Illustrated characters from Ann M. Martin's popular series The Baby-sitters Club.
In my experience as a devoted reader of The Baby-sitters Club, these books were quite popular among girls my age during our elementary school careers in the mid 1990s. Each week when our class would go to the school library we would scour the shelves for The Baby-Sitters Club novels, seeking one that we had not yet read. If memory serves, these books always had very tattered covers. This could be for a couple of reasons: One, that elementary school children are incapable of not destroying something as delicate as a paperback novel; or two, that these books exchanged hands between many elementary school girls. During the summers the search for unread Baby-sitters Club books would be transplanted to the public library, which always had a much larger selection of tattered cover books about a certain group of babysitters. Through the years and many dedicated search efforts, I never came across any boys who read the series. If boys did, they certainly did not advertise their interests.
Beginning in 1986, Ann M. Martin began writing novels centered about middle school aged children who ran a babysitting business. These middle school children worked to fulfill the need for babysitters in their neighborhood. Her novels were published from 1986 until 2000 and sold approximately 170 million copies. 131 novels were published; this number does not include the special edition novels or subsequent series that sprouted after the initial success of The Baby-sitters Club novels. Of the ten main characters that Martin developed in her novels, only one of them was male.
A typical cover style seen in the publication of The Baby-sitters Club series.
In Elizabeth Segel’s discussion of gender and its relation to childhood reading, she suggests that “boys [venture] into the territory of girls’ reading only with considerable trepidation” (73). The Baby-sitters Club series was quite obviously marketed to girls. If the flowery and brightly colored covers did not dissuade boys from reading the series, the cast of main characters that only included one male might have. The series seems to reinforce the gender role of females as caretakers; in her writings Segel discusses how literature that is specifically catered to girls tends to reinforce ideas such as these. It appears that in writing the series Martin does attempt to reach out to male readers through the inclusion of a male babysitter. However, whether or not this was enough to induct male readers into a predominantly female following is difficult to say. As Segel plainly puts it: “reading a book about a girl is still cause for embarrassment for many young readers” (76).
Tom Ashbrook’s show On Point challenges the notion that there are universals in parenting in last Tuesday’s episode, “Bringing Up Baby.” He interviewed Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, and developmental psychologist, Jennifer Lansford.
The French focus on a balance between parenting and being adults. According to Druckerman, parents interfere less with their child’s experiences, believing that “kids and adults need space and privacy to cultivate their inner lives.”
Peter Stearns, in the chapter from Anxious Parents entitled “I’m Bored”, explains how much of modern American parenting is a response to children’s boredom and the guilt felt by parents to entertain them.
"It was so easy to think of food as a legitimate reward for being a child when a parent was too busy to offer more elaborate entertainments or felt guilty about not having enough time to spend." (p. 25) (click for source)
Druckerman’s discussion of children’s food made me reflect on my childhood. My poor mom must have had such a hard task pleasing my very picky sister and me. She likes to joke that always if one of us liked a meal, the other wouldn’t. Druckerman says that there are no kids foods in France. Kids inevitably won’t like every food they’re given, so parents just require them to taste the food. The American way, in contrast, is indulgence. Peter Stearns, in his book Anxious Parents, argues, “Tolerance of children’s eating habits… resulted from the real commitment to providing pleasure” (p. 25). In other words, eating is another way to entertain kids.
The perceived frailty of American children is discussed both by Druckerman and Stearn. Druckerman says that French children are more autonomous, and French parents are more comfortable setting boundaries.
Childrearing beliefs are strongly tied to the culture they are found in. I think Stearn’s observation of parents’ obsession with entertaining their children are reflected in our society’s own entertainment consumption habits among adults.
A "Goosebumps" series favorite among readers.
The Goosebumps book series is a mammoth collection of children’s horror novels published by youth literature giant Scholastic and written by author R. L. Stine (real name Jovial Bob Stine) between 1992 and 1997. The series rocketed to popularity and inspired a few spin-off book series as well as a TV show that had me glued to the set in the same vein of programs like Are You Afraid of the Dark and So Weird. While the series is supposedly intended for middle school readers (or older readers in terms of some of the spin-offs), I seem to recall there being a certain pride and competition in comparing the number of Goosebumps books in your repertoire early in elementary school while cautiously avoiding the eyes of disapproving teachers.
