BooksForKidsBlog

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Prequel: The Summer Before by Ann M. Martin

It was quite a summer.

When Mary Anne and Claudia and Stacey and I talked about it later (when we were older), we discovered that during those long, hot months we had all, separately, felt that we didn't quite belong where we were. Not one of us. Up until that summer we hadn't paid much attention to such things. But by the end of it everything was different. We were different.

The summer brought the four of us together to form the Babysitters Club--something we would belong to, in one sense or another, for the rest of our lives.

It has been 25 years since Anne M. Martin's Kristy's Great Idea (The Babysitters Club) debuted with the story of four twelve-year-olds beginning middle school and forming their own all-for-one and one-for-all business, a small book which seemed inevitably to introduce a best-selling series. Now Martin celebrates the refurbished reissue of this evergreen series with its own prequel, a snapshot in time of her four classic characters in that pivotal summer before middle school.

In a way, Mary Anne's confused feelings represent those of the group. Mary Anne chafes at the babyish style of her all-pink bedroom which her dad decorated for her third birthday. In fact, her problem is too much dad. Her widowed father still picks out her clothes and styles her hair in two little-girl ribboned pigtails which she senses embarrass her friends as much as they do her. And when a neighbor calls to ask if she can sit with her child for a short afternoon session, Mary Anne, herself wondering if she can handle the responsibility, resents her father's rule that she can only take the job if she can persuade one of her friends to stay with her. The babysitter needs a babysitter, Mary Anne fumes to herself.

Kristy, on the other hand, feels like she's frozen in place, still longing for her absent dad while her mom finds a new boyfriend, Watson, and her brothers embrace their busy high school lives without a backward look. Kristy is hung up on whether her distant dad will even acknowledge her twelfth birthday, and as that day draws nearer over the summer, Kristy feels somehow incapable of going forward into her new life in middle school.

Claudia, on the other hand, is all too eager to play the teenager. She has the right flair for teen clothes, an appealing, new bikini for the end-of-school boy-girl pool party, and then amazingly, her first boyfriend, her big sister's ninth-grade classmate, Frankie, who suddenly wants to spend a lot of the long summer days with just her. Feeling flattered by the older boy's attention, Claudia drifts away from her two old friends, and when Frankie eventually dumps her for more sophisticated girls, Claudia, too, feels adrift.

And miles and miles away, in New York City, Stacey is all too eager to leave her sixth-grade life behind for a different reason. Suddenly diagnosed with diabetes, Stacey misses a lot of school while she adjusts to the disease and discovers that she is now a pariah, someone different, the object of ridicule by her lifelong best friend, now enemy, Laine. To Stacey, spending her summer packing away her old life, Stoneybrook Middle School offers a much-needed new start on her life.

With the first titles in her much-loved series now updated for minor atmospherics and dressed up in new covers, The Babysitters Club is again accessible to the daughters of its earlier devotees, and with its new prequel, The Summer Before (Babysitters Club) (Scholastic, 2010), the series is ready for new readers. Martin takes up her familiar iconic characters without missing a beat, her acknowledged honesty and insight into the middle-school mind intact, turning out another of her patented good reads. With overarching theme of the value of strong friendships in the maturational process, these books are as relevant as ever. And, as Kirkus Reviews says, sweetly but not disingenuously, "Book candy at its best."

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