This episode is about Ann M. Martin's The Baby-Sitters Club #23: Dawn on the Coast. Topics include problematic portrayals of Californians, why Ding Dongs are outlawed, and rants about Disneyland again.
The song clip is "Grim Grinning Ghosts" by Buddy Baker and X Atencio.
I’m a bookish nerd on a mission. I’m rereading the books of my ‘90s childhood: The Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, and Fear Street. I’m Amy A. Cowan and this is Rereading My Childhood - The Podcast.
For a list of every Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, and Fear Street book review I have written, go to RereadingMyChildhood.com. To listen to the official podcast, just visit the website or search for “Rereading My Childhood” in your favorite podcast app. For more information about me, Amy A. Cowan, visit my website AmyACowan.com or follow my Twitter: amyacowan.
Neon Laser Horizon by Kevin MacLeod
I love California. I love the coastal cities with museums and attractions and the laid-back energy of the influential surfer culture. I love the areas outside the cities, where perfect rows of crops grow along the highway. I love the deep woods with dense trees and the mountains with snow-covered tops or thick greenery, depending on the time of year and global warming. I even love the colored layers of rock that make the jagged hills in the middle of the desert. California is a diverse place with diverse people, so when I saw that the next book is about Dawn’s return to the left coast, honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Ann M. Martin’s depictions of Californians have been less than stellar. For example, we have yard sales. That’s not exclusive to the east coast.
This book has the dubious distinction of being the first BSC book not written by Ann M. Martin herself. That’s the thing about the BSC - Ann M. Martin may have had her name on the cover, but most of the books were ghostwritten. If there’s one thing Stine has on Martin, it’s that at least he wrote all the Goosebumps and Fear Street books. So, it’s Jan Carr’s turn with the BSC, and this time, we’re taken away from Stoneybrook, and we’re traveling to California.
Dawn’s mother is shipping Dawn back to California for spring break while dreaming about avocados, as if they’re unavailable in Connecticut, apparently.
Before Dawn returns to California (regretfully referred to as “C-Day” - the regret is not on her part - it’s on mine, for reading it) the BSC throws a going-away party at Kristy’s mansion. The whole BSC is invited, of course, as well as Karen and Andrew, because nothing says party like a six-year-old. Meanwhile, Watson says weird stuff.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.” Someone was pushing his way through the crowd. It was Watson Brewer, home from work. “Well,” he said, as he took a look at the chaos that greeted him. “Five more daughters, huh? Where did I get them all? Hello, girls.”
What a dorkass nerd.
The girls eat pizza and watch Fright Night at Spook Lake, a movie that only exists in Scholastic books from the eighties. Then the party is over and it’s time for Dawn to get a good night’s rest for the plane ride the next day.
Dawn’s mother sees her off at the gate, which is still weird for me to read. Then Dawn lets us know how flight attendants work. She talks to an old man, which made me uncomfortable. Hey, Dawn, don’t fall asleep on the plane if you’re sitting next to an old man. Especially if he’s some kind of producer, which this man claimed to be.
When Dawn lands, her brother, Jeff, and her father are waiting for her while singing “California Girls.” Since this is 1989, I’m assuming it’s the Beach Boys song, not the Katy Perry song. This makes the context gross since the Beach Boys had a strange resurgence in the ‘90s that displayed sixty-year-old men dancing around eighteen-year-olds in their music videos. Disgusting. I don’t care if Pet Sounds changed your life, Mike Love should not be trying to pick up twenty-year-olds at a Tr*mp ne0-N*zi rally.
One of the first things that Dawn’s father does is take his children to Disneyland. Now, remember, this is 1980s Disneyland, so I guess we have to read a list of every Disneyland area and ride because cultural osmosis hasn’t reached the BSC audience, I guess. It’s an amusement park with Mickey, you don’t need to know the name of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as it has no relevance to the plot. Anyway, Dawn buys ears for each member of the BSC, so she spent the money saved for her first year at a state university. After they watch Captain Eo, Jeff starts moonwalking everywhere, which is hilarious to Dawn. They also go on the Mark Twain Riverboat (they call it the “steamboat”) and Dawn imagines she’s the man himself coming up with stories. That boat is an excuse to sit down for fifteen minutes to get away from the crowds. Finally, they do something that appeals to me.
