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.