‘Feminist by design’: ‘Baby-Sitters Club’ author returns to Smith

  • Susan Etheredge, who is the dean of the college and vice president for campus life at Smith College, introduces best-selling author Ann M. Martin and publishers Liz Szabla and Jean Feiwel during a panel discussion on publishing stories for young readers Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jean Feiwel, center, speaks beside Liz Szabla, left, and Ann M. Martin during a panel discussion on publishing stories for young readers, Thursday, in Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. Szabla and Feiwel are publishers; Martin is an author. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Liz Szabla, from left, Jean Feiwel and Ann M. Martin talk during a panel discussion on publishing stories for young readers moderated by Susan Etheredge, right, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. Szabla and Feiwel are publishers; Martin is an author. Etheredge is the dean of the college and vice president for campus life. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ann M. Martin, a children's book author, speaks during a panel discussion on publishing stories for young readers, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Graphic novels based on books by Ann M. Martin. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Book publisher Jean Feiwel speaks during a panel discussion on publishing stories for young readers, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Book publisher Liz Szabla speaks during a panel discussion on publishing stories for young readers, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Liz Szabla, from left, Jean Feiwel and Ann M. Martin talk during a panel discussion on publishing stories for young readers, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Weinstein Auditorium at Smith College. Szabla and Feiwel are publishers; Martin is an author. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Novel by Ann M. Martin. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Books by Ann M. Martin. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2018 12:06:29 AM

NORTHAMPTON — While working in children’s book publishing at Scholastic in the 1980s, Jean Feiwel noticed that a book about a baby sitter named Ginny was doing well, but she wasn’t quite sure why. It wasn’t promoted much by its publisher. “I said, there must be something about baby-sitting that is appealing to people,” she recalled recently.

Feiwel approached Ann M. Martin, Smith College class of 1977, to write a young-adult series called “The Baby-Sitters Club,” about a group of middle-school girls who start a baby-sitting business in the fictional town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

Martin took the job, and in 1986, Scholastic published the first installment of the series, “Kristy’s Great Idea.” Feiwel and Martin had no idea that the series would become a sensation. By the time the series ended in 2000, there were well over 200 titles, millions of copies sold, and countless dedicated fans. “I still receive letters. Now more from adult readers,” said Martin, who at one point was writing a book a month.

Martin and Feiwel, who’s now senior vice president and publisher of Macmillian’s Feiwel & Friends, were reunited Thursday night during a panel about the beloved Baby-Sitters Club books and children’s literature at Smith College, “Publishing for Young Readers: The Success of the Baby-Sitters Club and Other Phenomena.” Liz Szabla, associate publisher of Feiwel & Friends, also joined them.

Readers’ attachments to the characters, Martin said, were a major driver of the books’ success. Over the years, she’s received tons of fan mail. Some of those letters are now collected as part the Mortimer Rare Book Collection at Smith College.

“At the height of the Baby-Sitters Club, kids wrote mostly (and) started off by saying, ‘I like all the characters in the books, but I most like Claudia, because …,’ or ‘I most like Stacey,’ ” Martin said. “I think one of the things that kids related to in the stories were the characters. I think they could find themselves or their friends in the books.”

The girls had different family structures, interests and personalities. The original foursome included sporty Kristy, artistic Claudia, shy Mary Anne and fashionable Stacey.

“I wanted to create a group of girls who were very different from one another but work well together,” Martin said in a separate interview.

These female friendships resonated with readers, many of whom turned out Thursday night to see Martin. Among the crowd were college students and women in their 30s and 40s. Some had brought their children; others brought their own copies of Baby-Sitters Club books to be autographed.

Jemma Stephenson, a junior studying English at Smith College who was in the crowd, devoured the books in fourth grade and liked the friendships among the girls. “It was just different types of people who could coexist and support one another,” she said. “It was feminist by design.”

But Martin’s feminist messages were subtle. Asked how she might write the characters differently today, amid the #MeToo movement, she said, “I think I might make the characters more active and involved, politically so,” she told the Gazette. “I think kids today are much more politically aware … That just wasn’t something that existed — not the way it does now — when I was writing the book back in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Still, the books take on a range of difficult subjects — divorce, mental illness and alcoholism, to name a few. In the book “Mary Anne and the Memory Garden,” the girls deal with the death of a classmate killed by a drunken driver.

Real life inspired some of the books’ plots. “Our lives are in the Baby-Sitters Club,” Feiwel said. “Our grandparents dying, a dog dying, our friendships, our rivalries — that’s in the Baby-Sitters Club. I can point to many situations in there that are my own and that are Ann’s own — that’s why it’s absolutely authentic and true.”

Though the series had many dedicated fans, it didn’t go without some criticism. After Stacey moved to California and left the books, readers were not happy. “We got a flood of letters saying ‘You idiots, what are you doing?’” Feiwel said, and laughed. “We basically had to bring Stacey back and say where she was for three years.”

Claudia, a major character in the series, was inspired by Martin’s friend from Smith.

At Smith, Martin majored in psychology and elementary education, but she always had a love of children’s literature and storytelling, even before she could write. “I’d draw pictures and dictate stories to my mom who would write it down,” she told the Gazette.

Though the Baby-Sitters Club series turned out to be a major success, it wasn’t without risk. Martin left her full-time job working in publishing at Bantam Books before writing them.

“I was taking freelance work, I was writing cover copy and editing stuff for packaging companies. I had no idea how this was going to play out,” she recalled. “In fact when I left Bantam, my mother said to me, ‘Well, so now when people ask what you do, what do I tell them?’ ”

In addition to the Baby-Sitters Club, Martin has written many other books, including “Belle Teal” and John Newbery Medal-winner “A Corner of the Universe.” Her most recent book is the third in the Missy Piggle-Wiggle series, a spinoff of Betty MacDonald’s children’s series Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, starring Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s niece.

She also works on The Lisa Libraries, a project she started in 1990 that gives book donations from editors and publishers to groups that work with underserved children.

Martin now lives in New York state near Woodstock, but she loves coming back to campus.

“Mostly I just love the progressive atmosphere — all these really talented, smart, dedicated young women. I find it energizing,” she told the Gazette. “I always say, ‘Smith is where I go when I need to recharge my batteries.’ ”

“I have to say that most of my closest friends outside of my publishing friends are the ones that I met at Smith,” she added. “We’re all still great friends — Claudia included.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com


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