Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Recap: BSC #32 (part one)

In the interests of keeping the title of this post a reasonable length, I decided to go with the abbreviated version of the book's title. The full title is "Baby-Sitters Club #32: Kristy and the Secret of Susan."

The Baby-Sitters Club is a long-running series of books first published in the 80s, written by Ann M. Martin (and later ghostwritten by one or more people who sometimes had trouble with continuity). The series follows a group of middle-school babysitters who...well...form a club. I was obsessed with the books growing up; by the time I discovered them they were readily available at discount bookstores, where my parents would let me buy a whole stack of them for a dollar or two each. I had half of a bookshelf crammed full of BSC books by the time I finally donated my collection to the library's book sale. The books were different from what I usually enjoyed reading, even back then, because there are no supernatural elements. I was thinking about why they captured me so much, and realized that the thing I remember best about the books was the way the girls always had each other's backs. No matter what happened, they were there for each other. I was painfully shy in grade school, and the idea of a large group of good friends seemed as improbable to me as the interstellar adventures of A Wrinkle in Time or the Community in The Giver.

These days, the BSC books are mostly forgotten, except by bloggers who write snarky reviews. I do not plan on getting started with that. I wanted to track down this particular book because it is more relevant to me than it was when I first read it...good grief, could it possibly be 15 years ago?? Okay, I feel old. Anyway, Susan's secret is that she has autism (SPOILER!!). I took some classes on teaching special education in college, and I have also known several people with autism. I wanted to see how much this book got right. Of course, a lot more is known about autism now than when it was written in 1990, so I do not know how much of the misinformation was lack of research and how much was Science Marches On. I also remembered how much I disliked the ending...but more on that later.

And now, on with the recap!

Chapter 1 begins with the introduction of one of the title characters. Kristy is the president and founder of the BSC; here she is looking after her brother and sister before heading off to a meeting. One of the other things I enjoyed about the books was the little pieces of babysitting advice, such as this gem from page 3: "it's much more helpful to tell [children] what to do instead of what not to do." It seems obvious, but seriously try it sometime. There are times when it is very hard to state the rules in a positive way.

We get more character introduction as Kristy heads to the meeting. In addition to the usual suspects, there is a new family in town: the Hobarts, who will be the subject of this book's subplot and continue to feature as minor characters. Their main attraction, in addition to having four kids, is that they are from Australia. Kristy also sees Susan Felder and her mother, who are not new, but have never been mentioned before and will never be seen again after this book (SPOILER!!). Claudia mentions that Susan has been away at a special school, which at least explains her absence up until this point.

Chapters 2 and 3 are the standard info-dump section, where Kristy explains who all of the club members are and gives a brief summary of the series up to this point. Every book in the series follows this format. It is a good way for new readers to jump in without having to read books 1-31. On the other hand, those who have read the other books can skim this part or skip it entirely. To be honest, none of the girls' backstories have much to contribute to this book plot-wise, so I will spare you the introductions. The one thing I noted is that all of the girls are described as "beautiful" or "pretty." On the one hand, it seems unlikely that all of the girls could be underwear models. On the other hand, would you call your best friends ugly? Even if other people think they are? Me neither.

The plot starts cooking when Mrs. Felder calls the girls looking for a sitter for Susan. She explains that Susan is autistic, but none of the girls know what this means. Claudia suggests that it means "retarded," a term that is used several times throughout the book. I realize that this is the correct use of the term, but today it has been misused so much that I can not keep from cringing a little when I read it. This shows how things have changed in 20 years; I guess "retard" was not a common insult in the '80s. Side note: I find it interesting that Claudia is the one making this suggestion, because it is heavily implied throughout the series that she has some sort of learning disability. Was this a conscious decision on Martin's part, or is this a throw-away line that could have gone to any of the girls? The world may never know.

The girls look at their schedules. It turns out that Kristy is the only one available for the job, which is supposed to be three days every week for a month. They call Mrs. Felder back to let her know, and she tells Kristy that she wants her to meet Susan before committing to the job. Kristy is, understandably, curious and a bit worried about this.

Well. I think I will leave it there for today. Coming soon: Chapter Four (In Which We Meet Susan And Learn About Autism In One Hundred Words Or Less).

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