Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Klutz Books

Have you ever longed to fashion your hair in a complicated four-strand fishtail braid? How about learning to juggle beanbags? Perhaps a strong desire to master the game of jacks? Or maybe you were just looking to learn some impressive cat's cradle party tricks? Whatever the highly esoteric interest, it seemed the ever-creative Klutz Press had a book for you. I'm not sure what level of mind-readers they employed throughout the 90s, but it seemed the moment I developed an interest in anything there they were were with a full-color how-to guide. Pretty good.

There was something that felt devilishly forbidden about selecting a book with toys, games, or tricks attached. It felt sort of like cheating. Our parents brought us to the bookstore in hopes of us developing a strong and complex love affair with classical literature, only to leave with a how-to book on cootie catchers complete with step-by-step instructions and origami paper.

The purchase wasn't a total loss--these interactive and highly durable books had the power to entertain us for hours. Some of them even managed to sneak in some science or math learned, though many of books are blissfully unrelated to anything remotely academic. Our parents were usually more than happy to sacrifice our potential intellectual growth for some much-needed quiet time. The pure level of focus and intensity with which these books consumed us were probably worth several times their $14.95 price tag. $14.95 is, after all, a small price to pay for an afternoon of activity fixation. It was by no means a permanent solution to our perpetual juvenile boredom, but the series developed enough kid-friendly titles to keep us sufficiently occupied for long stretches of time.

It's still tough for me to walk by a Klutz display in the children's section at Barnes and Noble without some tug of biblical-level covetousness. Maybe it's just the kid in me, but it feels like even my external adult wants some part in learning to wrap my hair in colorful embroidery floss patterns or cracking road trip boredom-curing brain teasers. Klutz Press has a little something for everyone; their how-to books have the power to convince us we can conquer any task or learn any skill...until we actually sit down and try, of course. It's often far too complicated. Regardless, at least they gave us the license to try. That's got to count for something, somewhere.

Klutz released dozens of interactive children's books throughout our childhood period, so it's nearly impossible to categorize all of the most memorable. We can look at a few examples here, but feel free to share your own favorites in the comments. Just because I never owned Klutz's Most Amazing Thumb Doodles Book doesn't mean it didn't have a disproportionately profound impact on your growth and development.

Some of these were just masquerading as books; they hadn't truly earned their spot on bookstore shelves, they were simply granted it by size default. In reality, books like the Jacks guide were nothing more than a set of game pieces paired with an oversized instruction manual. Nevertheless, it was an easy-to-read introduction to onesies, twosies, the whole shebang. I've yet to conquer sixsies.

The Klutz Book of Magic

I'm still determined to master these tricks. I never really had the patience for them when I was in the book's intended 9-12 age range, but if I had I like to imagine I'd be onstage somewhere freeing someone from an Aztec Tomb as The Final Countdown dramatically plays me out. The Amazon reviewers swear it has given them a career in birthday party and nursing home performance, so I feel pretty inadequate over my post-book lack of magical marketability.

Mock if you must, but I once took a hairstyling class at a children's creative gift shop that came with this book. It was something of a dream come true. This book taught me everything I know about securing my hair into an element-proof braid to disguise its listlessness after a long night of weekday drinking. Thanks, Klutz Press!

The Official Koosh Book: Kooshy Games and Activities

If you've got the word Kooshy as a major descriptor in your title, you've got to know it's going to be nonstop rubber filament-filled fun. From "Koosh the Koosh" to "Where the Koosh at?" it's pretty much a non-stop thrill ride.

Card Games

The guys at Klutz had a seemingly never-ending supply of card games, tricks, and handy attached decks with which to learn some serious skills. I'm sure our parents were so proud when we started referring to ourselves as the book's cover did as "Card Sharks."

Cootie Catcher
Most of us didn't need a book to learn this, but it certainly didn't hurt as a useful guide for variety and style choice. It even came with some preprinted cards that only required folding. Brilliant.

Touted by Klutz as "A Kids' Science Museum in a Book," Explorabook was the perfect solution to a nerdy kid's abundance of spare time. All you needed was a magnet, a mirror, and a few other goodies and you were well on your way to independent science project mastery.

Stop! The Watch: A Book of Everyday, Ordinary, Anybody Olympics

Further proof that children are incredibly easily amused. All we need is a stopwatch and we're set. We're also ready and going, possibly on our marks. Are you feeling any of these stopwatch jokes? I'm laying them on pretty thick.

