“If Regina George is Cokie Mason, then Gretchen Weiners is Grace Blume. Think about it.”
If you understood that sentence, get yourself to What Claudia Wore, stat.
Recently, I’ve noticed an increasing number of blogs dedicated to the 90s phenomenon I like to call “the series section.” There still are, and always will be, book series for middle grade readers and young adults— Harry Potter, Twilight, and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants have been a few this decade—but the days of the mega-series, when you recognized books by their numbers along with their titles, when ghostwriters helped ensure that one book a month came out, when the Barnes & Noble in Nashua had rows and rows containing every book in the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins in a section labeled “Young Adults Series,” seem to be behind us. Sadly, most of those books, which I’d spend whatever money I had on, spend hours browsing in said Nashua Barnes & Noble, and beg for in groups of ten whenever it was Christmas or my birthday, are no longer in print.
So thank God for blogs like What Claudia Wore, The Dairi Burger, The Unicorner, and Sleepover Friends Forever, which exist to remind us what a loss this is to the world of children’s literature. I remember these books the same way I remember Titanic—as fun as it is to frequent the blogs that snark on them, wondering how many times the BSC could possibly be in eighth grade, what Claudia would have been like if she’d grown up in the age of spell check, and why everyone always just put up with Kristy’s bitching about them getting to the meetings at 5:30 on the dot, these were the books that helped ensure that I loved reading throughout my preteens. Kids today had Harry Potter, which was only seven books long and, of course, is over now, but I could always look forward to a new Baby-Sitters Club or Sweet Valley Twins book. They made for cheap but much-appreciated birthday gifts in fourth and fifth grade. I’d bond with my friends over them (“Ooh, have you read this one yet?”). And, as I’ve mentioned before, books were often how I dealt with my own feelings—if I had a fight with my friends, got embarrassed in gym class, or was being made fun of at school, I’d seek out a book about a kid going through something similar, and book series always dealt with a wide range of topics.
But enough of this serious talk. You know you loved those books, too. Reminisce with me, will you?
The Baby-Sitters Club
Kristy was the one who had the “great idea” to start the club. She was short, coached softball, had a rich stepfather and a stepsister who got her own book series (Baby-Sitters Little Sister, which was what introduced me to the BSC), bossed everyone around, and bitched everyone out if they got to the meetings even a minute late. For some reason, no one ever told her to shut up.
Claudia was Japanese-American and an artist and had eating habits almost as bad as her spelling. She had a genius older sister and parents who were on her case about her junk food, her penchant for Nancy Drew, and her bad grades—but they did let her have her own phone line, which was why the meetings were at her house. Entire paragraphs in the second chapter of every book were dedicated to her outfits. Now, so are entire blogs.
Mary Anne cried a lot. Like, a lot. She was really shy, her mother was dead, and her father eventually married Dawn’s mother. She had a cute boyfriend named Logan who had a Southern accent and became an associate club member. Everyone was very upset when she got a haircut.
Stacey was a New York stereotype whose books were like a PSA for type 1 diabetes.
Dawn was a California stereotype who couldn’t make up her mind about which coast she wanted to live on.
Mallory was eleven, completely awkward, a writer, a horse-lover, and the oldest of eight kids. So of course, minus the eight kids part, she was the one I related to the most easily.
Jessi was black! Which they felt the need to mention every chapter! And she was also a ballerina. Who was black!
Abby didn’t show up until about book 90, so a lot of people forget about her. If you need a refresher, she was funny, athletic, and Jewish and had a twin sister, a dead father, and asthma. She also occasionally talked back to Kristy. It only took 90 books for someone to do it.
Together, they baby-sat a lot of cute kids, like the adorable Jamie Newton, Stacey’s “almost-sister” Charlotte Johansson, bratty Jenny Prezzioso, and “walking disaster” Jackie Rodowsky. They wrote about their jobs in the club notebook. They met every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 5:30 to 6:00. And they were the best.friends.ever.
God, I loved The Baby-Sitters Club. I read just about every book in the series not once but several times. After awhile, they didn’t even fit on my bookshelves. When I was nine, my entire room was decorated with posters and memorabilia I got from the Baby-Sitters Club fan club. My friends and I dreamed of the day we’d start our own baby-sitters club (of course, it never happened). When the movie came out in 1995, I wore my Baby-Sitters Club T-shirt and hat to the theater on the first day it came out. Actually, my cousins’ aunt, who works for Scholastic, was the executive producer of the movie, and when she got me Ann M. Martin’s autograph when I was ten, it was pretty much the best day of my life at the time.
Yeah, I think you get the picture. I was a huuuuuuuge fan.
