The Baby-sitters Club, and how we figure out what people want to read

I interviewed a few people from Macmillan last week for a piece I’m writing on crowdsourcing. One of those people was Jean Feiwel, who lists on her bio that working with Ann M. Martin years ago while she was at Scholastic to create The Baby-sitters Club was “one of my proudest accomplishments.”

Since we were talking about whether publishers know what readers want, I had to ask her about this. The Baby-sitters Club was one of the hottest series of all time. I’m guessing many blog readers here can recite the names of the girls in the club (Kristy! Mary Anne! Claudia! etc.) and their attributes, like Mallory having 7 siblings, Stacey having diabetes, and so forth. Millions of girls (myself included) spent babysitting money on these books. Did they know that those would sell when the series started? How did that happen?

Feiwel reminded me that Scholastic has always put out their catalog and distributed it to children. You’ve probably gotten these fliers with kids’ books home from school. Anyway, for a while, they were selling a book called something like “Jenny’s Babysitting Job.” Feiwel told me it wasn’t prominently featured, and it was a very small little square in the catalog. And it has a forgettable title. But “every time the editor put it on the list it was one of the highest selling books.” Looking at that, Feiwel wondered if maybe there wasn’t a sizable audience of girls interested in this way they were making money.

So she worked with Ann M. Martin, a writer who had a reputation for “a great sense of character,” to hash out the start of a series. It would be about a club of sitters. Scholastic commissioned 4 books. The concept took a little time to catch on — remember, this is pre-social media — but by book 3 or so, the slim little volumes of babysitting adventures were flying off shelves. The whole series and its spin-offs sold about 176 million copies. I well remember staying up late when I spent the night at the house of a friend who owned about 88 million of these books, reading through them.

As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, I think that Kristy’s Great Idea was one of the best business concepts of the 1980s. Though, alas, teenage babysitting has declined for reasons that I well understand. Since I’m often hiring sitters because I need to do something and my husband is out of town, I need ones who can drive. I’m not going to wake up all 3 kids to drive her home.

But anyway, I thought this was an interesting insight into how people used feedback from customers before it was instantly available. It reminds me of some of the direct-mail fundraising innovations in the 1970s or so, when political candidates learned to test different messages and see which inspired the most donations.

Did you read The Baby-sitter’s Club books? Who was your favorite character?

37 thoughts on “The Baby-sitters Club, and how we figure out what people want to read

  1. No, because I had already out-grown them when everyone else was reading them. (If I’d been grade-skipped I probably would have read them, and thus had something to talk about with the other third graders! To connect to your most recent giftedexchange article.) I do vaguely remember them as being slightly better than Sweet Valley, but not as exciting as C.S. Lewis etc.

    1. @nicoleandmaggie – yeah, the basic Sweet Valley twin books weren’t that compelling, but there was a Sweet Valley saga that involved multiple generations that I actually quite enjoyed. Like tracing their ancestors back to pioneer days, and how the two twins’ parents were fated to be together…

      But yeah, not quite C.S. Lewis.

      1. Hm… but were they better historical novels than Patricia Beatty’s or Richard Peck’s? (Or Caddie Woodlawn or Hitty her first 100 years or Swallows and Amazons or Lois Lenski’s books…) Man there are a lot of good books out there. I wonder if my children will read them or if they’ll just stick to what’s popular now (and there’s an awful lot of good stuff that’s popular now). Only time will tell, I guess.

      2. oh goodness, i LOVED that saga…I’d forgotten all about that! I think I was too old for the Sweet Valley Twins, by the time they came out, I’d already read the Sweet Valley High books. I guess I had rather unsophisticated tastes back in the day…I didn’t discover fantasy novels until high school.

  2. I identified with Mary Anne since I also felt shy. I’m disappointed that the reissued titles & graphic novel adaptations don’t seem to have done well since I have so much nostalgia about them, but reading your Wall Street Journal article made me realize that maybe current readers can’t identify with these characters.

  3. I love the BSC! I was a big fan when I was a kid- I think they were kind of like my Harry Potter from ages 8-10. I started collecting them again as an adult, after I started writing fiction. I appreciate the structure of each book, the well-formed characters who can still grow and change, and the overall series arc. A must-read for anyone interested in writing YA.
    Also, it’s fun to indulge in the nostalgia of reading them now and then.
    As for a favorite character, it was Claudia way back when, but I think now, I’d say Dawn or Jessi.

  4. Ha, this takes me back! I always WANTED to be Stacey (blonde, popular, maybe without the diabetes), or Claudia (creative, quirky) but knew deep down I was shy, boring Mary Anne.

    1. @Ana- except that Mary Anne was the one with the boyfriend for much of the series, right? Logan – the guy with the southern accent… dreamy 🙂

      1. Yeah…that part I didn’t identify with. No dreamy boyfriend, southern or otherwise. But I did, like Mary Anne, have a cat.

  5. Mallory all the way. I was also a braces-and-glasses wearing freak with bad hair who wanted to be a writer and illustrator. 🙂

  6. DID I read The Babysitters Club?! I had an entire shelf and a half on my bookshelf devoted to the books, which I mostly bought in bundled sets through that Scholastic book fair catalog. 🙂 I read every single one of them multiple times. There are a lot of weird little trivia facts I know because they related to someone in those books, like about mono (which Mallory had).

    The funny thing is, I never actually babysat!

    1. @Laura – as I am thinking about the books now, all sorts of bits of trivia are popping back into my head, like Mallory’s triplet siblings, or Jessi doing ballet (that was her, right?)

      I can’t remember to respond to someone who emailed me this morning, and yet I just pulled that out of my brain. Sigh.