Who says lanyard is just for summer camp? Klutz encouraged us to engage in plastic lacing year round, leaving our parents to wonder what exactly they were going to do with a twelfth neon keychain.

Devil Sticks

These were a pretty popular pastime in the 90s, but the maneuvers could be pretty tricky. I never managed to master it, but I also never owned the book. Or the sticks. A girl can dream, though.

Kid Travel

We had this one in my family, and it truly was a lifesaver. In the days before portable DVD players, we needed something to keep our attention deficit prone brains occupied. This book more than fit the bill with its puzzles, games, and activities. Parents everywhere rejoiced wildly.

Cat's Cradle
This book taught us the ultimate distraction with the simplest of tools: a single unending round piece of string that we could arrange into various tangles and finger-squishing configurations. It may not have been rocket science, but it was challenging in a mind-numbing kind of way.

These books are just the tip of the Klutz Press iceberg. The company released dozens of books throughout the 90s, most of which provoked our creative spirit and entertained our hard-to-focus minds. And if they gave our parents a few minutes of much-needed sanity, well, that was just icing on the how-to book cake.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Popular Young Children's Books of the 80s and 90s

Children's authors set the groundwork for a new generation to develop a deep love of reading, so it's critical that their output is engaging and amusing enough to hold our limited attention. Plus, our parents often bore the burden of reading these books to us again and again until they could have recited them from memory, so it helped if authors could throw in some humor that satiated the appetites of both adults and children.

These books satisfied both criteria in balance and firmly established a place in our collective nostalgic heart for their silliness, fun, and wit. Let's take a stroll through the magical world of 80s and 90s young children's books. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll develop a catchy rhyming scheme. Don't blame me if you start talking Seusically, though. It should wear off in 10-12 hours.

If You Give A Mouse a Cookie

We all know what happens when you start giving mice cookies. They're insatiable little rodents, really. At least that's the central message of Laura Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. He'll just keep bleeding you dry with favors until he finally just wants a cookie again. There's just no winning. Maybe if you try giving a Moose a Muffin or a Pig a Pancake things might turn out differently. Maybe.

Love You Forever

If you're a leaky-faucet type crier easily set off by emotional material, be warned that you'll release the floodgates by the last cycle of "I love you forever, I love you for always, as long as you're living, my baby you'll be." The book details the relationship of a mother and her young son as she recites the same refrain to him at various stages of his life. Near the end of the story, the adult child recites it back to his dying elderly mother and finally to his own infant daughter. The book resonates well with adults and children alike; it seems the older you get, the more likely you'll want to keep a full box of tissues nearby when you pick this one up.

The Eleventh Hour and Animalia

I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of three years trying to trace these gorgeous illustrations in hopes of miraculously transferring Graeme Base's incredible art talent onto my own hopelessly skill-free hands. Base's books may be visually enchanting, but in the case of The Eleventh Hour they're also incredibly tricky. I still haven't managed to solve all of the many riddles embedded in the story. I almost caved and broke into the solution in the back, but I'm still holding out hope that the answer will just come to me.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales

Revisionist fairy tales can be a lot of fun, and this Wolf-narrated version of the classic Three Little Pigs story is no exception. Our allegedly mistakenly accused suspect, Alexander T. Wolf, describes his troubles in borrowing sugar to bake a cake for his Granny's birthday. Is it his fault he has a terrible cold and that pigs build inferior non-sneeze-resistant houses? How could you let a delicious ham dinner like that go to waste, after all?

Along the same lines and written by the same witty author (Jon Scieszka), The Stinky Cheese Man gives us an irreverent look at some of our favorite classic fairy tales. The Gingerbread Man is the Stinky Cheese Man, The Really Ugly Duckling just grows into a Really Ugly Duck, and Little Red Riding Shorts manages to outrun the wolf on the way to Grandma's. The book is a bit chaotic, but it's legitimately clever and witty, too.

Arthur Books

Marc Brown was clearly onto something when he created this lovable anthropomorphic eight-year old aardvark named Arthur. Populating Arthur's hometown of Elwood City are a host of other cuddly animal characters with varying socioeconomic backgrounds, leading me to find that yes, you can indeed be jealous of a fictional monkey. Darn you, Muffy, and your enviable rich-monkey lifestyle.

The Jolly Postman

Kids have pretty short attention spans, so an interactive book is always a major draw: it's like a combination book/game rolled into a neat little package. To be delivered by a postman. A jolly postman.

