Mention the name Ann M. Martin to women of a certain age, and prepare for an emotional response.
Almost three decades after Martin first introduced a foursome of entrepreneurial babysitting friends — Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia and Stacey — the Baby-sitters Club books still resonate with former readers in their mid-20s to late 30s. The series tackled friendship, fights, death, learning disabilities, disease, divorce and, yes, childcare. Plus, Claudia had amazing fashion sense.
“I wanted to create this group of friends, girls who were independent, who solved problems on their own, who had their own interests,” Martin said in an interview from her home in upstate New York. “I wanted to show girls that this was possible and beyond acceptable — it was something that was great.”
Fans devoured what Martin and a small team of ghostwriters produced: By the time the series wrapped up in 2000, the original narrative and spinoffs had produced almost 250 books, with more than 176million copies in print. (With the publishing schedule calling for more than one new volume every month, Martin could not write each book, though she wrote all the outlines and edited anything she didn’t write.)
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But after 14 years during which the babysitters stayed perpetual middle schoolers, Martin was eager to devote more time to other stories for children. Those have included the Family Tree series, the Main Street series, The Doll People series in collaboration with Laura Godwin, A Dog’s Life (from the point of view of a stray) and, most recently, Rain Reign (Macmillan, $16.99), a tear-jerker about an 11-year-old girl and her dog.
The protagonist, Rose, is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and Martin knew she wanted to tell the story in the voice of the fifth-grader who is obsessed with homonyms and prime numbers.
Rose has few friends other than her kind uncle and dog Rain (modeled on Martin’s own golden retriever-beagle mix Sadie, who lived to be almost 16 and in whose memory the book is written). Her mother is long gone, and her father is distant, overwhelmed and occasionally menacing.
“Her character more than her voice just started to come to me,” Martin said. “This child who was fascinated with homonyms, that came first; prime numbers came later.”
Martin had written about autism in previous books from an observer’s point of view. She has a longstanding interest in the disorder: She worked for four summers at a school in Princeton, New Jersey, for kids on the autism spectrum, and majored in education and psychology at Smith College with the goal of teaching special education. After graduating, she taught children with learning disabilities in Connecticut.
Martin had already written three novels for young readers and was working in a publishing job when she decided to try writing fulltime. An editor who knew she was looking for projects suggested a title: Baby-sitters Club.
“It was up to me to figure out what a Baby-sitters Club might be,” said Martin, who had plenty of personal experience for inspiration. “Nobody expected it to do what it ended it up doing.”
The first book was published in 1986, featuring take-charge Kristy, the founder of the club whom Martin modeled after her best friend. She rounded out the original group with shy, obedient Mary Anne (the one Martin most identifies with), artistic and edgy Claudia and sophisticated Stacey. The original plan called for one book about each girl, and that would be all she wrote.
Except it wasn’t. After finishing the series, Martin never expected to return to the gang, which grew to include more core characters.
“I thought I was done,” she said. But when Scholastic asked her to write a prequel — The Summer Before, published in 2010 to coincide with the print reissue of the first books — she agreed.
Martin said she has considered resurrecting the series in modern times, though she keeps thinking of other books she’d rather be writing.
“I don’t know. But never say never,” she said. “Because I didn’t think I was going to write The Summer Before. I do think that the concept would be interesting because it would be so different.”
She said she was initially surprised to hear how passionate her former readers remained as adults, and said she probably hears from more grownup fans than kids these days.
“I hear from an awful lot of women — some men, but mostly women — who grew up on the Baby-sitters Club and have become teachers, librarians, writers, bloggers, editors,” Martin said. “And that’s just fabulous.”
And while adult fans clamor for a reunion book catching up with the sitters as adults (“it’s a frequently asked question on my Facebook page”) she said that’s also “something I don’t have any plans for at the moment.”
Now 59, Martin started to scale back her working hours a year ago, writing in the mornings and spending afternoons on interests like sewing and needlework.
“I guess I consider myself semi-retired at this point,” she said. “But I don’t ever see myself not writing books.”
Ann Martin appears at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 23 in the Auditorium, Room 1261, Miami Dade College.