The original line of historical "American Girl" dolls.
When I was little, one of my favorite book series was the American Girl series. This collection of chapter books followed the lives of several young girls from different time periods and classes in American history – all hinging upon the common denominator of their titular national identity and exploring the story directly through the girls’ viewpoints. These books were created chiefly to advertise to children (more specifically girls) the line of character dolls upon which the American Girl company was originally built, in the same vein of such toy lines as Transformers and My Little Pony. Selling for upwards of a hundred dollars (and initially only available by mail-order) when you factor in toy accessories and doll dress-up, the American Girl dolls were expensive enough to require additional persuasion in the form of books, movies, and even games. After all, parental resistance in the face of cost to satisfying a child’s preference for a particular character or story tends to wane the more enamored the child becomes with the pageantry of a full product line.
The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley, The Case of the Dog Camp Mystery (2001) book cover (click for source)
When we were discussing our favorite female protagonists from childhood literature, somehow it slipped my mind- I used to be obsessed with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. I had almost every book from their series, The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley, and I read them over and over, entertained by each mystery they undertook. I would look forward to the next release on the shelves at grocery stores. I remember each book had cards with pictures to be torn out. I had a large stack of them that I would flip through, admiring my idols.
Written by various authors, the series ran from 1998 to 2005 and was published by Harper Entertainment. While most of books in the series can now be purchased on Amazon for a penny used, their suggested retail price was $4.50.
These were girls’ books. The few boys who did venture to read the series risked looking feminine. This loss of masculinity is what keeps boys away from books and activities considered “girly,” as we discussed in class. While some of the individual titles like The Case of the Cheerleading Camp Mystery have an obvious appeal to girls, some of the titles like The Case of the Weird Science Mystery have a non-gender-specific appeal. Titles like the latter could have appealed to boys had the series not been based on two of young girls’ biggest icons. This supports Elizabeth Segel’s conclusion in “As the Twig Is Bent”
“…Many boys are missing out on one of fiction’s greatest gifts, the chance to experience life from a perspective other than the one we were born to—in this case, from the female vantage point.” (p. 76)
In contrast to the earlier books discussed in the Segel reading, the series doesn’t prescribe roles of domesticity and obedience to its adolescent girl audience. Instead, they are the heroes. They go on adventures. They solve crimes. They get the bad guy. And all before dinnertime.
Where the Wild Things Are (book cover)
Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” has long been one of my favorite books from my childhood. This classic children’s book, which was published in 1963, is about a mischievous young boy named Max who gets sent to his room by his mother to be punished for being too rambunctious. In his room, Max’s imagination takes him to the land “where the wild things are”, where he becomes “king of all wild things”.
Although this book is a mere thirty-seven pages long, with most pages filled by elaborate illustrations, the underlying messages and reinforced gender roles are extremely clear nonetheless. The book reinforces the gender roles discussed by Elizabeth Segel, as the protagonist is a young boy, and the subject matter is that of action and adventure. In addition, Sendek’s book directly exemplifies Segel’s assertion that “the boys’ book was, above all, an escape from domesticity and from the female domination of the domestic world” (70), as Max tries to escape his mother’s control by running away to an imaginary land where he is the king.
Despite the presence of these familiar themes, the book has prompted some negative feedback, as many people wonder if the book is truly for children. Furthermore, Sendak’s statement in an HBO interview, “I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood”, has prompted some people to debate whether the story is some sort of psychoanalytic masterpiece about a boy’s anger and emotions, or merely a bunch of colorful illustrations designed to catch the attention of children. However, whatever the author’s intended meaning and motivation was behind the story (and Sendak is deliberately making it ambiguous), it seems that certain aspects of Max’s personality seem to resonate with all who have read and enjoyed the book , which is a testament to how much the line has been blurred between what is appropriate for adults and what is appropriate for children.