Being a kid sucks. There. I said it. No “Cult of the Child” Victorian bullshit here. You don’t get to do all the great things that adults get to do: stay up late, eat whatever you want, drive, go shopping, pay bills, get insurance, look at stock options, cut down on your cholesterol. Kids just sit around watching television, loading up on sugar, all while your parents force you to go to school to learn new and interesting things. Wait? What was I going on about?
That’s Mallory’s problem: she wants to be treated more grown-up at the advanced age of eleven. She wants to be older and join the BSC because that’s what you do when you’re a kid: you wish you were older and you try to impress older kids, who are practically adults as far as you were concerned. You try to impress them so much you give them all your money without much coercion. That’s not based on anything true or anything. It’s not like the girl down the street asked me for money and I gave it all to her because she was so cool and tall and as big as a real adult and she could ride her bike with her hands off the handles and she had all these cool friends who said neat stuff like “as if” and I wanted to be just like them. That never happened . . .
Spectacles. Eyeglasses. Bifocals. Trifocals. No matter what you call them, glasses are glasses and I have to wear them.
Hello. I’m Mallory Pike. I’m eleven.
This is what we are greeted with. Synonyms for glasses. A greeting. A name. An age. Then she talks about her family: all seven younger brothers and sisters and their quirks. There are the triplets who are mean. The brother who wants to be like the mean triplets. The one who wants to be a poet and it annoying. The one who is “silly.” The one who is “etc.” She continues with her parents, who are fascinating.
My mom doesn’t have a job. I mean, a job outside of the house, like being a doctor or an insurance salesperson or something. She says us kids are her job, and that with eight of us it’s a big job.
Yeah, I imagine it would be a big job. However, if she doesn’t have a job, why does she always need a babysitter? Later in the book, Kristy refers to the Pikes as “their best clients.” That means they have enough money to live in suburban Connecticut, hire babysitters, have a house in Beach City, New Jersey, can actually go on vacation, have a woman who comes to clean, and raise this ten-person family. How about Dad, Mal?
My dad is a lawyer, but not the kid you see on TV, making wild speeches ina crowded courtroom. He’s what’s called a corporate lawyer. He’s the lawyer for a big company in Stamford, Connecticut. (We live in Stoneybrook, Connecticut, which isn’t far away.) Mostly, he sits at a desk or attends meetings. Once in while, though, he does go to court, but I bet he doesn’t make speeches. I think he just stands up a lot and say, “Objection!” and things like that.
She doesn’t go into detail but a company that can pay a lawyer enough to maintain this level of lifestyle is one of two things: a corrupt company that provides an essential service but is destroying the world, akin to Amazon or BP, or, more likely, a front for the mob. Mallory Pike’s dad works for the mob. Say it with claps between each word. Louder for those in the back. MALLORY PIKE’S DAD WORKS FOR THE MOB.
Anyway, Mallory is excited because the BSC asked her if she was interested in joining the BSC. This an opportunity for growth. She thinks this will be her stepping stone to semi-adulthood as well as an opportunity to learn more about kids and baby-sitting from Stoneybrook’s premier babysitters.
Before her first BSC meeting, Mallory wants to look sophisticated, so she chooses to wear her “red jumper that said Mallory across the front, a short-sleeved white blouse, and white tights with little red hearts all over them.” To which her little sister, Vanessa, remarks, “You look like a Valentine.” I don’t know if Martin intended this to be hilarious, but Mallory’s outfit is Hilarious, capital H. However, the funniest thing about the outfit is that Mallory has the word “Mallory” on her jumper. As if she was going to forget her name. Or it was just to establish that this red jumper is hers and there is no debate about it. I’m surprised Claudia hasn’t worn a shirt that says “Claudia” on it, but there are still more than a hundred books to go.
But before her first BSC meeting, Mallory has to sit through school. That’s when we meet Jessi (or rather, Jessica) Ramsey — the new girl. She’s tall and has long legs and is awfully composed for a sixth-grader. Later, during lunch, Mallory sits near some girls from her class.
“Can you believe that new girl?” Rachel sounded aghast.
“Who, Jessica Ramsey?” I replied.
“What do you mean ‘who’? Of course I mean Jessica Ramsey. Who else?”
I shrugged. “What about her?”
“What about her?” cried Sally, this girl I’ve never really liked. “Are you blind? She’s black.”
I nearly chocked. “So?”
“Well, she doesn’t, you know, belong here.”
“Where?” I challenged them. “She doesn’t belong where?”
Sally shrugged uncomfortably. “Oh, I don’t know . . .”
