Women leave behind girls' books, but not the memory of them

July 10, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

When I was 10, Mrs. Manning would pay me 25 cents each to bathe her four children and put them to bed. She'd had four kids in six years, and I collected plenty of quarters from her.

I would take the money, hike through the woods that surrounded our suburban neighborhood and cross a four-lane highway to what was then the Zayre's discount store. For 99 cents, I would buy the newest bright yellow, hardback edition of the Cherry Ames mysteries. I could not run back to my quiet bedroom fast enough.

"Cherry Ames, Student Nurse," "Cherry Ames, Flight Nurse," "Cherry Ames, Private Duty Nurse." Helen Wells wrote 22 mysteries, and I read each one, usually before the harried Mrs. Manning had had a chance to call for me again.

Now, my own daughter has joined a groundswell of 8- to 12-year-old girls who follow the fictional adventures of "The Baby-sitters Club," a group of friends who form a baby-sitting service in Stoneybrook, Conn.

Kids are collectors, and 8-year-old Jessie wants to read the entire "Baby-sitters Club" collection -- all 79 volumes, plus the 60 spinoff books about Karen in the "Baby-sitters Little Sister" series. (All written by Ann M. Martin who, one imagines, has been chained to a desk since the series was born in 1986.) Jessie is going to need sun block if she spends any more time under the reading lamp.

The series will reach 100 million in sales this summer, far outselling any other series in children's literature, even Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, which sell a respectable 75,000 a year 60 years after their creation. (Both series, and "The Bobbsey Twins," were written under pen names by a father and daughter.)

Most of my friends were Nancy Drew fans. She and Cherry had in common a pre-feminist boldness and independence. Nancy had her own car and a boyfriend she didn't lean on. Cherry went from nursing job to nursing job in search of adventure.

"Cherry is in student-nurse heaven now," says Jane O'Connor, president of Grosset & Dunlap, which publishes the original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series.

"It is hard for us to even find copies of Cherry Ames. But Nancy Drew has real staying power. They might not be the greatest literature, but they are good mysteries, and she is a phenomenally appealing heroine for young girls."

She is right; none of the children's series popular now -- "Baby-sitters Club," "Sweet Valley Twins," "The Saddle Club" -- has won any Newbery Awards for superior children's literature. And they are roundly criticized for their WASPy, suburban characters and their failure to bring readers beyond fourth-grade ideas and vocabulary.

"But I am a lifelong reader, and I started with Nancy Drew," says Ms. O'Connor.

Series like "The Baby-sitters Club" may not stretch the imagination, but they redeem themselves when they give voice to the thoughts and fears of preadolescent girls so vulnerable, we are recognizing, to the erosion of self-esteem that comes from being ignored.

"We don't pretend to be something we are not," says Jean Feiwel, editor in chief of Scholastic Books, publisher of "The Baby-sitters Club." "Our books represent a safe, insulated world. We try to reflect the emotional realities for kids -- death of a grandparent, divorce, boys, grades, peer pressure. But we are not on the front lines of real life. And that is on purpose. These books are not about drugs, AIDS or teen-age pregnancy."

It has been easy to steer my daughter from the cookie-cutter sameness of these books to the richness of Judy Blume. And sometimes, I think I am living with Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby.

And her need to collect a complete series is satisfied, too, by the American Girls books, although those vivid lessons in history have cost me a small fortune for the "Samantha" doll and her authentic Victorian accessories.

Jessie also wants to read about the American Girls' "Addy," a slave determined to be free during the Civil War. Created by Pleasant Company with the help of African-American educators and historians, "Addy" fills the significant void of ethnic and racial variety in series.

Forty years from now, Jessie will not be reading "The Baby-sitters Club," just as my friends and I have moved beyond Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. But I think she will have, as I still do, an abiding memory of quiet afternoons transported by a brand-new book.

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