Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Book Review: Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #5: California Girls!


Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #5, California Girls!, hit store shelves right at the height of my BSC fandom. I was ten years old, and I was all in. I've probably re-read this book a dozen times. But it's been a while. 

So... back to 1990 we go!

Our story today is bookended by the original California Girl herself, Dawn Schafer...

In the prologue (!) we learn that Claudia has been giving her dad money to buy her lottery tickets for ages, and ever since the lotto recently climbed to $23 million, all the BSC members have been obsessed with winning. One weekend, they get Dawn's mom to buy them seven tickets. When the lotto numbers are announced, one of the tickets has 5 out of the 6 winning numbers, so they win $10,000. Split seven ways, it's about $1,400 for each of them. Taxes are 100% never mentioned. 

What to do with these riches? Luckily, the baby-sitters have another school vacation coming up. I'm trying to remember if this is the first time the BSC has had a random, middle-of-the-year two-week vacation. Well, it won't be the last. Dawn suggests they all go to California. Mallory says, "Ooh, California" -- and they all start packing.

Chapter 1 goes to Dawn again and (yawn) she does the whole "how-the-club works" explanation, and a breakdown of each of the other characters. I really feel that these things should be left out of Super Specials EXCEPT that we get an epic Claudia outfit description out of it, so hey... I'll allow it.

[Claudia was] wearing a red shirt with Mexican hats and cactus plants printed on it, and blue-and-white striped pants held up by polka-dotted suspenders. On her head was what look like an engineer's cap (it matched her pants), and dangling from her ears were miniature cowboy boots, which she'd made herself.

Stacey's outfit, by comparison, is rather boring:

Stacey was wearing wide-legged, cropped pants; her Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt; and high-topped running shoes.

Anyway, so it's official, they're all going to go to California and stay at Dawn's dad's house. Travel day arrives, and they board a jumbo jet. The plane has the classic two seat-five seat-two seat arrangement. Before takeoff, Mallory asks if anyone wants to play hangman. Jessi advises her that this flight will be long, so "Maybe we should save hangman for later." (Never is probably fine, too.) The girls learn that the in-flight movie will be Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which they've never heard of, but they're willing to give it a try. (Cue the renting of headphones!)

The girls call back and forth to each other about what they want to do when they get to L.A. Suggestions include: Knott's Berry Farm (Jessi has never heard of it), Hollywood, Grauman's Chinese Theater, and a wax museum. When Jessi suggests the San Diego Zoo, Dawn shuts her down: "Do you know how far that is from Los Angeles? California's a big state." Okay, so no zoo, but Jessi is  excited to reconnect with Derek Masters, the Stoneybrook-born child star from book #27, and she has been invited to go watch him film his TV series in a few days. Thinks Jessi: "My vacation was off to an incredible start!"

They all arrive safely in California, and are retrieved by Dawn's dad. Back at the house, Dad's girlfriend, Carol, is there. Dawn does not like Carol... for several reasons, one being that Carol acts like she's younger than she really is. We're going to hear lots more about this as the book goes on.

The next day, everyone is jet-lagged, so they don't make any big plans. Dawn's friend Sunny invites everyone to her house to meet the We ❤ Kids Club, the baby-sitting club that's based on the BSC. Thinks Kristy: I was already beginning to feel... funny. I knew there was no reason to be competitive, but, well, I did feel that I had sort of invented baby-sitting clubs, and that I knew best. Kristy is stunned to learn how laid-back this other club is. Why don't they have strict rules, and a notebook, and... and....?  A call comes in for a job that no one can take, and the job is offered to Mary Anne. The little girl is named Stephie. Sunny & friends tell the BSCers that Stephie has asthma... but she knows how to control it. That's when we get this incredible line:

"Wait!" cried Mallory. "What's asthma? What's an inhalator?"

I was ten when I read this book, and I at least had heard of asthma. Still, I remember this whole subplot made me very nervous as a kid. Stephie might stop breathing at any moment! AUGH!

Then another call comes in, and it's the parent of two boys that NO ONE wants to sit for. EVER. Kristy, intent on showing the W❤KC a thing or two (and convinced she can handle anything) agrees to take the job.

On Monday, Carol takes the baby-sitters to the beach (Dawn's dad has to work). Claudia scopes out a cute guy, talks to him, and is dismayed when she realizes he's very smart. Stacey takes surfing lessons, and falls in love with the sport. Mallory's marbles begin to tumble out and roll into the ocean. "Every single girl here is blonde," she says. "That is so unfair. I want to be a California girl too." Mallory then has the idea to buy some blonde hair dye. Meanwhile, Dawn seethes at everything Carol both does, and does not, do.

The next day, Stacey goes to the beach again, so she can go surfing once more. She goes with some surfers Dawn introduced her to... friends of friends of the family or whatnot. While at the beach, Stacey runs into Terry, the smart guy Claudia was interested in the day before. Claudia had told Stacey she wouldn't be pursuing Terry any further, but Stacey ignores this and gives Terry Claudia's (well, technically Dawn's) phone number. 

That evening, Terry calls. Claudia is furious with Stacey for butting in, and privately calls her a rat. Stacey is unfazed. She's doing Claudia a favor! Everyone knows matchmaking is a lost art.

