I love hinging an analysis on a ridiculous core idea – like for instance – Claudia’s props in The Babysitter’s Club #2 Claudia and the Phantom Phone calls : Licorice whips and the Phantom of Pine Hill. Since this is the second entry to the series – it’s actually our first Claudia book – and rather important as it’s an introduction to her character. Other key objects and phrases would help to define the remaining characters in the upcoming books – Mary Anne’s Humpty Dumpty pictures ( which wasn’t so much a trait as the more important fact that she wanted to be rid of them ) , even Dawn’s old fashioned historical house becomes an element that will enhance her image as non-conformist. Could her persona be as satisfying if she lived in a typical town house? Props therefore help to form our perception of our lead character. With that in mind lets return to Claudia who starts off the book torn between two desires wanting to curl up with a Nancy Drew book – The Phantom of Pine Hill ( I love how they echo the BSC title in the first page! ) with a pile of licorice whips or daydream about Trevor Sandbourne ( her recent heartthrob ) and work on a still life.
The mention of the licorice whips made me delve into a quite bizarre idea – does Claudia’s character hinge on sadomasochistic terms – okay before your eyes pop and your jaw drops – forget the term as pure x-rated stuff and think more along the lines of : someone who can only feel comfortable or special when they are surrounded by chaos , painful chaos. Remember sex in a Ya novel ,especially a juvenile novel, in the 80s, was replaced by something akin to it – being chosen to bask under the limelight of popularity. ( The pursuit of sex becomes the pursuit of popularity/limelight or upholding it ) In a way, this is Claudia’s plight.
The words licorice whips could have been chosen for their phonetic beauty – as a pair they make luscious sounds – Lick-o-rish whh-ips. But they aren’t just anyone’s licorice whips , they are Claudia’s. But the real question is who wields them?
Claudia has never been an easy character to like and I think it’s because Claudia is the easiest character to relate to- though she is full of plus’s her exotic pimple-free beauty , her talent , her love of junk food her flaws are everything the reader hates about themselves. Claudia’s b*tchy attitude to her sibling , her two-faced behavior she must upkeep for her parents, her anger ( in book 7 Claudia nearly smacks Janine for no-good reason ) , and her attempts to get good grades that always seems to evade her , rather than excel her. Claudia is however , the character that should , most represent the average reader because Claudia , herself, is a reader of series fiction. She is also more human – never given that moment ( unlike Dawn or Mary Anne or Kristy or even Stacey ) of achieving something grand – despite how gorgeous we are told Claudia is , her attempts to land a boyfriend, next to Stacey are ultimately unfruitful – even Mallory achieves a steady boy! Claudia is tossed her dream man at camp ( where any lasting relationship is of course impossible ) , her next catch is a boy not only one year younger buta rather shy young man. Who would’ve thought Claudia would be the older woman? Her most off-the-rails episode ( for Claudia that is ) is #85 Claudia , live from WSTO. Claudia rarely has an upbeat book ( though she does have upbeat moments don’t get me wrong )- and this attempt for jubilation (even in the face of a dilemma ) – the radio station could be shutting down ( sounds like a Fact of Life episode )seems so offhanded because it has taken Claudia out of her element -why radio station? Why not welding? Even weirder is that Claudia is paired up with Ashley as in hippie Ashley from book #12 who has been de-fanged and de-headband and has become ultimately boring. Even though Claud’s world was art, it was never featured as an actual ‘event’ only mere backdrops for her plots. Kristy on the other hand not only had many baseball plots , one book even took her to a dream baseball camp! Talk about gilding the lily! Claudia never seemed to be able to reach that ‘dream’ level. So what’s this got to do with sadomasochistic terms?
Well lets see… Claudia has been surrounded by brutality imagery err lite-brutality imagery ( in the pre-goth era – mainstream pre-goth era ) Claudia wears dangly skeleton earrings and snake bracelets , she is almost unreasonably hostile to her sister ( one might attempt to bring up Cain and Abel – but one can’t get past the wrong imagery the two connote the one good one bad duality – In reality both siblings were similar , it was their actions that separated them – Abel’s sacrifice pointing to Jesus – correct , Abel’s offering pointing to self effort – wrong. ) There is also Claudia’s love for Nancy Drew mysteries which becomes an eerie parallel. Even Claudia harkens to this double illusion , when Mimi asks if she likes to be scared. She responds -‘“Well, yes, I guess so. I mean, when it’s just a book, it’s fun.”’ Considering Claudia is just a character in a book, this comes like a pinch-me element – she’s allowing a dangerous thing to happen. What every character , if they could feel it in there lifeblood or life-ink – fears : the danger of being exposed as unreal – just a character. Claudia flirts with this in a sadomasochistic way – not just in exposing the title of her Nancy Drew but also in the echo of that statement. Even the season allows elements of the unreal Pre Halloween offers spooky stage set ups to slip through. Speaking of pinch me moments – Claudia is wearing lobster earrings! I could go off on those , lobster’s pinch , and their shape is pure Dali and the fact that Claudia turns most of these spooky elements into jewelry her way of poking fun at the doom that follows.
