I’m really enjoying reading Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure and I’m curious about how you got involved with [Betty MacDonald’s great-granddaughter] Annie Parnell for the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle reboot?
Annie had approached Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla at Macmillan, and Jean and Liz are editors that I’ve worked with for many years. Jean Feiwel is the editor that had originally come up with the idea for the Baby-Sitters Club … and Liz and I have worked together — this is when they were both at Scholastic — since I guess the late 1990s. So when Annie approached them at Macmillan with the idea of bringing Missy Piggle-Wiggle — Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, in the character of Missy — Jean and Liz asked if I would be interested. I had loved the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books when I was growing up so it sounded like a wonderful project.
The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books have such a strong legacy. Was it intimidating to take that on?
Yes, it really was, I have to say. Partly because I had enjoyed the books so much, and also because I’ve never worked on a project like this before; I’ve never tried to write in another author’s style, and bringing back the characters that I hoped Betty MacDonald herself would have approved of was intimidating. But she had created such a wonderful and funny world of characters that it was actually a pleasure to step into that world and try to write for those characters, they were just so much fun. You know, a pig who has good manners and drinks coffee, it was hilarious. I hope I did a good job; they were big shoes to fill.
How closely did you and Annie work on it? Was she kind of there to maintain the integrity of the original?
Yes, and also in the very beginning, Liz and Annie and I all met and discussed how the books would unfold, how the new character Missy would be presented. Then we talked about how the first story would unfold and I wrote an outline which everybody took a look at and commented on, including Annie. So she was involved every step of the way… not only in terms of staying true to the world that Betty MacDonald had created, but also with suggestions … so it felt like a true collaborative process.
Missy has a lot of funny modern references. How did you decide how modern to make it?
We talked about that, we wanted the stories to have a modern feel — you’ll notice that people have cell phones — and the stories are supposed to be set in contemporary times. But the world that Betty had created, this magical world that she created, had this timeless feel to it. So we were trying to combine those two things, and I think it works. The idea that in this somewhat magical town, the kids are able to run around and … have the kinds of freedoms that kids today might not have but because it’s magical ... So I feel that we were combining both things, trying to [make the stories] contemporary but maintaining what Betty MacDonald had set out. So I think it worked. We didn’t want to hit readers over the head with the fact that the stories were contemporary. But we wanted to engage today’s readers, so we didn’t want to stories to feel too old-fashioned. And I have to say, when I was reading the books back in the 1960s, they seemed a little old-fashioned back then.
Missy would have made a great member of the Baby-Sitters Club – like the baby-sitters, she has her own “kid kit” of sorts, with glitter glue …
[Laughs] That’s true …
… and the scenes where the neighborhood kids are playing at Missy’s house reminded me of when the baby-sitters were taking care of the Pike kids …
Were any of those similarities conscious choices? Were you drawing on your many years of experience of writing about child care?
That’s so funny, you know, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I mean, I suppose I was, but I’m wondering, now that you say that, if when I was writing the Baby-Sitters Club books if I was actually thinking a little bit about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and perhaps those stories were influencing me then and I completely didn’t think about it that way. But in rereading the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books — which I did before I started writing Missy — I was struck by how she is sort of a babysitter for the kids in the town, and they do all congregate over at her house. So maybe the two worlds were colliding.
Something else that that I enjoyed in this book, which I also liked about the Baby-Sitters Club, was all the detail – what people were eating, what people are wearing … is that kind of detail especially important to you?
It is, absolutely. First of all I think it makes better reading when I’m reading books I always enjoy details. And I think I’m just a very curious person. I’m always interested about what’s in people’s refrigerators, or the minutiae of their days. I don’t know, I always find it very interesting, and I suppose it ends up in my writing. But I do think it makes for more vivid storytelling if you include a lot of detail.
I know that a few years ago the first few BSC books were reissued …
[Laughs] Well, we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of the publication of the first Baby-Sitters Club book.
I know, it’s a whole generation, it’s really hard to believe.
I recently read the BSC prequel you wrote. I know that was a few years ago, but what was it like to revisit the characters in that book?
It was really fun. My editors and I wanted to publish a new book around the 25th anniversary, and everyone had been asking for — I mean, readers — everyone had been asking for a reunion book or a story about what the characters would be doing when they were adults. And I don’t know why, I just, I didn’t — not so much that I didn’t have ideas — I just didn’t feel drawn to writing about the characters in the future. So it was my idea to write the prequel, what led up to the first book. And it was a lot of fun, it really was. I went back, of course, and read some of the earliest books, and it was quite a bit of fun to revisit the characters. Writing a series, especially a very long one, one of the things that is both tedious and delightful at the same time is that you don’t have to let go of the characters at the end of each book. You feel that you know the characters very well, they’re easy to write for, they start to present their own plot ideas. But on the other hand, it’s a less creative process as time goes on because you’re not creating new characters. So it was fun to go back and revisit the girls and write about something that was just slightly different.
You wrote the first 30-some Baby-Sitters Club books on your own, right? And then you had other people working on later books?