In The Jolly Postman, our hero postman maneuvers from one fairy tale house to another, delivering correspondences (an apology note from Golidlocks and the 3 bears), junk mail (an advertisement for "Hobgoblin Supplies, ltd."), and even threats of legal action (the case of the Wolf v. Miss Riding Hood.) The jolly postman stops for tea at each home, delivering letters that we as readers could physically open and read.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

Learning the alphabet can be pretty boring, so imagine how relieved we were to find a book that turns dry and humorless letters into cute anthropomorphic characters. Our fearless letters climb the tree in orderly A-B-C succession, only to fall back down and sustain alphabetized injuries. Ouch.

Where the Wild Things Are

Monsters might seem like a scary, lurking under the bed prospect until we learn that in our imaginations we can just dance with them in a wild rumpus instead. Sounds like a decent solution to me. The back-story is possibly as entertaining as the tale itself: author Maurice Sendak had initially planned for the book to feature wild horses, but his publisher shunned Sendak's sub-par horse drawings. Sendak replaced the horses with caricatures of his Polish Jewish aunts and uncles: Aaron, Bernard, Emile, Moishe, and Tzippy. I imagine they were thrilled to find their likenesses titled "things."

Berenstain Bears

This friendly bear family has been teaching kids valuable life lessons for generations. I believe I read the Visit to the Dentist book at my own dentist's office at least twenty times, which helped assuage my fear of the infamous yankers while simultaneously teaching me about the untapped goldmine of cash at stake for my expendable baby teeth. Win-win.

Amelia Bedelia

What do you get when you combine a charming rhyming named housekeeper and a penchant for extreme literal interpretation of simple instructions? Pure children's book gold. Amelia Bedelia draws the drapes by trying her hand at sketching the curtains and prunes the hedges by sticking prunes in them. We learned the value of simple vocabulary and double meanings, plus I got some great ideas for how to make a mockery of my household chores,

Oh, The Places You'll Go!

Though it may have become a cliche gift for recent graduates, Dr. Seuss's final book is ultimately inspirational and sweet. The book details our protagonist's travel through uncharted territory, complete with setbacks and triumphs. So go ahead, give it to your graduating cousin or neighbor. He'll probably be able to start a collection with all of the copies he receives, but he may just learn a valuable lesson about endless possibilities.

The Rainbow Fish

This book seems pretty innocent with its message of sharing, so imagine my surprise in discovering it's taken some flack from critics for allegedly promoting a socialist agenda. It's a pretty preposterous accusation; it's enough to make you wish yourself back to a simpler time when you didn't know what things like "socialist agenda" even meant.


Fruit bats are adorable and owls are evil? What kind of crazy mixed-up pre-Harry Potter owl love affair world is this? Stellaluna is separated from her mother and is raised with a nest full of baby birds, the mother of whom admonishes her for hanging upside down like, well, a bat. In case you were worried, she does eventually reunite with her mother, but the book has a bit of a melancholy feel through the whole "be true to yourself" message.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

American Girl

I'm still moderately crushed that they didn't unleash the glory of the respective downtown-based American Girl Places until I was far past the acceptable American Girl consuming age. I would have been all over that. I mean, tea parties? With your doll? Is there some sort of a sign up list somewhere? Because I would like to enlist myself immediately.

Just the other day, I was at the home of a family with young girls and found each one proudly toting a bona-fide American Girl doll. The jealousy reflex in me sprang forth, strong as ever. As much as I begged, my parents would never cave and purchase me a wildly expensive Samantha doll per my, demands. My friend had one complete with it's own turn-of-the-century style miniature version of the rich person wire bed on which she slept. Granted, these young girls I encountered this week had the far inferior "Just Like Me" My Twinn-knockoff dolls complete with eerily identical features and customizations, but the jealousy reflex enacted nonetheless.

While American Girl may have started with the noblest of literacy and girl pride-minded intentions, the brand morphed into a major franchise of merchandise and self-proclaimed collectibles. I was an avid reader of the books, so imagine my delight as a child when the mailman saw fit to bring me my very own American Girl merchan dise catalog. If I had known what crack was at the time, this catalog would have become its mildly less addictive equivalent for my 10-year old self. I spent hours meticulously marking pages, indicating not only which dolls and accessories I preferred but also which me-sized American Girl-style clothing options I would hopefully someday wear with false-modest pride. Who doesn't want colonial frock or a shirt whose collar suffocates me with its early 1900s high buttonedness? These things are relatively irresistible. Well, to girls in the target 8-12 demographic, that is.