Sweet Valley Twins
Sweet Valley High came first, and there was also Sweet Valley Kids, which had the same characters in second grade. But Sweet Valley Twins (later retitled Sweet Valley Twins and Friends, since it wasn’t just about the Wakefields) was the series I read the most. It was centered around the titular twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, who were identically blonde and pretty but, of course, polar opposites personality-wise. Elizabeth was the school newspaper editor, had perfect grades, and was obnoxiously self-righteous. Jessica was popularity-obsessed, a member of the Unicorn Club (which was basically a group of popular girls sitting around congratulating themselves on how awesome they were), and obnoxiously self-centered. They were twelve-year-old sixth graders in Sweet Valley, California, which must have one hell of a public transportation system, since these middle schoolers were somehow able to get around by themselves incredibly easily. Speaking of which:
Man, I loved sleepovers as a kid. My mom, who thought they made me tired and cranky, was not such a fan. But what sleepover-loving pre-teen wouldn’t love reading a whole book series about friends who sleep over at each other’s houses every Friday night?
Enter the Sleepover Friends. They were ten-and eleven-year-old fifth graders in Riverhurst, USA, a suburb of “The City,” which was never identified further than that. Lauren, who narrated most of the books (eventually, the other three girls started narrating some of them), was athletic and loved food. Kate was the Kristy Thomas of the group—short, bossy, and would bitch you out if you talked during a movie. Patti, formerly of The City, was the smart, shy one. Stephanie, also formerly of The City, only dressed in red, black, and white because she thought it was cool and probably went on to have an eating disorder, since she was concerned about getting fat even at age ten. They’d get together on Fridays, make food, play Truth or Dare, listen to the radio, make fun of their classmates. And like Sweet Valley, Riverhurst was apparently very easy to get around, because these girls, who weren’t even in middle school yet, seemed to have no trouble going anywhere by themselves without any adults.
I used to want to be a gymnast, but not enough to take gymnastics classes. Only enough to do round-offs and one-handed cartwheels on the field at recess and to use the edge of my sandbox like a balance beam. So of course I loved this series, which was about a group of girls on a gymnastics team called the Pinecones at Evergreen Gymnastics Academy (geddit?). It was mainly focused on Lauren, Cindi, Jodi, and Darlene. Lauren was smart but not great at gymnastics, although in the end she turned out to be a good vaulter. Cindi was Lauren’s best friend and was good at the bars. Darlene was the captain, and her dad was a football player nicknamed Big Beef. Jodi was blonde and had a bit of a temper and had a mom who’d recently remarried. The four of them usually took turns narrating the books, except for one that was narrated by Ti An, the youngest member of their team, and two that were narrated by Heidi, an elite gymnast and recovering anorexic they sometimes hung out with. Heidi won an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in the completely unrealistic series finale. The Pinecones had a really cool coach named Patrick, whom Lauren had a crush on. And let’s not forget about the enemies: Becky, the requisite bitchy girl who was a level higher than the Pinecones; Ashley, the bratty younger Pinecone who never got her own book; and the team’s big rivals, the Atomic Amazons. I remember Lauren always used to preface every statement she made with, “It’s a proven fact.” One of them was, “It’s a proven fact that pigs don’t sweat,” in response to someone using the phrase, “Sweating like a pig.”
R. L. Stine had the Goosebumps series for younger kids, but this was the series I read. Entertainment has never really scared me, and neither did these books, but it’s kind of amazing that these were marketed to pre-teens. There’s no sex in any of them, but there are tons of graphic, bloody murders. All of them took place in Shadyside, USA, which sounds like an ordinary suburb with a ridiculously high crime rate. It’s amazing anyone wanted to live there. Occasionally, there would be small cameos by characters mentioned in another book, but for the most part, every book was about someone different. A lot of them were surprisingly well-plotted—the killer usually turned out to be the least likely person, like the main character’s best friend, or the prom queen candidate who faked her own death and then began killing all the other prom queen candidates because she thought they were trying to steal her boyfriend (seriously). Mostly, they were just murder mysteries, but some were about something supernatural, like cheerleaders getting possessed by an evil spirit, a “ghost from the future” who comes back to try to prevent his own death, or some weird “mind transfer tape” of chanting by some primitive tribe that allowed this guy to possess his girlfriend’s body and make her kill people. I remember there was also a series of books that tried to explain the beginnings of Fear Street, starting in Puritan times when an innocent girl was burned at the stake for witchcraft in a frightening display of historical inaccuracy.
This wasn’t a series so much as an author franchise. Lurlene McDaniel wrote a ton of books about teenagers dying of cancer, and when I was about twelve, I couldn’t get enough of these romanticized depictions of illness. They were all so formulaic—if there was a teenage couple, one of them would not survive. If the teenager with cancer survived the book, she probably would die in the sequel, or at least someone close to her would. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’d read these for the same reason I watch The Notebook, but I think also because they helped put middle school problems in perspective.
I remember plenty of other series, complete with the numbers, that I didn’t read too many of. For the little girls dreaming of becoming professional dancers, there was Ballet School for the younger crowd and Satin Slippers for older kids. There was also another series about gymnasts called American Gold Gymnasts, and I think those gymnasts were kids who actually had a shot at the Olympics. And then there was Girl Talk, which was about…a bunch of girls talking? Four girls in a middle school, I think.
There still are, and continue to be, some fabulous children’s and young adult books out there. But it looks like the series section is gone for good. Thanks for the memories.