Kelly Jensen On Unforgettable Reads
I recently pulled out what remains of my collection of original paperback Baby-Sitters Club books. There are maybe 6 or 7 I’ve been able to salvage from my childhood bedroom, which doubled as the basement of our house. My room regularly flooded during the spring and summer months because of a weak sump pump. This meant that more than once in my life, I lost or damaged a number of my favorite books.
Experiencing this taught me pretty quickly not to value the object. The paper and package of the book didn’t matter as much as what it was I took away from them and tucked inside me.
Growing up, I remember how much the babysitters resonate with me. They were my sisters and my best friends. I was an only child, living with my single mom in the basement of my grandparent’s home, and there were long stretches of time where all I could do was read. The babysitters took me on tons of adventures, both in their suburban Stoneybrook, as well in more exotic locales. I remember the rush of entering our local Crown Books, swooping to the left-hand side of the store, and running my fingers across the pastel-colored spines of the BSC books, hoping to find the latest installment waiting for me.
My mom would buy me the latest copy, which I’d start reading the minute we got into the car. I didn’t know then how hard it must have been for her to afford that, but I knew she loved that, like her, was a reader.
Everyone had a favorite babysitter. The one who resonated most with them. A lot of that, I realize now as an adult, was wish fulfillment. I always thought of myself as a Stacey McGill kind of character. She was cool and fun and easy, even though she had diabetes that constantly made her stop and check in with herself. It was also hard to resist Claudia Kishi and her candy-loving artistic way. Not to mention she had some amazing, enviable style I’d have done anything to have myself. The confidence she had made me want to be more confident, too. Maybe it wasn’t as popular a choice, but I also loved Kristy — she was bossy, sure, but she was a leader and kept people in line. They were girls I wanted to be.
But as much as I had some of their qualities — bossiness in particular — none of those girls were the ones who spoke to me on a level as a reader I’d never been reached before.
That was Dawn Read Schafer.
It’s hard to imagine now, given the depths to which YA has grown, but back in the early and mid 1990s, it was challenging to find books where the teen character had divorced parents. Even in my non-book life, finding people who had similarly messy family situations and set ups, as well as parental figures who constantly let their kids down, was challenging. Few, if any, of my friends understood what it was like to constantly rearrange my schedule so I could spend a weekend with one parent. They didn’t understand what it was like when my dad would forget to pick me up for our weekend or what it was like when my dad didn’t pay child support for years and years, why it was I simply did not have the money to partake in an activity or buy the latest cool thing. Why it was I loathed going to his house, knowing that his new wife would make me clean the house, would steal money from me, would constantly talk poorly about my mother, and abuse me in ways — physical, mental, and emotional — that I couldn’t understand.
No one knew what to do the minute I stood up, at the tender age of just-turned-15, and told my dad that he wasn’t welcome in my life anymore. That I didn’t want to see him anymore. That he had been a constant source of stress and disappointment and frustration and my time and energy were better used for the things that interested me and me alone.
Dawn was the girl I saw myself in because Dawn had parents who were divorced. It wasn’t a secret — it was, indeed, the reason that she, her mother, and her brother moved to Stoneybrook from California in the first place. Reading that, seeing how much her life changed because of the adults in her life, gave me comfort when I looked around at the panelled basement wall of my grandparent’s house and knew that my mom did the thing she had to do in order to give us both a better, more secure, more loving life.
Dawn becomes close with Kristy pretty early on. I became close with a loud, vocal girl on the very first day of high school. She had been part of a girl crew that I fell into quite nicely, even if not all of those girls became my besties the way she did.
I was the Dawn to her Kristy. She helped me, whether she knew it or not, stand up to my dad and tell him enough was enough.
One of my most vivid memories of middle school is one that still makes me laugh years and years later: at a slumber party, the mother of the birthday girl allowed us to rent a rated-R scary movie from the local video store. While all of the other attendees cowered, covered their eyes, and said they’d never sleep again, my eyes were stuck on the TV. I couldn’t get enough. Why was this scary, I wondered? What was it that made me immune? That made me want to know more about the darkness and the power it had over both those on the screen and those sitting around me?
Dawn, like me, had a thing for horror, and I can’t help but wonder if part of that — however small — is because both of us saw and experienced something horrible in the breakup of family relationships and knew those moments of not knowing what’s next were scarier than any film. While her situation was far less traumatic than mine, at least on the page, we shared a pain that many others did not.
Books and characters stick with us for a reason. Sometimes, we don’t know why. Other times, when we’re at our lowest points or at our highest, we’re able to tap into the memories we have relating to those reading experiences and know exactly why they resonated. Maybe those reasons aren’t the ones that are popular. Maybe they’re reasons that are so personal and private and intimate that they aren’t worth sharing.
And maybe those reasons are so powerful that it’s impossible not to talk about it.
As a young reader, I didn’t know the impact Dawn’s story would have in my life until I was much older. Until I was able to unravel the pain I lived through. The secrets I kept. But she was there for me, as were the other girls of the club who became like sisters to me. I’ll forever be grateful for the company, for being the friends along the path of my growing up I didn’t know I needed.
Though most of the books from my collection have disappeared, I know I’ll always have those memories and know that nothing — no act of nature, no act of human — can ever take that away from me.
Find those stories that resonate with you and tattoo them onto your hearts. They will be there with you through your darkest and your lightest times. What you take away from those books can only be achieved because of what you’ve brought to them through your own experiences.
Kelly Jensen is the author of 2018 Girls of Summer List selection Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World (Algonquin Young Readers).