This effort-laden catalog scouring turned out to be for naught, but it did teach me a valuable lesson about coveting and consumerism. That is, that I really, really like it. Thank you, American Girl. You've served me well in my path to shopping addiction.

The spark of the American Girl concept was born in the mid-80s when creator Pleasant Rowland visited colonial Williamsburg, enjoying the impact of the fully immersive experience. Later, when shopping for gifts for her tween-aged nieces, Rowland realized that the range of dolls available to preteens was highly limited. The focus of these dolls, she observed, seemed to be on either mothering (baby dolls) or aspiring to teenagehood (Barbie-type fashion dolls). No dolls were specifically geared toward the interests of then generally underserved preteen demographic.

Initially launching the line as a mail-order enterprise, Rowland created the fledgling American Girl franchise in 1986. American Girl originally featured three historical girls: Kirsten Larson, Samantha Parkington, and Molly McIntre. Each doll came with three books about her life in her respective historical setting and optional clothing and accessories based on the character. American Girl was born.

American Girl quickly grew into a veritable operation, releasing birthday books, seasonal books, and my personal favorite in 1988: life-size matching clothing for the doll owner. The line veered into some alternate territories, but for the most part its focus was on the historically relevant doll line with its corresponding books. The original characters released in 1986 were:

Kirsten Larson (1850s)Kirsten is a Swedish American living in Minnesota in the mid 19th-century. Kirsten is a kind, sensitive girl open to new experiences in her new country. She was an avid sewer and had an adventurous spirit. Plus, she wore her hair in an awesome braid/Princess Leia Cinna-bun hybrid. I liked the idea that she was Minnesotan like me, but I could never seem to get my hair to stay in those braid loops like hers.

Samantha Parkington (1900s)

Samantha Parkington is a turn-of-the-century orphan living with her rich Grandmary. Yep, Grandymary. I guess that's Edwardian rich-speak for Grandmother. Samantha is curious and progressive, excited in new prospects and ideas. She taught me that you can be both rich and kind. Plus that it's totally awesome to have a slew of servants at your disposal. I don't think that was the point, of course, but I definitely picked up on it.

Molly McIntire (1940s)
Until the line expanded into more ethnically diverse characters, Molly is the original line's token "girl with the glasses." Molly is lively and scheming, with a father abroad fighting in World War II. She has a taste for glamour and excitement and has vivid imagination.

The line quickly expanded to include more characters based in different historical periods. In 1991:

Felicity Merriman (1770s)

It's surprising Felicity wasn't in the original release group, considering creator Pleasant Rowland's claim that a visit to colonial Williamsburg inspired the series. Felicity is coming of age during the Revolutionary War. She is highly independent and spunky and rejects many of the feminine ideals assigned to her my her time period.

In 1993:
Addy Walker (1860s)
The series' first African American character, Addy's books explore more complex societal issues, depicting her life as an escaped slave. Addy doesn't believe slavery is fair and is a proponent of racial equality, finding the North to be similarly prejudiced to the South from which she escaped.

In 1997:
Josefina Montoya (1820s)
Josefina is a girl growing up in New Mexico before the Mexican-American war, when the period was still under Mexican control. Her books integrate some Spanish terms and examine Josefina's life following the death of her mother. She is shy, thoughtful, and caring. Plus, we get to pronounce her name "HO-se-fina", which is totally awesome.

In the 2000s, the company later added post-white settlement Native American Kaya'aton'my,first-generation American Russian Jewish Rebecca Rubin, spunky tomboy Kit Kittredge, and civil-rights minded Julie Albright. The diversity of character and ethnic background grew significantly over the years since the original 1986 release, but the general guiding principles remain the same.

The books had their flaws, but they fulfilled Rowland's original vision of interesting young girls in history and lives unlike their own. Rowland introduced girls to disparate historical periods through the lens of girls who were their own age, with similar hopes and ideals. It was an innovative idea, and kids bought into it with great fervency. Bought into it so much, of course, that they begged their parents for books, dolls, magazine subscriptions, costumes, accessories, and everything else that turned this educational premise into a lucrative financial enterprise. It may have worked too well on me; I'm still putting that Samantha doll on my birthday list. It's worth a try. If you're interested in fulfilling my decades-long dream, don't forget to throw in the wire-frame bed too.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Shel Silverstein Poetry Books

It takes a special kind of adult to truly get inside a child's head. We so often forget the whimsical, imaginative world of childhood as we're hardened by our collective cynical ascendancy to adulthood. It's rare to find a grown-up who is able not only to get in touch with his inner child, but who is able to bring it to the surface and forge a lucrative career from it. While his friends are off becoming doctors and lawyers, he's got to be content with writing poetry about ponies and dragons. It's a tough job, certainly, but someone's got to do it.