If you were to gather most of Claudia’s plots into a ball , you’d see what a tangled web they’d produce. Only reinforcing the notion of studied chaos. Claudia is the first character to face death when Mimi dies ( nix on Louis , ditto for Mary Anne’s mom.) But wait. Mimi doesn’t just die – she has a stroke first and the readers are made to feel as hopeful as Claudia , when Mimi begins to recover. Claudia is also the first babysitter to get badly hurt while babysitting and no ordinary boo-boo will do – Claudia leg doesn’t just break it winds up in traction! And as for Claudia herself , her identity seems to be forever in question. Was she adopted? Does she cheat? Does she have the intellect to finish eighth grade? Is she inferior both intellectually ( her spelling ) and culturally ( racism. ) Notice the racism issue wasn’t tackled by the obvious Jessi in book #56 it’s Claudia who becomes a target! Hmmm – I think we’re onto something I don’t think Claudia wields the licorice whip so much as Claudia has become the whipping boy the scapegoat if you will for the writers. Got a crisis – give it to Claudia – how else can you explain this lulu – in a series that heralds babies – Claudia is thrown the most profane ( for this series ) twist – Her aunt Peaches miscarries a baby – and right after a fight wouldn’t you know!
Now compare that with the other characters who each have a label to fulfill – a label that goes beyond the mere cliche of tomboy , shy-girl, trendy type. For instance Kristy and Mary Anne exude a kind of elation in their status they are ‘Wish-fulfillment’ characters. Mary Anne sets about making herself a life filled with dreams-come true – a best friend becomes a sister, a favorite star becomes a lookalike , loyal boyfriend, Mary Anne becomes a girl to envy ( a pretty high status in a children’s book – especially when you start out as the shy girl.) Kristy offers wish fulfillment with a golden touch – her ideas are not just good they’re great ( they’re profitable ) , Kristy doesn’t just get a step-dad ( she gets a nice , rich , loving step dad ) , and when Kristy loses a pet she gains one along with the bonus of a good friend. Kristy you see has the can’t go wrong. But the wish fulfillment angle isn’t the total of their character , no. Kristy no matter her heightened status , her success – Kristy remains unchangeable ( a symbol that anchors the very nature of series itself ) even her wardrobe becomes a uniform in the face of changing trends. Comfortable Kristy. Contrariwise , Mary Anne exemplifies change in the face opposition – wether it’s her own labels ( she’s shy )holding her back , or her father’s or friends , Mary Anne breaks free to do her own thing ( from haircuts , boyfriends , to being one of the first baby-sitters to break a ridged baby-sitters no-no – i.e. inviting the boyfriend over ).
As for Dawn, though dubbed the non-comformist is for me the ‘Spokesmodel’ character for she represents everything trendy going on – the three earring type , the vegetarian , the ecologist. Dawn like her name was the new dawn of what children were becoming – even as they were still trapped in old habits ( as non conformist as Dawn is – she still a. travels in a clique b. belongs to an exclusive club , and c. her non conformity is as straightforward as everyone else’s non conformity making her a conformed ‘non-comformist’.) Look at Dawn’s plots – they hinge on various causes to rally for or against but usually on the thinnest of issues – her most controversial though interesting plot was #77 Dawn and Whitney Friends Forever in which her latest charge is a Downs Syndrome girl whom Dawn cannot let on that she is babysitting, for fear of hurting the girls pride.
Jessi is the ‘Dream’ character – which is almost flawless. Dream characters are well liked and have oodles of talent , they are beautiful and poised , in fact they appear to be on another plane then us mere mortals. And Jessi typifies this beautifully – despite her race or rather more to the point the fact that Jessi is black gives her an edge, an advantage – she is a survivor – her whining has more significance ( when Jessi is paranoid that others don’t like her because she is black – we immediately hop to this conclusion too, because after all – Jessi’s personality ( unlike Kristy’s ) leaves no flaw for it to be anything else but her race. ) Mallory is a strange character a rather gauche personality or the ‘Awkward’ character, while Jessi glides she lumbering about. And though both are the same age – they seem light years apart. While Jessi seems a wonder-sitter who can baby-sit a zoo , pick up sign language for a new client , deal with a charge whose battling luekemia , and make friends with a movie star , Mallory ( maladroit ) stiff, a victim of wishes- unfulfilled – ( While Mary Anne can bask in the envy of Cokie , While Claudia is elevated to Seventh Grade Queen ) Mallory herself is eaten up with envy of her rich clients. Also there is her constant desire to be seen as grown up – trendy ,even and when her wishes are fulfilled it’s almost a backhanded victory – her horseback riding lessons turn out to be better left in dreams, as does the idea of her ‘quitting’ her family and teaching her own class during a school project. Mallory is such a character in flux that when she isn’t literally trapped in her home – via mono, she is literally escaping it to the freedom of boarding school. Mallory is very much a little goldilocks who never does find a proper place to sit down.