You get ’em, Mallory. I was lukewarm on the eponymous jumper wearer but she does something that we should all be doing to bullshit racism. She challenges them. She makes them say what they mean to say. She puts horrible men who say nothing when their friend is gross to a waitress to shame and she’s in sixth-fucking-grade.
Also, wow, Stoneybrook. I thought this place was welcoming. Now I see you for what you really are. When I read this passage, I honestly thought they were going to have a problem with Jessi because they think she’s stuck up. I did not expect the blatant racism. Ann M. Martin is not fucking around.
During Mallory’s first BSC meeting, her “grown-up” outfit does not go over well. Also, Kristy sends Mallory on a trial baby-sitting job with Claudia at her Perkins’. Mallory also reveals that the Ramseys moved into Stacey’s old house. On the next meeting day, Mallory tones down the outfit (a sweatshirt that says “I’d rather be writing my novel” — something I would have killed for when I was a kid) and leaves for Claudia’s residence entirely too early. On the way there, she passes by Stacey’s old house to find Jessi and her siblings outside.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Mallory Pike . . . You probably know that. I mean, but I wasn’t sure. You must have met an awful lot of kids yesterday and today.”
“I have. But I remember your name.”
“I remember yours, too. Jessica. Jessica Ramsey.”
“Right.” Jessica grinned. “Call me Jessi, though.”
She has a little sister named Becca and a baby brother named Squirt (his real name is John Philip — they didn’t actually name their kid “Squirt”). Mallory and Jessi hit it off and Jessi tells her a joke:
“A farmer is driving down a highway and he sees a truck by the side of the road. It’s got a flat tire, and the driver, who is holding a penguin, looks really upset, so the farmer pulls up and says, ‘Can I help you?’ And the driver says, ‘Oh yes, please. I’m taking this penguin to the zoo. It’s right down the road. Could you take him there for me while I wait for the tow truck?’ The farmer says, ‘Sure,’ takes the penguin, and drives off. The next day the driver is going down a street and he sees the farmer with the penguin. ‘What are you doing?’ he cries. ‘You were supposed to take that penguin to the zoo!’ The farmer smiles. ‘I did,’ he answers, ‘and he had so much fun that today I’m taking him to the circus!’”
Okay, Jessi. Not a bad goof, especially for a sixth-grader. And definitely funnier than Louis C.K. Sorry, it’s true.
Jessi invites Mallory up to her room and they bond over horse books and more jokes. It’s sweet and Jessi is cool. I was always ambivalent about both Mallory and Jessi when I was a kid, but I think I was just forced to be selective in my book buying. I couldn’t get every book, so I clung to specific babysitters (Mary Anne, mostly) so I could easily choose which books to get. Now that I’m an adult and I can buy as many as my budget allows, I can see the merit of Mallory and Jessi.
Later Mallory shows up to the next meeting and is greeted with a bit of news: she is going to have to take a test administered by the BSC. You know, totally normal things that all babysitters have to go through with questions like, “At what age does a baby cut its first tooth?” Mallory answers, “Eight months,” but Kristy says she’s wrong. The age when a baby cuts its first tooth is seven months. Because that one month is so different. Also, “What is the difference between creeping and crawling?” What I’m getting at is that the test they administer is unfair, especially when the other babysitters didn’t have to take such a test. Did Dawn take this test when she joined? No. They only administer this test to Mallory. She (rightfully) becomes frustrated with them, but there’s still hope: her trial baby-sitting job with Claudia.
Did you actually think that would go perfectly? There would be no book if everything went well. The first thing Mallory does wrong is ask Perkins’ what they want to eat. Claudia says, “Just give them something — something healthy. That way, there won’t be any arguments.” Which is fine advice but Claudia didn’t have to sound go haughtily about it, Miss I-Hide-Candy-In-A-Bag-Behind-My-Dresser. Then Mallory drops a glass and it breaks. Lastly, Mallory lets the dog in and he causes a raucous. After each minor infraction, Claudia chastises her.
During the next meeting, they agree to let Mallory join the BSC . . . if she goes through yet another test. Mallory refuses to take another test, as she should, and storms out of the club, bringing us to the second act.
Mallory and Jessi bond over more books the next day at school. Then Jessi says that no one at school has talked to her. Her sister is also having trouble making friends. In fact, the whole town isn’t talking to the Ramseys. Jessi can’t even join a ballet troupe in Stoneybrook for fear of making everyone mad.
“I’m even thinking of not taking dancing lessons here. I don’t know if it’s worth it. Can’t you just imagine it? They’d hold auditions for a ballet, but they’d never give me the lead, even if I was as good as Pavlova.”
“This famous ballerina. You know what would happen if they did give me the lead?”
“What?” I asked.
“Everyone would be upset that a black girl got it instead of a white girl.”