Granted, Shel Silverstein is a special case in children's book authorship; his extensive range of career endeavors would likely make many parent purchasers of A Light in the Attic or Falling Up blush. Silverstein's work spanned drawing cartoons for Playboy magazine to writing STD-laden songs entitled "Don't Give a Dose to the One you Love the Most." And did I mention he wrote Johnny Cash's country music hit "A Boy Named Sue?" Oh, right, and in the late 80s he wrote nine plays for adult audiences. You can't say the man didn't have varied interests; Silverstein squeezed several lifetimes worth of lucrative artistic careers into a mere 67 years. Not too shabby.

To generations of kids in the mid-to-late 20th century, Silverstein provided us with a certain silliness that was simultaneously irreverent and irresistible. Not all parents were crazy about the sometimes inane and often ridiculous content in his poetry, but Silverstein undeniably sparked a love of reading in children. For the most part, adults were just happy to see their kids excited about reading; it may have not have been heavy literature--I don't think a poem entitled "Ickle Me Pickle Me Tickle Me Too" registers in that class--but it was reading nonetheless. It was enough to make even the begrudgingest readers among us pick up a book of our own will and accord. That's pretty strong stuff.

Silverstein's unique sense of word choice and clever use of double meanings paired with cute illustrations provoked delight in young children. Finally, here was something right on pitch with the mysterious inner workings of a child's brain. Based on Silverstein's astronomical success, the recipe for writing a really effective children's poem seems to be as follows: write something kind of crazy. Show it to an adult. If the adult think it's crazy, stop drilling; you've hit children's literary oil. It's a tried and true formula: if adults find something to be crude and distasteful, that's the ultimate litmus test of its potential appeal to children.

Children have a far likelier propensity for possessing a sense of humor than their grown-up counterparts, so this formula was right on target. Silverstein found monumental success with his children's poetry anthologies, outlasting some of the 90s' most persistent blockbuster authors on the New York Times Bestseller list. "A Light in the Attic" spent a remarkable 182 weeks on the list following its 1981 release, proving that books geared toward children can have serious mass market appeal.

There was, admittedly, a certain naughtiness to his children's poetry that made children devour it so gleefully. Many of the poems included PG-rated punchlines or humorously violent turns of events that delighted children with its unexpectedness. For example:

That's funny, right? Come on, you know it's a little bit funny. That illustration is killer. Admittedly, toilet humor was prevalent, but it was used cleverly and quietly, like this:

All in all, fairly innocent stuff. It's not exactly racy content, it's just a joke. You know, those things with the set-ups, the misdirections, and the surprise endings? Kid love 'em.

Unfortunately, not everyone was on board with Silverstein's sense of humor. Wherever you find someone trying to bring something fun and enjoyable to children, you undoubtedly find a group of sour-faced adults hell-bent on killing every last speck of joy and laughter. Naysaying parents argued against a few specific poems, citing their content as being inappropriate for children and encouraging disrespectful and anti-authority behavior.

Some found contention with this poem in particular:

What a group of killjoys, huh? The phrase "lighten up" was coined with this group of ignorant indignants in mind. If your child reads this and immediately proceeds to your kitchen to smash dishes one by one in a subversive manner, then we'll talk. Until that point, we might all want to work on developing at least a mild sense of humor. It might diffuse some of that tension that's sure to arise from the brooding resentment your kids will unleash on you twenty years down the road.

Another poem from A Light in The Attic caught even more flack from sanctimonious parents for its allegedly outraging message. "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony" detailed the story of a little girl who begged her parents for a pony, telling them she would die without it. They refused her the pony, as parents are wont to do, and she did indeed die. The poem closes with the line, "This is a good story to read your folks when they won't buy you something you want." Holy banned books, that's funny stuff.

It seems the moral of the story is that it's probably okay to expose kids to humorous material. In fact, I'd even prescribe it for your own children, if you have any. I'm not a doctor, though, so you might want to check with a professional before administering that hilarious treatment. Either way, I'd venture it's a pretty safe bet to say your kids aren't going to develop into antisocial sociopaths for having read a clever poem or two. Just a hunch.