Stacey is the ‘Text book’ character – although she has a little bit of every other type mixed in :she looks like the dream character , she has the wish fulfillment’s background – of having lived in New York but Stacey is thrown all the textbook curveballs. Her main ‘flaw’ is diabetes and though Mary Anne and Kristy have suffered the death of a parent and divorce these are all ‘histories.’ Kristy’s father ( unlike the movie version ) remains illusive – Watson stepping in becomes a dream figure , Mary Anne too little, to feel the sting of her mother’s death, only feels a vague emptiness in book four which evaporates by the arrival of Dawn’s mother. Stacey however ‘lives’ through the tug-o-war experience of divorce not to mention but I will the angst of family orchestrating her life – from her disease, to where they will live – Stacey yo-yo’s from NY to Connecticut back to NY back to Connecticut with her father still urging her to come back to New York is unnerving to say the least. Stacey’s plots also revolve around text book ideas – the disease , the divorce – it’s not a surprise that the club’s trip to summer camp left Stacey in the infirmary. Neither is it a surprise that Stacey does routinely text book things – it’s like a list of any preteens ambitions pegged off by each advancing number – #8 crush on lifeguard – check , #18 upstage friends with my supreme coolness – check , #65 tell a teacher I’m in love with him – feel totally humiliated – check , try out for cheerleading squad , land a steady boyfriend , hang with the cool gang – realize they’re really creeps & go back to old gang – check check and check. But contrasted with the frivolity of Stacey’s image are these text book themes – a boyfriend who battles depression , trying to fix her mother up with a manipulative man , making light of her disease. But despite every characters moment to be down in the dumps – Claudia seems the only one to return to the dumpster so soon!
But lets discuss the actually story of Claudia and the Phantom Phone calls , was it any good? Yes! Ann M Martin always did a great job – and though the plot is relatively a simple one it works only because the season has become integral to the mood. Without it, the story would be pretty humdum. It’s Pre Halloween and the evenings are coming earlier, and skeletal branches rake against windows , and every kid is looking out for ghouls and goblins that seem to lurk …more in imagination that any shadow. The baby-sitters are having a rather boring day ( rare – in the later books the girls always seemed impossibly bustle-busy – involved in some huge project ,that was somewhat annoying I missed the simple waffles for dinner scenes and Mary Anne eight bangs of anger.) As they are lounging around , Mary Anne, skimming through the newspaper, nearly faints when she catches the article on the Phantom Phone Caller who is robbing houses while people are still inside. It’s the kind of urban legend that would have any babysitter nervous and being that it is Halloween – the heebie jeebies have convinced them that though, the Phantom Phone caller is a few towns away, they could still be in actual danger. A project has sprung from their fear – how on earth can they stay safe in a possibly unsafe situation? Mulling this the girls come up with a secret code – that if they think someone is in the house they will phone one of them and ask Have you found my red ribbon? That’s the signal for the recipient to call the police – when I was younger I thought briefly – why don’t they just call the police but my friends and I argued that it probably had something to do with not wanting to tip off the thief, that you were aware he was in the house. Now, however I think it fuels a two fold message – the BSC ( a good many other series characters ) was always reluctant to include the adult world in their issues or problems. Rarely did their ( Kristy’s ) grand ideas stem from any outside influence, so calling the police right off the bat would be , pardon the pun, a cop-out , plus there is the pattern of the book – to tease the reader along thinking that Claudia might actually be trapped by the phantom phone caller. The book was done in 1986 and series books still hadn’t yet become so much of a pattern that we didn’t know for sure that the writers never would’ve put Claudia in any actual danger. Later on a knowing reader knew , and it would take well into the 90’s ( after teen ya horrors made peril acceptable ) before they even hinted at real danger with their BSC Mysteries.
The girls go through their share of spooky evenings – Claudia experiences lights popping on at the Newton house while she’s in the backyard with Jamie Hi-Hi Newton , just as she freaks she discovers it’s only Kristy who came over with a casserole. Kristy’s night at Watson’s features Andrew getting out the peppermint stick ice cream too soon – leaving pink puddles – don’t you just love that image – dripping everywhere. He also had the extra helpful idea to let out Boo Boo. Morbidda Destiny ( did you know Morbida one b was actually on a children’s show? ) pays a visit hauling the lumpen Boo Boo and the remains of a mouse ( Boo-Boo’s snack ) in a paper sack – which proves she’s not a witch or she would’ve kept them – who knows when mouse bones can come in handy?