Haunted Mansion is right up my (spooky, ghost-ridden) alley. On the outside it’s an old New Orleans house. You know the kind. It has those wrought-iron, curlicue trellises bordering all the porches. Inside, though, it’s a real spook house. To go through, you get in a Doom Buggy. Sound creepy? That’s the least of all of it. Ghost Shadows are cast on all the walls, and eerie music plays in the background. Upstairs, in the attic, there’s about an inch of dust on everything. I’m telling you, one trip through Haunted Mansion equals about ten good ghost stories. And I ought to know.
Really, Dawn? You ought to know if The Haunted Mansion is scary? First of all, I’m about to be pedantic, so strap in. Secondly, my love for The Haunted Mansion knows no bounds. Thirdly, it’s The Haunted Mansion. Haunted Mansion with no “The” is the cheap version at the County Fair whose most advanced animatronic is a skeleton on a stick. Fourthly, (it’s definitely “fourthly”), eerie music only plays at the beginning, but when you get to the graveyard scene, you get “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” which slaps. Fifthly and finally, you don’t know horror stories until you’ve got a woman tied to an oven who gets dough stuffed in her mouth until she suffocates. That’s horror. I guess that’s too intense for a kid’s book.
Back to the book, they watch some old black-and-white silent cartoons and Dawn’s father says that those cartoons are better than the current cartoons. I don’t think so, Mr. Schafer. Are you seriously telling me that these thirty-second cartoons that feature a simple story about getting a haircut with an aperitif of racial stereotypes are better than, say, Duck Tales, The Brave Little Toaster, or My Neighbor Totoro, all of which were contemporary to this book? No human not drowning in nostalgia would say that. And how old are you? You’re nostalgic for cartoons from the twenties and you’re a boomer? That’s as if I were nostalgic about Archie, a cartoon that has never been contemporary for me.
After Disneyland, Dawn’s best friend on the west coast, Sunny, invites Dawn to her house for a surprise. The surprise is the capitalist notion of working! I’m not kidding. Turns out Sunny, along with two other girls started their own baby-sitting business - the We ♥ Kids Club. I wouldn’t trust any business in which I had to use the Special Characters menu just to type the name. The club even has Kid-Kits filled with healthy cookbooks for children.
After the call, Sunny wandered off to the kitchen and brought us back a snack - apple slices with natural peanut butter.
It’s true, I thought. I really am back in California. This was a far cry from Claudia’s Ding Dongs.
Did you know that Ding Dongs were outlawed in California after the Great Ding Dong Massacre? What are you talking about, ghostwriter Jan? Californians eat Ding Dongs. Californians can eat sugar and crap, also. And on another note, California is the most diverse state in the union. How are all of Dawn’s friends blonde, white people? What are you implying about California? Or worse, what are you implying about Dawn and her family?
Luckily, the showrunners of the Netflix The Baby-Sitters Club present California Dawn in a more diverse light. I’m convinced that ghostwriter Jan has never been to California.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Jan. Even though the books were ghostwritten, the ghostwriters did use Ann M. Martin’s ideas and notes. I know Martin has never been to California, so maybe she just didn’t realize how diverse and special California was and still is.
Anyway, Dawn can’t take a break, even while on vacation, so she takes a job for the club. Yeah, kids, you understand? Even if you’re on vacation, you can’t escape your job. You can have your silly little hobbies like relaxation, but when the job calls, you can’t turn it down. You need to get used to working forever with no breaks. Gotta make that money so your boss can buy a media outlet and an abortion over state lines for his third mistress.
Back in Stoneybrook, Claudia and Mary Anne babysit for the Newtons and some of their cousins. There are chili shenanigans. Everything goes fine and no one has weird conceptions about California.
Speaking of which, Dawn, her father, the We ♥ Kids Club, Jeff, and Jeff’s friend, go to the beach, and Dawn remarks that they’re all blond, which made them a “stereotypical California group.” Again, I’d like to refer you to a U.S. News & World Report about California’s diversity. You’d find more blonde people in Stoneybrook, Connecticut than on that beach, especially considering the same study found that some of the least diverse states were New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, which are all close to Connecticut. (On another note, my state, Nevada, was ranked as the ninth most diverse state, so that’s nice!)
Lest you think I’m nitpicking on the blonde thing, the next pages are filled with passages about how blond they are. Dawn’s father says they look like the “Swedish delegation.” Dawn calls them by saying, “Blondes over here!” The girls put stuff in their hair to make themselves even blonder. It’s like, geez, I get it. You’re Aryan. No need to dwell on it.