We all read it, and we turned out okay, right? Well, to a point at least. Our snarkiness and self-satisfied sense of irony had to come from somewhere, right? Whatever the potentially damaging impact alleged by parent groups, the positive impact of children enjoying reading outweighs the negative of ending up incredibly uptight, humorless, and unyielding. So, thanks, Shel. We'll see you where the sidewalk ends.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sweet Valley High

It's no wonder those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s possess the capacity to believe anything can happen: reading Sweet Valley High novels inevitably left us with a severe case of overactive imagination. Extensive exposure to a gang of supposedly normal teenagers who battle werewolves, date princes, and are hunted relentlessly by sociopathic identical strangers have worn down our collective sense of normalcy and common sense. Throw in some far-fetched ancestral sagas that incestuously implicate the same families for generations and we've got a full-fledged defense for our willingness to believe the ridiculous.

For teen girls coming of age in the 80s and 90s, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield seemed the adolescent prototype to which we could aspire. At the time, I was sure two more perfect people had ever existed. I fancied myself something as a Jessica, favoring clothes and makeup to being a boring stick-in-the-mud, but I was certain both girls were paragons of our generation. Only in retrospect (and with the incredibly detailed and hilarious recounts found in Shannon's Sweet Valley High blog) have I realized that my initial perceptions were a bit skewed.

It all seemed okay back when our good friends in Sweet Valley were our peers in age, but as they remain frozen in time, our more adult retrospective look at them can fairly be more than a bit critical. The more I reflect on my former fictional teen idols, the more I realize how insufferably irritating the two-dimensional twins are. What I once thought of as a characterization polarized between social butterfly and quiet serious one turned out to be a divide of selfish brat and sanctimonious prude. Kind of a bummer, right?

In spite of this late-in-the-game revelation about the twins' less than savory personality traits, Sweet Valley High still holds a special place in my heart. It can't be all bad, of course--these books encouraged young girls to read, didn't they? Sure, they may not have been as entrepreneurial and wholesome as The Babysitters' Club series, but they had an indescribable charm. When you consider the bulk of the series was penned by ghostwriters too ashamed to publicly attach their names to these projects, it could have been a lot worse. I'm not totally sure how, but use your imagination. Like I said, it's a gift from growing up Sweet Valley-obsessed, so use it wisely.

The books were supremely cheesy in a way typical of adolescent-directed fiction, but they also represent a sort of innocence of the era that becomes less believable of teenagers with each passing year. That's not to say teenagers were uniformly squeaky-clean, but the characters seem far more at home forever frozen in their 80s and 90s setting. After all, these days, many of their book-long conflicts could probably be solved with a text message or a quick Google search.

Let's meet our cardboard cast of characters, shall we?

Elizabeth Wakefield

The aforementioned sanctimonious prude, Elizabeth is continually characterized as the "good" one. So good, in fact, that she exudes self-satisfied moral superiority at every turn. Elizabeth is unrelentingly kind and caring, which makes her tireless devotion to her ethically inferior identical twin sister all the more baffling. She wears her hair in a ponytail, which in 80s and 90s teen literature is the only known symbol for being The Serious One. Like her sister, Elizabeth possesses an combination of blonde hair, blue-green eyes, and an enviable size-six figure, a fact upon which every single book in the series insists on dwelling frequently and creepily.

Jessica Wakefield

Like the books say, the twins may be physically identical, but all resemblances end there. Jessica is the opposite of Elizabeth in every way, namely on the caring and kindness front. Jessica is conceited, conniving, and ruthless in her pursuits of all things Jessica. She's well-liked and popular, which makes sense in a high school kind of way. Jessica's major interest seems to be coming up with schemes and dragging Elizabeth into the fiery bottomless pit of her moral vacuum.

Ned, Alice, and Steven Wakefield

See, even Wakefields make mistakes! Jessica totally thinks Steven and Cara should get married and...well, maybe you should just read it for yourself, but I promise, it's ridiculous

Would you expect anything less than a picture-perfect family for our identical young ingenues? Their family was painstakingly perfect from their lawyer father to their interior designer mother, with a handsome California-boy brother thrown in for good measure. Their glossy veneer of flawlessness cracked occasionally, but the books had a pretty good sense of the reset button, always leaving the family intact and cheek-achingly happy.

