If you’re a fan of the recent Netflix series Stranger Things, part of what you undoubtedly enjoyed about it was the nostalgia it stirred inside of your worn-out and bitter empty shell of an adult body. Most of this stirring can be attributed to the music and mood and references to the pop culture icons of the 80s and 90s. Maybe the series also elicited memories of you and your siblings and friends riding around on a hot summer’s day, excitedly creating your own adventures to carry out together. Besides anything else in the show, there was something wonderful in the simple joy of watching this group of kids band together and have each other’s backs in order to fight a monster (instead of fighting the monster that is modern day life, am I right?). But for me, getting immersed in this story didn’t trigger memories of being a kid with my friends and racing around and having fun. Instead, it triggered memories of being a kid and reading stories about kids racing around with their friends and having fun.
I grew up in a family with two happily married loving parents and three rambunctious brothers. You would think it would be impossible for someone in this situation to ever be lonely. But in reality, all it guaranteed was the opportunity to never be alone. They are two very different things. Having multiple siblings in fact often made the loneliness I felt even more searing. I watched from what seemed like an upside-down world (cool Stranger Things reference, you’re welcome) as they made connections amongst themselves, and with others.
I was left, trapped with the inky blackness and a monster called isolation – a monster that grew bigger as I was moved to a tiny school in the country. A monster that became scarier when I went through puberty and started to realise that I wasn’t interested in boys, and that I had nobody to share this with. I was isolated on multiple levels.
I became obsessed with books about groups of kids who were thick as thieves.
So what was a girl meant to do in this situation, in a pre-internet world? What tools did I have at my disposal to fight off the desperation? In my case, books became my shield. Specifically, I became preoccupied with stories about Kids With Friends. I devoured Enid Blyton books about weak and sickly English siblings who went to farms and hung out together and made friends with squirrels or whatever they did. I ate up books about kids named Dick and Fanny having adventures on top of magic trees. The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, all the numbers and alliteration I could handle. There was Trixie Belden, and Nancy Drew – I became obsessed with books about groups of kids who were thick as thieves, kids who would do anything for each other. Kids who never felt alone, because it made me feel less lonely.
Even though I loved all of these stories and they got me through many a dark day alone in my bedroom, it was only when I picked up my first ever Baby-Sitter’s Club book, written by one Ann M. Martin, that I truly felt something click into place. If you aren’t familiar, the books explore the lives of a group of friends who start a baby-sitting club. To get jobs baby-sitting. You know, that regular thing we all know about and have seen or done. The club included 11–13 year old girls Kristy, Mary-Anne, Dawn, Stacey, Claudia, Mallory and Jessi. Over 100-plus books (many ghostwritten), the series explored many avenues, but always very deliberately focused on the relationship between the girls. As someone who was at sea, surrounded by boys at all times, there was something about reading story after story of female friendships that felt like my salvation.
The character of Kristy Thomas in particular, was extremely important to me, and, I have found, to many other queer women. This makes complete sense. Kristy created the Baby-Sitter’s Club. She had the idea, she organised it; she was essentially Boss Bitch. She has three brothers (um, HELLO), is bossy and loud, and loves sports, even coaching a softball team. She is uninterested in clothes and makeup and well, boys.
Same. Same. Very same.
I had [Martin] to thank for a character in whom I could truly see myself.
I had Ann M. Martin to thank for Kristy. This was an extremely rare character in whom I could truly see myself, amongst these other girls that I knew I was supposed to be like. I thought that to be normal, I should like clothes and makeup, and boys. But Kirsty was my saviour from the idea that there was something wrong with me, or that I was alone in the world.
All these years later, something seemingly obvious was crystallised. In a recent interview with Vulture, Martin offhandedly stated that at some point she had been in a relationship with a woman. In this day and age, this shouldn’t be a big deal. And it isn’t, in terms of her having been with a woman. But it was kind of a big deal, for someone who’d spent so much time with these books. I had always looked back on the series and assumed that the queerness I felt in them was just present by virtue of me automatically doing a ‘queer reading’ of every single thing my extremely gay eyes touched, but finding this out means that maybe it was real. Finding that out doesn’t change things, but it was a moment for someone who had been saved by the books, and who had needed saving partly because she was queer.
When you’re part of a minority with little to no representation in popular culture, such as the LGBTQI community, there was (and still is) often no choice but to manipulate whatever is available, to will representation into existence. Kristy Thomas was simply written as a tomboy, as so many little girls are tomboys. When I read these books as a child, to me she wasn’t queer or straight, she was just herself. But she was so much herself that it made me think that maybe I could be one day be myself as well. The small differences she embodied, the ones that exist in so many of us; they mattered so much. Finding out her creator was different too – it doesn’t really make a difference, but it matters.