Claudia Meets a Kind-of Mean Girl

Claudia and the New Girl: The Baby-Sitters Club – by Ann M. Martin,
Scholastic Press, 1988

I recently read a fascinating collection of essays by and for adult fans of the Baby-Sitters Club books. (We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork from Grown-up Readers, Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, eds., Chicago Review Press, 2021).  There’s a lot about gender, and some essays, inevitably, will appeal to some readers more than others.  Claudia Kishi appears in several of them, as a relatively unusual Asian American character in a children’s book of that era. 

Reading Claudia and the New Girl did not bring new respect for Ann M. Martin or Claudia, because I already had tremendous respect for both the real author and her fictional creation. But the book, from a series which includes something for almost everybody, made an impression from the first chapter. Martin brings in literary allusions, specifically about the Newbery Award for excellence in children’s books, in the context of Claudia’s challenges with academic subjects.  There is also a scary new girl in Stoneybrook who just might break up the Club. (There is also a graphic novel version, but I’m focusing on the original book.)

The first chapter sets up Claudia’s conflict.  (The second chapter, as always, reviews the Club’s genesis and its rules. It seems that some veteran readers skip this repetitious section, but I feel as if you have to read in each time to preserve the structure and renew your interest, and just prove your loyalty to the series.) Claudia is a “reluctant reader,” to use the educational euphemism, except for Nancy Drew novels. Her enthusiastic English teacher, Mrs. Hall, has designed a curriculum around novels that won the Newbery Medal. It’s a bit arbitrary, since some of those winners are not great, while other outstanding books never win the award. Claudia admits to having read only one winner, Sarah Plain and Tall, which, unlike its heroine, is short (58 pages.). Even though Claudia doesn’t like to read, she has revealed that one criterion for including a book in the curriculum has become brevity, a concession to lack of patience with big books. There are also references to The Westing Game, The Yearling, and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

Then Ann M. Martin, who obviously loves books, has Claudia mention the fact that E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler features a heroine named Claudia (Kincaid).  Words from the novel show up on a spelling test, Claudia’s nemesis. Later in the book, when Claudia finally tackles Konigsburg’s Newbery winner (one of two, plus one Newbery Honor), she is uncharacteristically drawn into the story:

          I read until 5:15. The story wasn’t bad. After all, there was a girl named Claudia in it.

          Furthermore, this Claudia felt that she was a victim of injustice. When I looked up

          “injustice” and found out what it meant, I was pretty interested. I often think things

          in my life are unjust, particularly where school or my genius sister Janine is concerned.

Once again, Martin has managed what made her series an incredible success. She doesn’t patronize Claudia. She doesn’t minimize her problems. She allows her to sound like an actual kid.  She is attracted to the idea of “injustice” but not overwhelmed by it.  The book is, in her considered opinion, not bad.

Much of the rest of the book involves Claudia’s tortured relationship with the new girl, Ashley Wyeth.  Ashley dresses in hippie clothes, familiar to Claudia from “this bizarre movie called Woodstock.” Just like the image on the lovably garish cover (of the original edition), Ashley favors hiking boots, silver bangle bracelets, and long skirts. Claudia isn’t exactly making fun of her style; she wouldn’t do that. She is noting the discrepancy between who Ashley aspires to be and who she really is.  The girls of the Baby-Sitters Club are nothing if not sincere. Ashley is, as Holden Caulfield might say, something of a phony.

Of course, it’s not her fault.  Claudia gradually comes to understand how and why Ashley is manipulating her, and why she, Claudia, is vulnerable to praise from a girl who is a great artist, at least in her own estimation. Actually, she is good in other people’s estimation, too. When she wins an award for her sculpture of a hydrant, I felt disappointed. Why? Can’t people who aren’t nice create good works of art? I guess I learned that, along with Claudia.

By the end of the book, Claudia is back in the club, and all the girls feel secure to welcome Ashley, to their circle, if only to a limited degree.  She never breaks down, realizes the error of her ways, or becomes a baby-sitter.  It’s a wonderful, and almost inexhaustible, series.

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