Todd Wilkins

On-again-off-again romantic interest of Elizabeth, so you know he's got to be just a little bit boring. He's athletic and smart, but he's also a total drama queen. Todd and Elizabeth get into the most ridiculous incessant fights. I thought she was supposed to be the level-headed one, but turns out she's a bit more of a teenage girlcliche than she initially looked to be.

Lila Fowler

Jessica's best friend, Lila is a stuck-up heiress who for some reason was always my favorite. She just tells it like it is, and usually it's kind of mean and revolving around herself. Lila and Jessica are allegedly good friends, but they spend pretty much all of their time trying to undermine the other's social status.

Enid Rollins

Liz's best friend and resident stick-in-the-mud. She's such a sad sack sometimes you've got to wonder how even someone as nice as Elizabeth can deal with her in large doses. Enid just exudes nebishness from every freckled pore, so God help us for those rare instances of having to plow through an Enid-centric storyline.

These books often read like mini soap operas, with equally unbelievable story arcs. When the series was optioned for television, the producers did not disappoint us on the absurd storyline front. We had girls lapsing into comas and getting kidnapped at every turn.

The lyrically challenged theme song implores us to consider, "Could there be two different girls who look the same?" It's a tough question, but all signs appear to point to yes in the case of the Wakefield twins. The TV series ran mainly on FOX syndicates for its first few seasons, after which it was booted to UPN and was subsequently canceled due to plummeting ratings. Like the books, the show was something of a guilty pleasure and could only sustain our interest for so long. As the books' major audience began to age out of the teen fiction market, the days of both the show and the book series were numbered.

Don't worry, today's young girls won't be deprived of their once-requisite Wakefield exposure. The books were recently issued a re-release, featuring updated cultural references and wardrobe choices. Incidentally, the writers also demoted J and E from their once-perfect size 6 to the now-perfect size 4. How positively enlightened. If that's not enough to tide you over, there are reputable rumors of a Diablo Cody-headed SVH film project.Hopefully we can carry on with our normal lives in the midst of the brewing suspense over casting decisions.

Don't forget to check out Shannon's Sweet Valley Blog for your daily dose of SVH! This is a totally unpaid, unsolicited endorsement offered only out of my extreme reverence for Shannon's awesome and diligent recapping. She deserves major kudos for getting through all of these books again--I'm not sure I could do it, though I have lost countless afternoons at the office to reading these recaps. Amazing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Babysitters' Club

In light of the late-breaking 90s news that the Babysitters Club* is being revamped for a new generation of kids, it seems only appropriate to give the BSC some well-deserved Children of the 90s fanfare. I occasionally pick up some flack for my coverage of girly topics, but this time around you're just going to have to deal with it. Things are going to get downright feminine here, so don't say I didn't warn you. We're going to talk about slumber parties and crushes on boys and young female entrepreneurship and you're going to like it, dammit.

The Babysitters Club was a formidable 90s franchise, spawning a series of books, a TV show, a feature film, and countless items of allowance-worthy tie-in merchandise. The series focuses on a group of business-minded middle-school aged girls who form a well-organized club to process and dispatch sitters for local childcare requests. As a child, I revered their detail-orientation and maturity, but as an adult, I find it harder to believe that people would trust these 12- and 13-year olds with their easily breakable infants. Youth notwithstanding, it's probably more impressive that the girls managed to get the whole neighborhood to cave to their demands for hourly rates. These girls were good.

Author Ann M. Martin pumped these books out at regular intervals from 1986 to 2000, producing 213 books selling over 176 million copies. This woman is a veritable BSC-producing machine. She had a unique sense of appeal to tweenage girls, piquing their interest with wholesome stories of everyday obstacles.

That front cover offer to join the Fan Club? Totally did that

Martin gave us all of our favorite stock characters, forever categorizing each of us as "a Mary Anne" or "a Kristy". I always wanted to be a Claudia or a Stacey because of their keen fashion sense and model beauty, but I had a nagging suspicion growing up that I was more of a Mallory. If you've ever read the series, you know this to be a huge bummer. You'll be glad to know I managed to escape the Mallory route by never growing curly red hair, getting glasses, or being born into a family of 10, but it was a close one there for awhile.

