in these books are strong, diverse, enterprising girls who know what they want and work for it. They are cool, creative, and smart, and I wanted to be all of them (except Mallory, who I suspected was unfortunately the most similar to me). They also drove home that women and girls should support one another instead of tearing each other down, the latter of which is unfortunately what we too often see on TV, in magazines, online, and subsequently in our own relationships. These strong female role models with their ideal, yet still realistic friendships have definitely stuck with and shaped me. (Also, fun fact, I’m not really a fan of Kirsten Dunst, but I think it’s worth mentioning that she was the model for the little girl on “Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls” cover.)

 

3) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 Pride and PrejudiceI was deep into the Baby-Sitters Club books when my sister introduced me to the wonders of Jane Austen. I was at an age when everything I did started to feel stupid and baby-ish, and felt like I needed to be reading things other than kids’ books (oh, budding adolescence). My sister had read Pride and Prejudice in one of her English classes and, promising I would like it, basically forced me to drop what I was reading one summer and pick it up. And I am so glad she ripped the BSC book out of my hands (speaking in hyperbole here), because reading Pride and Prejudice changed my world. It basically introduced me to the vast world of classic literature, and to the notion that there were a multitude of well-written, mature books in existence that I had no idea could be so readable and just so . . . good. I remember putting down the BSC books and never picking them up again (somewhat sadly, because I still think I developmentally should have continued reading them, but c’est la vie). Though Jane Austen is undeniably one of the best, the Bronte sisters speak a little more to my soul; however, I never would have had the pleasure of discovering this about myself had it not been for Jane Austen’s most acclaimed novel. I literally shudder to think of what I might be filling my head with now if I had never read Pride and Prejudice.

 

4) Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet

This is arguably the most important book on this list to me. I am generally a pretty *quiet* person, but I absolutely love to talk to people about Quiet. I can honestly say that I am a completely different person after reading it. In 2013, at the tender age of 28, I finally stopped apologizing for who I am, and it is thanks to this book. To those who are closest to me, it’s old news that I’m shy and an introvert (the two are not synonymous), but this is usually at least a little surprising to people I’ve worked with or interacted with in social settings. I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding my true nature, mostly because I’ve spent my whole life (see: 27 years) exhausting myself, trying hard not to be shy and withdrawn in basically every school and social setting. In reading Quiet, I found out that I’m an HSP (highly sensitive person), innately shy, and an introverted introvert (there are indeed other combinations of extroversion and introversion, I’m just the furthest to the introvert side). And I no longer apologize for any of it, because I’m convinced that it’s how I was born. Though my parents thankfully never asked me to be anything other than myself, our extrovert-idealizing society did and still does demand other patterns of behavior from me. It was such a sad revelation to see that I had basically spent my life apologizing for who I am, and such a relief to accept that I didn’t need to do it anymore. I bet that almost any true introvert can relate to the feeling of shame that goes along with not wanting to go out with friends sometimes (or almost ever), or fearing working in an open office plan, or avoiding public speaking at all costs. The sort of self-acceptance I have experience is beyond measure. I’ve often said that I should be a spokesperson for this book, because it quite literally changed everything about my life. After many, many years, Quiet has helped me learn that there is nothing wrong with me, and I have finally made peace with the very core of myself

 

5) The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 VegetarianOkay, so the book itself is amazing, enough so that it inspired me to write a “professional-sounding” review that I’ve shared here on this blog. But on its own, the book would not necessarily have made this list (although it’s fantastic and probably the first piece of truly frightening literature that I’ve enjoyed as an adult). What is so personally important about The Vegetarian is that the review I wrote for it recently landed me my dream freelancing gig, which is reviewing books for a major publication. If finding out that your creative pursuits can get you work isn’t life-changing for an artist, I don’t know what is! Reading, writing, and getting paid to do both has been my dream for a very long time. My first review hasn’t been published yet, so I don’t necessarily want to say which publication I’m contributing to, but I’ll definitely share it here when I’m officially published. Needless to say, this book has changed my life and will always remain dear to me.

 

So those are my five life-changing books! I do, however, have to mention somewhere in this post . . . the Harry Potter series. Of course. I didn’t include it because I feel like EVERYONE talks about how it changed their lives, and I wanted to offer something different. For the record, though, Harry Potter is such an important series to me, for many reasons that would take far too long to list. Suffice it to say that growing up with this series has changed how I read, write, think about the world, and view others. It offers solace when I need it, and is always a joy to return to. It’s amazing that reading words on a page can make me feel like I’m going home, no matter where I am or how many times I revisit the story. What’s more life-changing than that?