Ann M. Martin on the Enduring Appeal of The Baby-Sitters Club and Rebooting Another Children’s Series

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Ann M. Martin. Photo: Grant Cornett

The first thing I notice when I enter Ann M. Martin’s Greenwich Village apartment is a large photograph of a happy-looking mutt. “That’s Sadie,” Martin tells me of her beloved golden-retriever mix. “She lived to be a very old lady.” 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).

But funnily enough, it’s the act of babysitting itself — a crucial move away from childhood and toward being an adult — that Ann thinks might have triggered the books’ popularity. “Babysitting is the first step that younger kids can take in terms of taking care of something else, instead of being taken care of,” she says. When Martin was growing up, she recalls, “one of my many favorite books was called Baby Island. I just loved it, and it was so preposterous: It was about a couple of girls who are on a big ship traveling somewhere, and they get shipwrecked with a boat full of babies and they all wind up on this desert island and the older girls are in charge of the babies. I just thought, Oh my God, being in charge of these babies, what could be more wonderful?

(It might also be that because many of the series’ young readers were still being babysat, part of the books’ appeal lay in the fact that when you’re a child, there is little more exciting than having an older kid come to your house to spend time with you.)

A Corner of the Universe, 2002; Rain Reign, 2014; Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure, 2016.

But around 1997, Martin was getting a little babysittered out. She’d written about 100 of the novellas herself, overseen all the merchandise, consulted on an HBO children’s show based on the books, and later done the same for a feature-length movie. “There was not a particular breaking point or one book,” she says, but because the girls never aged, “coming up with plots every fall as they reentered eighth grade again began to feel a little bit old. You always want to write about your characters maturing or growing in some way. It wasn’t exactly like pulling teeth, but it was coming close.” In 2000, Martin wrote the final, rather fittingly titled Baby-sitters Club book: Graduation Day. (In 2011, she wrote a prequel in anticipation of the series’ 25th anniversary, The Summer Before.)

In the years between that last book and Missy Piggle-Wiggle, Martin was excited to experiment with anything that was not about a kid from Stoneybrook. With her partner at the time, Laura Godwin (they’ve since broken up), she wrote four Doll People books, tales of what a child’s doll collection does when no one’s watching. And then her books began to take on slightly darker themes. There was 2002’s Newbery Honor winner A Corner of the Universe, set in the 1960s and loosely based on her own childhood, about a young girl whose uncle commits suicide. In 2007, she published the first of ten Main Street books, about a pair of sisters who live with their grandmother in a small town after their parents die. Rain Reign, which followed a child on the autism spectrum and her friendship with her dog, Rain, came out in 2014. This turn toward emotionally complex material made sense, given that, she says, “the Baby-sitters Club books I enjoyed writing most — Claudia and the Sad Goodbye, Jessi’s Secret Language, Kristy and the Secret of Susan — tended to be the more serious books.”

Which is why it’s somewhat surprising that Martin has come back to babysitting. While not a babysitter by trade, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was a portly, grandmotherly type who lived in an upside-down house and used magic to tame the naughty neighborhood children (the series was famously illustrated by Maurice Sendak and Hilary Knight). Martin was approached by Feiwel, who now runs her own imprint, Feiwel & Friends, about reviving the series with a younger, more relatable lead: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s 20-something grandniece, Missy Piggle-Wiggle. In this 2016 edition, the kids eat kale chips and their parents have cell phones, but, Martin says, “when they are at the upside-down house, I have them putting on plays, playing board games, and doing art projects — I didn’t want them to be watching TV.”

Martin is constantly asked whether she has plans to write a book for adults. “Even my mother was always asking me,” she says. She does not and explains that “whenever a new character comes to mind, it’s like, oops, once again she’s 11 years old,” which probably stems from the fact that she’s spent much of the past three decades writing about girls that age. Martin is, however, thinking she might want to write a book about a cat, which is no doubt related to those 100-odd felines she’s befriended of late. But the truth is Martin is in no rush to think about other books, and the rate of a few Missy Piggle-Wiggles a year seems to suit her. As she says, simply: “In the summer, I like to sit out on the porch and drink my coffee while reading a book; in the winter, I like to sit by the fire and drink my coffee — while reading a book,” before adding, “I know, I’m such a Mary Anne.”  

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Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure will be published on September 6.

*This article appears in the September 5, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.