Over the next week and a half, we'll be looking back at books from our childhood.
by ELENA SCHILDER
I haven’t read much of Jonathan Franzen’s work, but there is an essay in his book How To Be Alone that I remember one part of very clearly. He theorizes that there are two sorts of readers in the world: those who read because it is bourgeois custom, and those who read because they are disappointed by real life. Both readers form their habits in childhood, and one imagines the two children as a pair of mismatched siblings: one well-adjusted, with a healthy curiosity in life; the other sunk too far into the pleasures of narrative.
I am paraphrasing a more complex thought of Franzen’s in order to identify myself as the second brand of reader, and to provide the beginning of what might be a picture of myself as a child. When I started reading The Babysitters Club, it was because I found one of the books in our family friends’ house, soon after our family moved back from Holland. It was the one about Stacey being a lifeguard, or falling in love with a lifeguard — Boy-Crazy Stacey, it was called. I started reading the book lying on Cheryl’s bed — it was Cheryl’s book. She was older than me by a few years. I remember thinking that this must be what girls read.
Each book in The Babysitters Club series begins with a description of the seven principal characters. Because the books can be read in any order, the characters barely change over time, and for an avid reader of the series the introductory description soon becomes repetitive. The seven girls are distinguishable by their outward personality traits and lifestyle choices: they are seven brands of human teenager, defined not by the things that happen to them or even by their relationships with one another, but with one or two choice adjectives each: Kristy is bossy and tomboyish; Claudia is scatter-brained and artistic; Mary Anne is sensitive and organized; Stacey is sophisticated; Dawn is laid-back and health-conscious. Mallory and Jessi have fewer distinguishing characteristics because they are only eleven.
In an early episode of Mad Men, Don Draper deflects a question about his upbringing by saying that where he was brought up, in the Midwest, it is considered impolite to talk about oneself. The irony is that Don knows no self fixed enough to talk about - for years, he has been pretending to be someone else. In Don Draper we have metaphorical representation of the idea that our outward selves cannot escape fabrication. But he serves to remind us, too, that it is strange we are asked to present ourselves at all, that in job interviews we are asked the question all the babysitters already knew how to answer, though they were only thirteen: “What two words would you use to describe yourself?”
When I started school in upstate New York I was seven, and I had never been around American kids before. Dutch children are much like their parents — stubborn, fair-minded, and unselfconscious. That is a generalization, but it is meant to illustrate the difference between the people I was around when I was very young and the people I grew to know in my adolescence, who were more conscious of what I’ll call their individual identities. It was not until I lived here and spoke English and read American books that I came to expect to be a person who would ever be described in any particular way.
Those who read The Babysitter’s Club when they were younger will remember that one of the pleasures of the books is their use of handwriting samples. The members of the club keep a record of their babysitting jobs in a notebook and are required by the rules of the club to write a paragraph or two about each job. In each book, a few chapters begin with hand-written passages, and the serial reader learns to recognize each of the seven characters by her handwriting. Kristy writes with the tight, controlled, cheerful cursive of a young athlete; Claudia, whose mind is on other things, writes sloppily and crosses out words due to misspelling; Mary Anne’s handwriting seems old-fashioned and feminine; Stacey prints and dots her lower-case I’s with hearts; Dawn prints too, but her letters are bigger, freer, and reflective of her West Coast upbringing.
Nobody writes by hand anymore, but when I was younger the issue of handwriting so obsessed me that I used to watch Party of Five with a pad of paper on my lap and write out the same sentence (always “The fox jumped over the fence”) in what I imagined were the five different brands of penmanship belonging to the five siblings. That identity and handwriting were inseparable is absolutely an idea I got from The Babysitters Club. In the non-fictional universe, I was perpetually dissatisfied with my own handwriting, and changed it often, depending on which of my friends I most admired at that moment. I went through a period of thinking my friend Molly’s was perfect, but then, so were her L.L. Bean down vests and the mallards in her parents’ house. Handwriting and lifestyle and identity were all joined in a way I didn’t understand and couldn’t master.
Nothing about handwriting analysis seems to be very provable, but one tenet that I’ve encountered says that though we try to change our handwriting, the basic gestures that our hands make are learned so young and ingrained so deeply that they will be recognizable all our lives. Which means that, gestures at personal style and branding aside, there are things about ourselves that we can’t change.
When I was in college, I read Sister Carrie for the first time in an American Studies class. My professor made the argument that Carrie’s failure to succeed in America comes from a level of personal malleability that weakens her; she is of nowhere and goes nowhere, though for brief and finite periods she attaches herself to people with better fortune than her own. Theodore Dreiser draws Carrie in terms that directly oppose the typology of The Babysitters Club: she struggles because she is without personality. She fails to cultivate herself.
Although it’s silly and very typical of the compulsive reader to identify too deeply with a fictional character, I felt sad when I read Sister Carrie — for myself, and for all the displaced egos in America, who never quite settle on how they want to write. For the members of the Babysitters Club, the tension between being and wanting-to-be never existed at all. Though they lived in a dull and wholesome world, it was a world I wanted to live in.
Elena Schilder is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about The Roches.
Enjoy The Perils Of A Literary Childhood At Your Leisure
Elena Schilder and The Babysitter's Club
Lily Goodspeed and The Golden Compass
Helen Schumacher and Little House on the Prairie
Jane Hu and Walk Two Moons
Kara VanderBijl and A Wrinkle In Time
Hafsa Arain and Harry Potter
Lucy Morris and Bruno and Boots
Alice Bolin and Nothing's Fair In Fifth Grade
Dayna Evans and The Diary of Anne Frank