'The Baby-sitter's Club' book club -!-!- Melissa Korn -!-!- 2007/04/10 -!-!- Not yet ready to abandon their childhoods, adults are re-reading the cult kid series "The Baby-sitter's Club." The 20-something fans find kindred spirits on blogs and even engage in role-playing games, adopting the teenage characters' identities. -!-!- When Matt Zakozek graduated from the University of Chicago last May, a friend gave him a book to commemorate the occasion. But it wasn't a collection of sentimental quotes or the perennial favorite “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss. Instead, Zakozek, 22, received “Kristy’s Great Idea” by Ann M. Martin. Although not a common gift for a college graduate, the opening book in "The Baby-sitter’s Club" series was an obvious choice for Zakozek. He has collected more than 150 of the 250 books in the series and owns tapes of the short-lived television spinoff. Zakozek even refers to character Mallory Pike’s experience with infectious mononucleosis when discussing his own illness in his sophomore year. “She made it sound like some mysterious 19th-century disease,” he said. It turned out not to be so romantic. Although friends tease him about his love for "The Baby-sitter’s Club," which he first read in elementary school, Zakozek is in good company. Dozens of 20-somethings have returned to the popular books about a group of teenage baby sitters. They collect the books and blog about them and even participate in online role-playing games to update the characters’ story lines past the point where they ended when the series concluded in 2000. Some fans travel back to fictional Stoneybrook, Conn., to relive their cherished childhood memories and escape from the stresses of adulthood. Others like to laugh at the ’80s fashion items: scrunch socks and flamingo-shaped earrings aplenty. No matter their reasons for returning, fans agree that the books were a fundamental part of their adolescences, surpassing all other preteen series and now holding a special place in their hearts. Martin, who is releasing a new young adult series in May, was shocked that her early "Baby-sitter’s Club" fans were still such devotees of the books, which sold more than 175 million copies in their 15-year run. “I knew that they recalled them very fondly, but I had no idea they were so passionate,” she said. Neither did Tiffany Wilson, 27, who returned to the series in October 2005 as a distraction from a dismal job hunt. The now-employed librarian who lives in Dayton, Ohio, began blogging as she reread the books and was shocked by the response. Her blog, claudiasroom.blogspot.com--a reference to the bedroom in which the club held its weekly meetings--receives more than 600 page views a day and most of her weekly posts receive at least 20 reader comments. Jane magazine referred to Wilson’s project as “a mission so brilliant you'll be furious that you didn't think of it first,” and Gawker called it “a compelling blog about the best books we’ve ever read.” Despite her snarky plot summaries and sarcasm-laced notes about the inconsistent cover illustrations, Wilson said, “I wouldn’t be reading these if part of me didn’t think they were the cat’s meow.” She particularly enjoys comparing her little-girl reaction to the books to her adult response. While she used to be neutral toward Mallory Pike, for example, Wilson now calls Pike “whiny” and is entertainingly cruel when reviewing books featuring that character. That connection to the past is key to Wilson's current enjoyment of the books. For instance, she did not have that childhood link to characters like Abby Stevenson, who plays a major role near the end of the series. Wilson does not get quite as much pleasure reading Abby's books as the other girls', since she does not have anything against which to compare her current impressions. It’s not uncommon for adult fans to gravitate toward things that remind them of their younger selves, said Joli Jensen, a professor at University of Tulsa. “Much of fandom involves not just people like you, but people like you once were,” Jensen said, likening "The Baby-sitter’s Club" fans to men playing fantasy football. Although most of the men probably don’t break a sweat anymore, they have fun reliving their glory days in a new way. Similarly, "The Baby-sitter’s Club" fans can reconnect with their childhood by participating in role-playing games hosted by the online community site LiveJournal. The role-players, most of whom have never participated in such games before, adopt the identities of the books’ characters and create new plots, posting short passages from each person’s point of view every couple of days. The perpetually-in-eighth-grade girls from the series are now high school seniors with new friends and love interests. They take their mission extremely seriously. Michelle, 26, who did not want her real name used, said her group “focuses a lot on staying true to the canon.” The nine members, who each play multiple characters, tell one another when someone’s actions do not reflect those from past story lines and refer frequently to the series and Scholastic’s “The Complete Guide to the Baby-sitter’s Club.” A few weeks ago, the group wrote “an homage” to “Snowbound (Baby-Sitters Club Super Special, 7),” in which the baby sitters get stuck in a blizzard. The fans agree that they remain attracted to the books because they used to, and still do, relate to the characters. Whether you're bossy like Kristy, shy like Mary Anne or diabetic like Stacey--and everyone thought they were diabetic after reading about Stacey--there's a match for each reader. “Martin created characters that were different enough that everyone could connect to someone,” Michelle said. The author agreed that she tried to write about girls who mirrored the intended audience. “It’s really fun to read about characters that are very different from you, that do things you’ll never be able to do,” Martin said. “But there’s also a real appeal to reading about a kid who’s just like you. Those kids really could have been your friends in middle school.” And the characters can still be their friends now. Zakozek says he sees himself in Mallory, a fellow writer, and Claudia, a misunderstood, artistic ne'er-do-well. Generally, though, "I identify with all the characters," he said. Now that Scholastic is releasing graphic novel versions of the early books--created by an adult fan of the originals--a new generation is getting to experience their adolescent years all over again. And with Wilson’s blog exclaiming that the graphic books are "AWESOME,” the 20-somethings have new fodder for their online conversations. E-mail: msk2135@columbia.edu