January 18, 2015

[Book Review] Claudia and Mean Janine (The Baby-sitters Club, #7) by Ann M. Martin


Claudia's sister is mean! She's too busy being smart to be nice. Even Claudia's grandmother, Mimi, can't get close to Janine. Plus, Mean Janine puts down the Baby-sitters Club. And that makes Claudia MAD!

This summer the members of the Baby-sitters Club are starting a playgroup in the neighborhood. Claudia can't wait for it to begin. But then Mimi has a stroke.. and the whole summer changes.

Now Claudia has to spend her time "Mimi-sitting" instead of baby-sitting. And things with Janine are going from bad to worse. One of the Kishi sisters has to start being nicer. And it's sure not going to be Claudia!



Claudia and Mean Janine, the seventh book in The Baby-sitters Club, follows almost immediately from where the previous book, Kristy's Big Day, left off. Rather than the month or more time skips Martin's been delivering so far, there's only a week long gap here, and the plot of the book goes on to cover much of the rest of the summer. Now, I have to admit that kind of bums me a bit, as I know what's going to happen at the end of the summer. (Don't worry, this isn't a spoiler!) After the girls make it to the eighth grade, they're going to get lost in "not allowed to grow up" territory. Holidays are going to keep passing 'em by, but they're never going to make it out of the friggin' eighth grade. (Well, not for a few hundred books, at least.) That's one trope that really pisses me off, and I look forward to counting just how many Christmas vacations and Spring breaks they manage to squeeze into one infinite school year. It's gonna be rough.

But more on that when I get to it. For now, the BSC series has turned its focus to Claudia Kishi for one of its first "serious business" plotlines. While The Truth About Stacey, Mary Anne Saves the Day, and Dawn and the Impossible Three each dealt with serious topics (diabetes and its stigma in Stacey, responsibility and a minor health crisis in Mary Anne, and child neglect in Dawn), Claudia and Mean Janine offers up the most serious subject yet... though the title would have you believe this is just another book about bitchy sisters.

Claudia Kishi, the youngest of two sisters in a Japanese-American household, is a definite subversion of the oft-seen "Asian Genius" stereotype. Her older sister Janine, on the other hand, is every bit of a pressured overachiever and teen prodigy. Needless to say, these two girls don't exactly see eye to eye--hence the sisterly rivalry. Because while the Kishi parents are pressuring Janine to become a physicist and glowing with pride over her accomplishments, they're strict with their second daughter. They monitor her homework, and, apparently, they monitor her extracurricular activities and hobbies as well. There's a scene in this one that describes Claudia hiding Nancy Drew books from her parents, as they somehow don't approve of her reading these classic mysteries. (To which I have to ask, why? In what universe is Nancy Drew considered "guilty pleasure" material? What the hell is she supposed to be reading instead!?)

All of this is information we see through Claudia's eyes, of course, and I think anyone familiar with sisterly/brotherly rivalry tropes should know where I'm going with this. Janine's life isn't exactly any more joyous than Claudia's, but the younger Kishi spends the majority of the book ragging on her ostensibly perfect, "mean" older sister. And ignoring the fact that Janine never does a single mean thing in the book... wow, my perspective on the Claudia versus Janine rivalry has changed from when I first read these as a child!

My first experience with The Baby-sitters Club was when I was in elementary school, and at that point, I didn't totally mesh with Claudia, but I had no qualms taking her side against Janine. Reading this as an adult, though... damn, I feel bad for that poor girl. She doesn't do anything wrong, she's facing the full brunt of Claudia's envy and hostility at all times, she's quite obviously just as envious of Claudia, and she doesn't seem to have any idea of how to get close to her sister. It's pretty darn sad.

But with all that said... the rivalry between Claudia and Janine isn't the real issue of Claudia and Mean Janine. Not only is Janine not, in fact, mean, but the conflict between Claudia and Janine actually plays second fiddle to the much more serious plotline of the novel: that of Mimi's stroke.

Mimi is Claudia and Janine's grandmother, a Japanese emigrant who lives with the Kishi household. And she's the sweetest frickin' thing; she's a grandmotherly figure to the entire babysitter's club, but especially the two who grew up on the same street as the Kishis (Kristy and Mary Anne). It's impossible not to like Mimi... and Mimi's life falls apart right here, right now.

It's a great plotline with a lot of emotion, and I completely enjoyed reading it regardless of how sad and/or frustrated it made me at certain moments... but I think it suffers a bit for being in this book. I would have much preferred the "Claudia versus Janine" and "Mimi's stroke" plotlines to be disentangled. The Claudia/Janine conflict and reconciliation, despite being the subplot described in the title, got overshadowed and shortchanged by Mimi's plotline and ultimately served as a distraction. And since the series certainly isn't about to put the Kishi sister war behind it anytime soon, I really think it would've been a better idea to spend a different book focusing on the girl's interpersonal interaction and spend this one focusing on their reactions to their grandmother's situation.

Still, though, it's a great story, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of the series. So far, the balance between charm/frivolity and serious plotlines has been great, and I'm looking forward to more of both. I'd definitely like to be able to eventually say I've read every BSC universe book!
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