That’s absolute bullshit, but it’s absolutely true. Remember when they cast Amandla Stenberg as Rue? And they were great! And that character was actually black! Remember the bullshit when Zazie Beetz was cast as Domino? That was perfect casting, and she was great, also, and people still got pissed that she got the part. Jessi is right. Jessi tells it like it is. Jessi also has horses and jokes. Nowadays, she’d have a popular horse comedy podcast.
But it’s the late ’80s and podcasts haven’t been invented yet and so Mallory and Jessi decide to start their own babysitters’ club because that’s what keeps happening in Stoneybrook.
It’s called Kids Incorporated and the idea is that you get two babysitters for the price of one. They only get one job — for the Pikes. While Dawn is on another babysitting job, she sees Mallory and a girl she doesn’t know (Jessi) babysitting the Pikes and tells Kristy. Kristy calls the Pikes “their best customers” and sees Kids Incorporated as a threat.
Meanwhile, Jessi is accepted into an advanced ballet class in Stamford so that’s nice. What’s not nice is how no one has welcomed the Ramseys into Stoneybrook. Mallory remembers that Stacey’s family had people over every day welcoming them into the neighborhood, but not the Ramseys. That’s some stone-cold racism right there.
While Mallory and Jessi babysit Becca, they blow bubbles on their front porch.
Becca made another bubble, and another.
At the house across the street, the door opened and a face looked out.
Becca made a fourth bubble.
A little girl stepped onto the porch.
Becca made a fifth bubble.
The girl tiptoed down her front stoop and halfway across the lawn to watch Becca and her bubbles.
“Look,” I said, nudging Jessi.
“I know,” she whispered.
The girl reached the street, crossed it carefully, and ran to Becca. “How do you do that?” she asked. “Those are the biggest-”
“Amy!’ called a sharp voice. An angry looking woman was standing on the porch across the street.
Amy turned around. “Mom?”
“Come here this instant,” said her mother stiffly. Then she went back in the house, slamming the door behind her.
It’s this simple scene that shows that racism is learned not inherited. It’s a powerful message to kids: you don’t have to share the same prejudices as your parents. And we see the direct result of that woman’s racism when Becca is crestfallen.
She thought she was going to make a new friend in a town that has been nothing but cold to her. Let’s hope that the mother didn’t want young Amy to play with Becca because a bubble killed her father or something. “Don’t play with bubbles! You know what happened to your father and I can’t have that happen to you, too!”
Or we could just face the fact that Stoneybrook has a dark underbelly. We only see glimpses into the city’s connections with the mob, the orgies that all the parents go to that warrant competing babysitting companies, and the racism, but the clues are there — Stoneybrook, the epitome of American suburbia, is a synecdoche that reflects the problems endemic with American culture.
Or I’m reading too much into the book series aimed at the tween set.
Eventually, the BSC realizes that they were being silly and invite Mallory to officially join the BSC — no more tests. To Mallory’s credit, she insists they take all of Kids Incorporated — including Jessi. Like Michael Scott in The Office when Dunder-Mifflin wanted to buy out The Michael Scott Paper Company and he insisted they take Ryan and Pam as well. The BSC accepts a full takeover and Kids Incorporated is dissolved into the BSC. Good thing since Kids Incorporated wasn’t doing very well. Again, just like that Office episode. Before she accepts, Jessi brings up an important concern.
“But a lot of families around here don’t seem, um, they don’t seem to like me. Because I’m black. So I’m wondering — what if your clients don’t want me to sit for them? I mean, that’s not going to help you at all. It might even hurt the club.”
Oh, god, Jessi! My sweet Jessi!
Kristy says that basically, if they don’t want Jessi to sit for them because she’s black, then Kristy doesn’t want to sit for them. The BSC has two new members, Jessi has some new friends, and even Becca becomes friends with Charlotte Johannsen.
As a kid, I was so lukewarm on Mallory while reading these but this introduction to both Jessi and Mallory is a good book. Martin does a good job confronting racism in this kids’ book without sugar-coating it or making it too hard for kids to understand. I like how Mallory doesn’t take any shit from her “friends” about Jessi’s skin color and she helps her even when the BSC sounds a little ignorant about how Jessi has been treated. (There is a brief scene where Mary Anne can’t believe that Jessi has been treated poorly, but Mallory tells them about the bubble-fearing woman and how no one has welcomed the Ramseys into Stoneybrook.) As far as I’m concerned, Mallory is cooler than me when I was eleven and she probably wouldn’t have given random older girls all their money, unlike this other person I know. You don’t know her. She lives in Canada. I mean, it’s just a story I came up with. A story about a girl who lives in Canada. I swear I’m not talking about me. Her name was . . . Blamy.