It's possible I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, as I have yet to properly introduce you to our cast of characters:

Kristy Thomas: Our fearless leader and self-proclaimed tomboy. In 90s young adult books you could always tell if a girl wasn't particularly into her looks if she wore her hair in a ponytail, and Kristy was no exception. I call it the curse of the Elizabeth Wakefield; God forbid a girl has a bad hair day, these YA authors will forever relegate her to being the serious one. Everyone knows all the real fun-loving girls of YA lit wear their hair flowing and loose. It's pretty much the only symbol we have for the personality of a middle-school aged girl.

But enough of Kristy's lamentable ponytail. Kristy is bossy, outspoken, and sporty. She's generally a fair and benevolent ruler, though occasionally she lets the glamor of her presidency of a suburban middle-school babysitting club cloud her better judgment.

Mary Anne Spier: The requisite quiet and shy girl, Mary Anne is Kristy's best friend. The two are initially neighbors until Mary Anne's dad marries Dawn's mom. At the beginning of the series, her single father is very protective and strict, but all that fizzles out once they integrate with the hippie Schafers. Mary Anne is the first of the girls to have a boyfriend, and let me just say that based on the actor in my Scholastic Book Order's VHS copy of Mary Anne and the Brunettes, Logan Bruno is definitely a catch.

Stacey McGill: Our fun, stylish, blonde model friend. I dotted my i's with hearts for probably six months after I read that was Stacey's signature style. I was hoping I would morph into a Stacey on the merit of my bubbly handwriting alone, but the undertaking was generally fruitless. I guess I just wasn't permed enough.

Stacey is a the club's resident exotic sophisticate, with her New York City nativity, modeling career, and diabetes. I was actually jealous of Stacey's diabetes as a kid. She's special in every way, plus she gets a lot of bonus outpourings of attentions due to her periodic hospitalizations. That's the way my 7-year old mind interpreted it, at least. Some people have all the luck.

Claudia Kishi: The artist of the group. Claudia is funky, candy-addicted, and terrible at all things academic. She's also Asian, giving the group a much-needed breath of diversity, at least until Jessi comes along. If you've ever seen the movie, you know that her poor grades warrant summer school and a hearty performance of the chant, "The brain, the brain, the center of the chain!" Her family is pretty by-the-books, so they're naturally bothered by her outlandish appearance. Treble clef earrings and fringed vests? For shame.

Dawn Schafer: The hippie do-gooder of the group. Dawn is a blonde vegetarian Californian, descriptors that the books treat as generally interchangeable. She and Mary Anne are step-sisters, which causes some rifts from time to time but is generally pretty cool. She eventually moves to California and gets her own spin-off book series, but not before the TV show's Dawn got to hang out with Zack Braff. No, really. He was there when Dawn saved the trees. I've even got the video evidence to prove it:

Mallory Pike and Jessi Ramsey: Our junior members, meaning they are a grade younger than the other girls and thus vastly inferior according to the club's rigid membership standards. Mallory comes from a huge family of freakish gingers and Jessi is black and a ballerina. I'm sure they have other traits, but these are the main ones the books tend to dwell on.

When the TV show premiered, I was decidedly heartbroken that my house's sub par cable didn't include HBO or the Disney Channel. Luckily, through the aforementioned magic of Scholastic Book Orders, I got the full set on VHS. I'm still bitter at whoever taped Oprah over the second half of Stacey's Big Break. You know who you are. Anyway, whether or not you were a fan of the show, hopefully you knew the incredibly catchy theme song:

I'm not embarrassed to admit this song graced a few of our pre-gaming playlists in college. Okay, it's totally embarrassing, but I sacrifice myself at the altar of your collective bemusement at my expense. You're welcome.

There was also an eponymous full-length film starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Larissa Oleynik, and some less famous people. The movie wasn't exactly a box-office blockbuster, but was generally pretty satisfying to fans. I know I'm still heartbroken that I no longer have any technological apparatus on which to play my VHS copy. I did, however, recover this song from the soundtrack for your listening enjoyment. Again, I take full responsibility for my terrible, terrible taste in music as a child.

These girls may not have been extraordinary in any way, but children in the 90s took to them for that reason: they were decidedly ordinary. I imagine if the revamped books catch on, an entirely new generation of girls will fall in love with them all over again. Only this time around, they'll all have iPods and cell phones instead of Walkmans and their own phone lines. A small price to pay for some good old-fashioned wholesome fun, don't you think?

*And yes, I heard about Diablo Cody's Sweet Valley High movie project, but that will just have to wait its turn. Honest to blog. See, I can say that here, cause it makes sense.

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