  7. I never got into the BSC, although I also remember reading a few while spending the night at a friend’s house. However, today I’d give my left arm (and maybe my right, too) to have a babysitter’s club in my neighborhood!

  8. I’m too old for BSC. My kids read them some. I grew up devouring Nancy Drew in the late 60s/early 70s. When I think about it, she was quite a different role model than BSC. She was 18, didn’t go to college or have a job. She just ran around in her convertible (paid for by her lawyer dad) and solved mysteries. She also sometimes hung out with her college boyfriend. And she did lots of world traveling, judging by all the places she went to solve mysteries.

    1. Ooh, I loved Nancy Drew at that age (also Phyllis Whitney, and, although it was mostly out of print at the time, Encyclopedia Brown– the university library had all of them). Maybe my problem is just that I’m old. (Or that I spent a lot of time in the Uni library’s children’s section where their lab school had been shut down in the late 1970s and never added to or weeded since then.)
      My third grader likes the Hardy Boys, though I never got into them.

      1. Oh, I remember the other series I devoured at that age (AND owned all the paperbacks): Trixie Belden. How could I forget Trixie and Honey? I wonder if they’re still any good (now that I’m an adult and it’s no longer close to the time period they were set in) or not.

        1. I LOVED Trixe Belden too – I still remember my 3rd grade teacher telling me I should be reading harder books. I didn’t understand at the time because I read for fun then and really, even now my taste in fun reading still runs to mystery series rather than ‘serious literature’.

          Not such as BSC fan, although my younger sisters were and I read them too (because I would read pretty much anything at the time)

  9. I wasn’t allowed to read them. My mom thought it was sexist that only girls were babysitters.

    1. @oldmdgirl – interesting. Yes, boys can be sitters too. On the other hand, the basic premise is girls deciding to be very entrepreneurial — seeing a business need and solving it. That’s not sexist!

        1. Wanted to add — I’m still bitter that my mom wouldn’t let me read BSC OR Sweet Valley High. The books she steered me towards were not to my taste, and the whole thing resulted in me not reading very much as a kid.

          1. @oldmdgirl – Yeah, this is a tricky thing with reading. We want kids to read, and while a reasonable amount of stuff out there is not exactly high literary quality, by being too strict you can totally get a backlash. I think it’s better to let the kids read the low-brow stuff and decide they don’t think it’s too interesting (a conclusion many will come to when they do try the better stuff).

    1. Me neither! I read voraciously, but I think my mom considered these books to be a little too fluffy and steered me toward slightly more serious reading material.

  10. I think I was just a bit too old for these but I do remember secretly devouring the Sweet Valley High series, which my mom preferred I didn’t read because they were mindless and trashy. Which made me want to read all of them, of course.

    Wasn’t there a movie, too?

    I love that you focus on the entrepreneurial aspect 🙂 The suburban neighborhood where I grew up (in Pittsburgh) had TONS of kids and all the houses were super close together, so I could just walk home after babysitting gigs. I had as much babysitting as I wanted – our house was surrounded by one family with one kid, one with 5 kids, one with 3 kids and one with 4 kids 😉 There was also sort of an unspoken agreement amongst the moms about who babysat for who and there wasn’t much poaching. I’m sure there was also price fixing going on. I recall babysitting 3 kids for 4 hours at night, getting $20 and thinking that was amazing 😉

    1. @ARC – wow, a cartel of parents not poaching and setting prices? Maybe the sitters should have unionized??

      I remember one mother who always wrote me checks (such a pain) and paid $2/hour. And she’d have me come early but only start the clock when she left. So she’d write me a check for $4 or $6. Then again, I must have been about 12.

      1. Hah! Yes, I remember getting $2-5 an hour in the late 80s for afternoon babysitting of 2-3 kids. TJ and I would go out a lot more if babysitting was that cheap here 🙂

  11. I confess I hadn’t even heard (or registered) the Babysitters Club. Too old maybe? And from yesterday, I just can’t get into women’s magazine. It’s interesting that you think they represent the mainstream. Maybe they do, and I’m the outlier. Feels a little like reading something from a different culture or country.

    1. @June – Kristy’s Great Idea came out in 1986, and the series was really rolling during the late 80s. So you had to be roughly the target age (like 8-12) during that time. Meaning you are around age 35 now — which I am! But selling 176 million copies is pretty mainstream. That’s some serious market penetration. As for women’s magazines, they’re a lot less prominent now than they were. At one point, some of the major ones like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal were reaching more than 10% of women aged 18-64 in the country, and probably a higher percentage of their core market (30-50). But as advertising becomes more targeted, general interest publications don’t work well anymore.

  12. For a Gender Studies class in college I “analysed” 1? 2? 3? SVH books. It was over 20 years ago, and I remember the striking result so well. The male characters outnumbered the female characters 2:1. And these were books written for teenage girls. How depressing is that?!?

    1. @Alison- fascinating. I can’t really remember any of the male characters except their brother… I guess they had a dad too, right?

  13. I was younger than the target audience but have always been an “advanced” reader. I loved the BSC. In fact, my parents still have a box with all of those books in their basement. It is one of the few things my dad doesn’t want to get rid of because he knows how much I loved the books. The reason I loved them so much was because of Stacey and she had diabetes. I was diagnosed with type 1 when I was 8 and was the only diabetic in my school, besides my sister who is 8 years older. It was such a comfort and since I lived in a tiny town, it made me feel far less abnormal.

  14. I was all about Claudia when I was younger. She was an artist and I old her sense of fashion. I still have ALL of my books, tucked away for when my kids are old enough to enjoy.

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