Almost a quarter century ago, middle-grade readers were ushered into the lives of four Connecticut girls whose entrepreneurial spirit led them to start a babysitting business. Kristy, Claudia, Stacey, and Mary Anne, the stars of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-sitters Club, obviously endeared themselves to girls: between 1986 and 2000, Scholastic published 213 novels in the paperback series, which reached an in-print tally of more than 176 million copies. This April, the publisher will release Martin’s hardcover prequel to the series, The Summer Before, as well as reissues of the first BSC novels, Kristy’s Great Idea and Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls. Here’s a look back at how the series started—and what lies ahead.

The idea for BSC came to Jean Feiwel, now publisher of Feiwel and Friends and Square Fish, soon after she began working as an editor at Scholastic in 1983. She was struck by the surprising success of a novel, Ginny’s Babysitting Job, offered by the company’s Arrow Book Club. “The book was not really featured in the book club leaflet—it was buried on page four, but was a top seller,” she recalls. “I realized that what must have been attracting readers was the notion of babysitting. And The Baby-sitters Club sprung from there.”

Feiwel contacted Martin, with whom she had overlapped briefly at Scholastic before Martin left an editorial post there, to ask if she’d be interested in authoring what was originally conceived of as a four-book series. “I knew that Ann was then a freelance writer and I thought it might be an interesting project for her,” says Feiwel. “All I gave Ann was just a glimmer of an idea—a series about a babysitters club. She came up with everything else.”

Martin, who had published several children’s hardcover novels with Holiday House, signed on, creating the characters and shaping the plots for the inaugural four novels, published in 1986 and 1987. She says that the books “weren’t being blown out of the water, but were doing nicely enough that Scholastic cautiously signed up two more.” Soon after that, she recalls, “things got very exciting and the series began to snowball. Scholastic began signing up 12 books at a time and sped up the publishing schedule to one book a month.”

By the time the sixth BSC title was released, the first printing was up to 100,000 copies, Feiwel recalls. “I really think what made the series tick was the fact that there was really nothing like it out there,” she says. “The books deal with issues like friendship, family, and school, and present small slices of life’s problems within a manageable context. And they also deal with what it means to be independent, which is what the babysitting angle is all about.”

BSC author Ann Martin,
outside her home
in upstate New York.

The series also had demographics on its side, given the number of baby boomers’ babies who were then middle-grade readers. Some signs of the snowball effect: fans of the series started their own babysitters clubs across the country, the BSC became the first children’s series to land on the USA Today bestseller list, Scholastic launched four spinoff series, and a BSC TV series and feature film were created.

Along the way, given the series’ accelerated publishing schedule, Martin—who estimates she wrote between 60 and 80 BSC novels—passed along the bulk of the writing to other authors, though she continued to prepare outlines and edit the novels, and, according to Feiwel, “approved each book every step of the way, through the blues.”

The small group of writers assigned to the series, Feiwel explains, “had to audition for the job and were put through their paces. This was not an assignment we took lightly.” Though Feiwel oversaw the editorial side of the BSC project during those years, its hands-on editors included such familiar children’s publishing figures as Bethany Buck and Brenda Bowen. Currently, David Levithan, v-p and editorial director of Scholastic Press, oversees the editorial direction of the revamped BSC program.

The looming 25th anniversary of the first BSC releases and the ongoing loyalty of earliest BSC fans—many now the parents of young readers—inspired Martin to pen a new novel starring the original cast. “Over the years, a lot of fans—I was going to say ‘kids,’ but they aren’t kids any longer—have questioned me about doing another Baby-sitters Club book, and have offered suggestions about what that might entail,” says Martin. Though most of those ideas were for a story set in the future, when the babysitters might have a reunion, Martin had another priority: “I was more interested in writing about these characters at approximately the same age, so the idea of a prequel came to me.”

Revisiting the babysitters and retrieving their voices in The Summer Before wasn’t difficult, Martin reports. “But I did find that even as the author, I needed a refresher course and I reread the earliest books,” she says. “I had a great deal of fun exploring the characters again and figuring out what their lives might have been like before. It was like visiting old friends.”

Martin's home library of BSC titles.

Given the slightly younger age of the BSC crew in the prequel, that novel (and the new reissues) targets 7—10 year olds, a younger range than the original series, which was aimed at readers 8—12. Still, many girls in that intended audience have already been swept up by bestselling series with edgier themes and characters that include vampires and cliquish or gossiping peers. In contrast, the BSC novels' appeal appears to be rooted in their timeless themes and realistic, likable characters, and the prequel and reissues are already getting a boost from a factor of inestimable value: nostalgia.

Immediately after Scholastic announced the new BSC venture last week (covered in the New York Times), an impressive number of the series’ original fans weighed in—many via blogs and Twitter—with fond memories of enjoying the books as kids, and expressing excitement about sharing them with their own daughters, as well as reading The Summer Before themselves.

One longtime diehard fan is Lauren Cohen, a buyer for Bookazine, who brought her original copy of Kristy’s Great Idea to last year’s BEA, where Martin was signing copies of Everything for a Dog, to have the author autograph it. “I kept my book safely tucked in my bag all day and was first in line for the signing,” says Cohen. “The BSC is a huge part of my reading memories—my best friend and I collected the whole series.”

Cohen is sanguine about the viability of the series in today’s market, given the books’ variety of themes and perspectives (they are written in the voices of different characters). “The familiarity of all the characters to readers is appealing, and when that combines with something new for each book, the result is a long-lasting and well-loved series,” she says. And does she think veteran fans will account for a significant block of the prequel’s sales? “I’m sure they will,” she responds. “People are always eager to revisit youth. I’m certainly interested in reading it, although I’d be even more interested in reading a reunion novel set when the girls are out of college.”

Side by side: the original and new
versions of the first book
in the series,
Kristy's Great Idea.

Jan Watkins, head of youth services at Skokie (Ill.) Public Library, also welcomes BSC’s return, noting that as a children’s librarian for almost 30 years she “experienced the popularity of the series and know that it inspired many kids to get into the habit of reading.” Watkins also credits the new BSC editions for promoting what she calls intergenerational book sharing. “I’ve heard from mothers that they remember loving and reading this series when they were girls, and since these books are coming back, they will have the opportunity to talk about the stories with their daughters and have conversations about what is going on in their own daughters’ lives. That is one of the nicest aspects of the reemergence of this series.”

Scholastic has a 100,000-copy first printing on order for The Summer Before and for each of the April reissues. Subsequent 2010 BSC releases (all reissues have been updated to include references to contemporary technology, fashion, and the like) are The Truth About Stacey (June), Mary Anne Saves the Day (October), and Dawn and the Impossible Three (December). The publisher’s marketing plans for the launch of the spring books include a floor display, print and online advertising, online promotion, a dedicated Web site, and select author events in New York, Chicago and Minneapolis.

Martin finds the early enthusiastic response of veteran fans to the new BSC program “very gratifying. I certainly didn’t expect it, but I love that adults are remembering these books so fondly, and that they are saying they’d like to encourage their own children to read them as well. I think that’s lovely.”

The Summer Before by Ann M. Martin. Scholastic, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-545-16093-3

Kristy’s Great Idea by Ann M. Martin. Scholastic, $5.99 paper ISBN 978-0-545-17475-6

Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls by Ann M. Martin. Scholastic, $5.99 paper 978-0-545-17476-3