Dawn and her father take some time out to connect since they haven’t gotten an opportunity since Dawn arrived. They talk about school, Jeff, Dawn’s mother, and the secret passage in Dawn’s house. Dawn figures out that her father is lonely, but Jeff throws some animals at them before Dawn could have a full conversation about loneliness. Then Dawn’s father says, “Blonde convention, ho!” which is the signal that it’s time to leave as well as an awkward thing to say.
The next day (or possibly later that day - time is strange in this book), Dawn babysits for two children named Daffodil and Clover, because of course they’re named that. We need to throw in all kinds of California stereotypes, and that includes the hippies, even though they were usually scattered around San Francisco, not Los Angeles. What are we going to have next? Random celebrities? Taco shops? Governor recall elections?
Anyway, Dawn takes them to a carnival. They play some darts and go on rides. There’s a woman dressed in jeans and cowboy boots leading a pony around. Clover thinks of herself as an “Indian brave.” That’s problematic thinking there, hippie kid. But what can we expect from the least diverse group of Californians?
Meanwhile, Jessi babysits for Karen, David Michael, and Andrew. The boys are building a Lego city while Karen wants to play “Let’s All Come In,” which is a terrible game and is also not a game. In case you don’t remember, it’s a non-game where Karen makes people pretend to enter a hotel and they are forced to tell everyone why they are in the hotel. You never tell people where you’re staying or why you’re staying somewhere. It’s a security thing, Karen. You don’t announce yourself in hotels, you don’t announce your room number, and you don’t talk to weirdos hanging out in the lobby. Geez, it’s almost like you’re six or something and you’re not concerned with security while traveling for your corporation.
While looking for outfits to wear during the nongame, Karen has to go to the third floor, which is where Ben Brewer the ghost lives. Karen finds some notes from the ghost himself and she is spooked. Jessi figures out that Kristy’s older brother Sam planted the notes for Karen to find, ensuring that Ben Brewer will forever haunt the third floor of this mansion.
Kristy babysits for the Pikes. We learn that the Pike parents don’t have many rules, in particular, and if the kids want to stay in their pajamas, that’s no problem. Somehow this annoys the narrator. My sister and I had that leniency in my childhood - and it’s turned me into a drug abuser! I’m just kidding, but as an adult, I do stay in pajamas if I’m not going anywhere.
The Pikes eat some ravioli and coleslaw, and then there’s a cookie adventure. Then they start writing secret messages to each other. Nicky runs to his hideout and says that he misses Dawn and writes her a letter. I guess that’s enough to convince Dawn to return to Connecticut. How long is this Spring Break? Dawn can receive correspondence from across the country. What is time in this book?
As a going-away celebration, Dawn’s father takes Dawn and Jeff to a Mexican restaurant, where we see the only people of color in all of California, according to this book. On the way home on the airplane, there isn’t a creepy man, so that’s nice.
When Dawn arrives in Stoneybrook, which has its own airport with direct flights to Los Angeles, but only one movie theater that plays only one movie, the whole club is waiting for her at the gate. They gush over her tan, ask about the other baby-sitting club, and ask about Disneyland. Dawn is confident in her decision to stay in Stoneybrook . . . at least until the California Diaries series (I’m getting there - I’m getting there, this is a hobby).
It’s fun to see the baby-sitters outside of their usual setting of Stoneybrook. New situations bring new adventures and seeing how our favorite characters react to the unknown, feelings of loneliness and homesickness, and reconnecting with the past make for a good story. However, I have some serious problems with this book.
The most obvious and glaring issue is Disneyland. I’m kidding. It’s an issue, but it’s not the issue. The biggest problem with the book is its depiction of California diversity - or lack thereof. Again, California is diverse - it’s not only blonde, white people everywhere. I’d argue that that depiction is more appropriate for Connecticut than California.
The state is more than beaches, Mexican food, hippies, and Disneyland. Not just California as a whole, but Los Angeles itself has more to it than the stereotypical things. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it was only this book (there’s only so much you can fit into 120 pages), but the overreliance on stereotypes is central to Dawn’s character, and this book emphasizes The Dawn Problem. Not all Californians eat healthy food, not all of them are blonde, and not all of them love the beach - and that’s the only depiction of the west coast we have in The Baby-Sitters Club. And that’s how all Californians are portrayed, even while Dawn is physically in California.
I hope that the California Diaries show the true diversity of California. Until then, I’ll try to remember Dawn’s good qualities - she’s capable, nice, independent, and an individual. That’s the true spirit of the west.