Stacey has a black out at Charlotte’s and gets spooked by Carrot the dog. Mary Anne’s tin can burglar alarm and tape deck alarm gets some giggles from Kristy but the adults are impressed. And as usual the code seems to evaporate from memory the second fear sets in. Meanwhile Stacey learns that Sam is going with some punked out highschool girl with green tips on her yellow hair and fingerless lace gloves. Even though Kristy asks what’s the point of wearing these? – Stacey later admits in Book 3 that she’d worn red lace gloves with the tips missing for a whole week in NY. Claudia thought Stacey didn’t look quite so sophisticated anymore when she starts to cry ( which came across oddly smug ) – I mean , I defy anyone to look sophisticated while crying? Sheesh.
A robbery in town – intensifies the girls fears – Mary Anne is off the hook when her father decides no more baby-sitting till the phantom is caught. I can imagine Mary Anne was more relieved then she let on. The climax takes place at Jamie Newton’s with his awful cousins the Feldman’s and don’t you just love Kristy here?! Rather than ignore them ( like Claudia did ) takes the very 80’s un-PC route of threatening to punch the lights out on any kid who misbehaves. They are so impressed with her threat and ear piercing whistle – they behave! Later on when things get good and spooky the girls see something moving in the bushes and to hell with the red ribbon code – they are calling the police. When I was younger I don’t recall if I guessed it would be one of the boys though when I reread it – I thought it had more to do with Trevor Sandbourne than Alan Gray – I guess because it was Claudia’s book – the surprise leaned more to Kristy. Surprise , Surprise – It was Alan Gray yanked out of the bushes by the police and Kristy who is spitting mad and can only call him a darn, sneaking rat! The mystery is solved of how Alan was able to call – the girls had been taking their club notebook to school to stay abreast of everyone’s schedules and he would ‘borrow’ the book jotting down the information. But why? They ask. Alan mumbles and this is the cutest line – Rob the bratty cousin banned to the kitchen shouts out ‘Louder!” to which Claudia shouts back ‘Finish your sandwich!” Alan wants to ask Kristy to the Halloween Hop. While Claudia gapes but Kristy being Kristy says is that all? And quickly accepts ( a wee bit thrilled that a boy actually likes her ) Claudia is a bit depressed after all she is the prettiest babysitter and she doesn’t want to go stag and apparently doesn’t stand a chance , not after accidently dumping jell-o on dream boy Trevor in the cafeteria – but then good things come in threes – Claudia has a nice chat with Janine , she gets a B on a test and Trevor phones her at her next baby-sitting job. So he was part of the Phantom phone calls – buddy Alan was slipping Claudia’s numbers!
Unfortunately for all the build up the Halloween hop got, it was summed up in three paragraphs two dedicated to clothes descriptions arrgh! I hated when the author did that – but you know what they say it isn’t where you going but how you get there.
I have to say something about the cover – I cannot hold back – normally I love the Baby-sitters club covers – the artwork looked like oil paintings slightly ‘muddy’ you know not the ‘clean’ airbrushed look of some covers. The baby-sitters were all eyelashes and light bouncing off pink cheekbones with swishes and daubs of color. Everything discernable but not perfect. However this was my least favorite image of Claudia and sorry to say but the cover doesn’t depict any of the tension displayed in the story. On the first cover Claudia was well drawn with a slightly impish grin , however here , she has a round babyish face – a face one could , if they dismissed the almond eyes, mistake for Mary Anne. Her shirt is bizarre not really cool , her earrings are whatsits – or whosits I can make head or tail of them
( Could be a gummi bear, whaddya think? )
and her expression is bland. As far as I’m concerned she looks like she’s got a call from a duct cleaning company and is waiting patiently till she can hang up! As for the background it’s oddly sparse – compared with other backdrops – this contains a blank wall holding, only, the phone. Notice how the girth of the baby only emphasizes Claudia’s youth. She is saved only from being a baby holding a baby by the jaunty chunk of bangs that threaten to fall into her eyes. When I was working on this article I thought of ways to fix the cover and then decided to check out if the reprint had a different image – I had caught a glimpse of the new cover once of Mary Anne Saves the Day and hoped they’d fixed the problem for Claudia. I thought what would be cool was a dark window to one side of the artwork – guess what – they added a dark window! Claudia looks much better – I mean her expression , she wasn’t a total toad or anything, now though she looks worried and gives us that spookystory vibe – perfect!
For the pics to accompany this article I decided since Claudia phantom Earrings – can you make them out – are indecipherable – here’s a batch of wacky 80’s earrings that are easy to spot. Love the alligators! Truly barbaric!