Sort of. I wrote the first 20 consecutively, but then overall I think I probably … there were five related series by the time everything came to an end, and maybe 300 books total if you combine everything in all of the series. I probably wrote 100 of them but not consecutively. So, for the books that I didn’t write, I outlined them and the outlines were given to other writers. And we kept that stable of other writers fairly small so that we could maintain a more consistent voice for the series. And then I would go back and edit the manuscripts after the other authors had written them. So I had a hand in every one – but there was no way I was going to write everything because that’s a lot of books [laughs].
Was that a relief to have other people filling the books out, or was it hard to let go of total creative control?
It was a relief because, as I said, there was no way I could do it all myself. But the way we did it felt very natural to me, which was to maintain a certain amount of control. To outline and edit … I don’t think I would have done it if I couldn’t have had some control, but the way that we worked it out felt right.
When you first started the series, did you feel like you were trying to fill some kind of void in literature for young girls?
You know, I don’t think I did. I know that I was writing books that I would have enjoyed reading when I was growing up. I was writing something that I enjoyed and I hoped that kids — not necessarily just girls, but I know the readership for girls was bigger — would enjoy. I had worked in publishing before I began writing full time, but I don’t think that I necessarily felt that I was filling a void. There were already … I mean, Sweet Valley High had started before the Baby-Sitters Club, so I don’t think I went into it with aspirations like that, I was just really writing books that I hoped kids would enjoy reading.
Do you have thoughts about why the books resonate so much? I feel like people are nostalgic about Sweet Valley High, but there doesn’t seem to be the same fervor a lot of women feel about the Baby-Sitters Club.
One thing I did try to do in the very beginning was to create a group of friends who were very different from each other but who were close nevertheless. And they really were very different: Kristy and Mary Anne were more immature than Stacey and Claudia; they came from different kinds of families, different backgrounds, and as the group grew there were kids from different races, different cultural backgrounds, certainly kids with different interests. And they all got along really well, they were each other’s support system, the adults remained in the background in the series — the kids would turn to them if they were in trouble but mostly they relied on each other. And I think that that really resonated with kids, the fact that they could be independent.
They were in a sense running their own business, so they were sort of entrepreneurial. And for kids who are 8, 9, 10, 11, babysitting is the first activity for a lot of kids in which they can be responsible for another living being, and I think that that’s really important. Up until you’re able to do that, you’re always the one who’s being taken care of. … I think that’s a huge rite of passage.
I think that one of the things that spoke to a lot of kids was simply how different all the kids were and that they were such good friends. I got so many letters from kids basically saying — I don’t think they necessarily understood this themselves, but basically saying who they identified with in the series, and that pulled them into the series and kept them there, I think.
Well, the books really do treat the kids like full, complex human beings. …I always thought of the characters as pretty adult, but looking back, I mean … Mallory and Jessi are both 11, which seems so young!
I know! [laughs]
Does it surprise you that women in their 20s and 30s feel so strongly about the series?
It did at first. Now it doesn’t surprise me so much simply because I hear about it so often. But I find it enormously gratifying. I’m sort of humbled by it. And also gratified to hear from so many readers who are about your age and, like you, have gone on to become a writer or a publisher, editor, teacher, librarian. I think it’s really wonderful that that’s what kids who were reading the Baby-Sitters Club came away with. I hope that it spawned lots and lots of dedicated readers of everything. Not just the Baby-Sitters Club series, but turning kids into avid readers. I can’t think of anything much better.
What have you been doing besides writing these days?
Well, first of all, I write a little bit less, my pace is slightly slower than it was, which I suppose is both a function of age and something that I really wanted to do. So I do have more free time. Two of the things that take up my time which I just love are fostering cats for the SPCA and other local rescue organizations. I foster stray cats, mostly kittens actually, until permanent homes can be found for them. At the moment I have five. Five four-month old, they don’t really look like kittens anymore, but kittens who were semi-feral, I would say. And I don’t usually work with feral kittens, but these guys are really coming around. So that’s really gratifying, and we’re starting to look for homes for them. They’re ready to go, I think.
And the other thing that I spend a lot of time on is an organization that I started in 1990 called the Lisa Libraries. [It’s an] organization that friends and I started in memory of a publishing colleague. We collect new children’s books from publishers, editors, reviewers, authors. … We now have a small warehouse space in Kingston, New York, which is not too far away. And we sort the books into categories and then re-sort them into small libraries that we can donate to organizations serving underserved kids. And we also give a lot of books to individual kids who are in the foster-care system so that they can have books of their own to take home.
So basically, you spend your free time doing a lot of great things for people and animals.
[Laughs] Thank you! And also sewing and reading, those take up a lot of my time. But it’s just nice to have time to focus on other things. As much as I love writing, it’s nice to have time to do other things. I don’t want to sound like a do-gooder [laughs], but those are two of the things that take up time and that I get a great amount of pleasure from.
Is there anything that you’re reading now that you would recommend?
Oh my goodness, let’s see. For book club — oh this was so good — it’s been out for a few years, but we just finished reading The Boys in the Boat, which I loved. And now I just started reading a book which I cannot put down called Random Family. I love fiction, but I also read a lot of memoirs and nonfiction. And Random Family, which came out 13 to 15 years ago, maybe, is wonderful. I’m always reading something. But anyway, I do highly recommend The Boys in the Boat.
What do you have in the works for the future? You’re writing more Missy Piggle-Wiggle books?
I am. In fact I just finished the rough draft of the second book, which I think will be out fall of next year.