Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, and Stacey try to be prepared for anything when they baby-sit. So when they hear about the Phantom Caller, a jewel thief who's been breaking into nearby homes, they come up with a plan to keep their kids safe.
But when Claudia and the other girls start receiving creepy phone calls while they're out on jobs, they start to get really spooked. Will the mystery caller scare the BSC?
Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls is the second book of Ann M. Martin's massive The Baby-sitters Club series, and it takes place a short time after Kristy's Great Idea while the four original baby-sitters are still in seventh grade. It shifts narrators from the first book, which revolved around Kristy Thomas, the president of the club; this follows Claudia Kishi, her Asian-American neighbor, and the club's vice president, which gives it the opportunity to explore the Kishi family. And I have to admit, the Kishi family appeals to me in a way the Thomas family doesn't.
Claudia herself is interesting. She's an aversion of the "Asian Genius" stereotype, being a spectacular artist who likes to read (Nancy Drew in particular, which her parents don't approve of) but struggles with school--especially spelling, as readers can see first-hand in her entries in the BSC's baby-sitting journal. Her parents have high expectations for her, especially because she has an older sister, Janine, who is a genius and often clashes with Claudia because of their drastically different personalities and interests. In spite of Claudia's apparent distaste for her sister's nerdiness, I really like Janine; I don't recall noticing her much at all when I read the books as a child, and I certainly didn't take to her. As an adult, though, I was surprised by how much the character appeals to me; what I wouldn't give for a friend like Janine.
The most wonderful member of the Kishi family is, however, Claudia's grandmother, Mimi. An elderly widow, she emigrated from Japan with her husband and daughter (Claudia's mother) when Claudia's mother was a child, and she is an absolute sweetheart. She is endlessly patient with and loving toward the girls, whether it's her own granddaughters or Claudia's best friends. She's this amazingly calming and nurturing presence in the story, and it's so refreshing to see an emotionally supportive adult character in a MG/YA book. I truly adore Mimi.
The book also provides a bit of insight toward the girl's non-BSC social circles, an aspect that I definitely don't recall being maintained in the later novels. Claudia in particular is stated to have a crush on Trevor Sandbourne, while she and Stacey eat luck with a slew of characters I don't expect to see again: Dorianne Wallingford, Emily Bernstein, Howie Johnson, Pete Black, and Rick Chow. Kristy and Mary Anne have their own set of friends: Lauren Hoffman and Mariah and Miranda Shellaber, identical twins who "still dress alike".
On to the main plot. Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls is a bit of mystery story, involving a "phantom caller" burglar operating in Mercer, the town neighboring Stoneybrook. The BSC is justifiably afraid of him heading their way--they are still twelve years old, after all, and easy victims if the caller happens to try to rob one of the houses where they sit. They're impressively clever about their fears, almost immediately devising a plan for what to do if they're ever victimized during a baby-sitting job, phantom caller or no phantom caller.
Of course, the girls ultimately do receive a few phantom calls, but I think it's ultimately handled in a surprisingly mature, realistic way. Rather than having the twelve-year-old heroes face off with a criminal, their mystery caller turns out to be a couple of boys from school, both of whom are romantically interested in one of the BSC girls. The phantom caller himself is caught... but the one house in Stoneybrook that was robbed turned out to have been victimized by a copycat who is never identified. It's a detail I definitely wasn't expecting; normally, a book for this audience would try to tie everything together to make sure there were no dangling threads. But unlike most unresolved plot threads, this one didn't come across as annoying; instead, it was a refreshing aversion of the overly dramatized way most children's mysteries unfold. (Highlight for spoilers!)
Ultimately, I think it's a great spooky book for kids. I love the attention paid to the girl's families, and I love the realism of the mystery, even if I spotted the whodunit from a mile away. There's a bit of weirdness stemming from the story's age (it was published in the mid-eighties)--namely, Claudia thinks it's totally inappropriate to ask a boy to accompany her to a school dance if it isn't the Sadie Hawkins and that Stacey's a typical "New York girl" for suggesting the idea--but it's easy enough to overlook.
I definitely look forward to rereading the rest of the BSC books, especially the first few that stretch out across the girl's seventh grade year. (I'm a bit less excited about the eighth grade books, which quickly get into Not Allowed to Grow Up territory--a trope that I find endlessly frustrating--and, IIRC, take a bit of a dip in quality.)