So Terry calls and asks Claudia out. They go to an Italian restaurant and an Italian movie. Claudia can't read the subtitles quickly enough, and the movie is a bore. She laments that she feels she's all wrong for Terry. Later, she tries to talk to Carol about the situation, but they're interrupted by Dawn before Carol can get out her whole piece of advice. Claudia only hears the first part of it, and is led to believe that changing her personality to make a relationship work might actually be a good thing? (I can see where this is going.)

Mary Anne babysits for Stephie, and everything goes fine except that Mary Anne is SO nervous about Stephie having an asthma attack that she distracts the kid every time she wants to do something physical. Despite this, Mary Anne and Stephie bond over having no mothers and strict fathers, and no asthma attacks are had... in this chapter, anyway.

Then we have Mallory. Mallory's plot is probably in the top 3 of memorable things from this book (after Stacey's and Claudia's). So, back on Tuesday, Carol agreed to take Mallory and Jessi to the Max Factor Museum of Beauty, and they had a good time. But now Mallory is obsessed with beauty. And she's still wanting to be a blonde, so that she can be a true California Girl. So on Wednesday Mal asks if they can go to this huge mall that they passed on the way to Hollywood the day before. Carol says fine, and Dawn, Kristy, and Jeff end up going to the mall, too. They all go ice-skating and eat lunch, and then Mallory says BYYYEEEE and heads for the makeup counters.

A saleswoman greets Mallory, who then proceeds to say "I need a complete makeover." The woman brings Mallory a crapload of stuff, and Mallory BUYS IT ALL. (Read: Mallory gets bamboozled by a savvy salesclerk.) The book doesn't say how much Mal spent, but the implication is that it's over $100, and maybe several hundred. Mallory also buys some (allegedly wash-out) blonde hair dye. That evening, she dyes her hair, much to the horror of the other baby-sitters, but especially Jessi.

Every time I read this book, I would think, "What DID Mallory look like with blonde hair?" The illustration on the front cover has her with red hair, and (spoiler alert) by the end of the book she'll have dyed it back, so we just don't know what she looked like as a blonde...


This is my best depiction of Mallory before the makeover and the dye:

And this is Mallory afterward: 

Say what you will.

This exchange between Jessi and Mal is classic:

"Do you like it?" I asked. 

"Mallory Pike," said Jessi, who was absolutely simmering, "it is not you. Plus you've just blown all your money on stuff you won't even be able to use after our vacation." (Because the Pikes are weirdly strict about letting Mallory wear makeup.)

"I don't care," I said haughtily. I felt like a California Girl at last.

Mallory seems to be going through some kind of personal crisis within, and I am HERE for it. So what's going on here? Well, this is the first time she's been away from her entire family for two whole weeks. And clearly Mallory is struggling with her looks, and wants to fit in. But instead of, like, asking Claudia and Stacey to let her try on some of their makeup, she just goes all out? I wonder if it has something to do with the lotto winnings. Maybe Mallory has never had that much money in her life, and... well, she IS eleven years old. I'm sure this won't be the last rash decision she makes in her youth.


Jessi goes to visit the set of the sitcom P.S. 162 with the family of Derek Masters, that actor kid from Stoneybrook. While there, she learns a bit about filming a TV show. Then, when some additional people are needed for a crowd scene, Jessi volunteers, and the director chooses her. The best part? The director said he liked [Jessi's] looks. The 10-second scene takes three hours to shoot, but Jessi loves the experience. And... could it be... is she getting the acting bug again...? (She got it back in book 27.)

A new day dawns, and everyone is going to the beach again! But Stacey doesn't want to ride with Carol and the other baby-sitters... she wants to ride with her new surfer friends. Today, when the surfer kids pick her up, there's a new driver. His name is Beau and Stacey thinks he should've alternately been named Wild. He runs yellow lights and drives like he's got nine lives. Stacey's half-terrified, half-thrilled. But she gets to the beach and has so much adrenaline pumping that she skips her surfing lesson and just rents a board. Later, she wipes out in front of her BSC pals, but who cares? (Hint: Not Stacey!)

The W❤KC comes over to Dawn's place for a sleepover, and Dawn announces that her dad is planning to take the BSC-ers (and Jeff) to Universal Studios on Saturday. But that's the day Kristy is baby-sitting for the two bratty boys! What to do? Bring them along, of course! The W❤KC ladies try to convince Kristy this is a terrible idea, but Kristy is determined. Then Mary Anne gets the idea to invite Stephie to Universal Studios, too! I'm telling you, these baby-sitters can not go on a simple vacation without basically adopting children TO baby-sit for. It might be an illness.

On Friday, Claudia has another date with Terry. She's once again nervous -- what will they even talk about? He's so smart, blah de blah. Claudia even dresses conservatively for this date -- she borrows a dress from Dawn. It was simple -- a small-flowered print with half sleeves, a regular old waistline, and a nice lace collar. I had borrowed a pair of flat pink shoes from Mary Anne. I looked like a nine-year-old. Or maybe a grandmother.

Terry takes Claudia to a fancy, romantic French restaurant, where Claudia accidentally orders escargot. Meanwhile, she tries to bring up a subject Terry might be interested in: the Soviet Union! (Can you get more 1990?) Then Terry brings up the greenhouse effect, and Claudia has no idea what that is. (10 year old me: "Same.") It's such a miserable date that [Claudia] cried in the car on the way home, but Terry didn't notice. Hello, Claudia, maybe he's crying too!?

Saturday is Universal Studios day, and Mr. Schafer transports the seven baby-sitters, Jeff, and three random children to the theme park. Mallory is excited because she has heard that during certain stage shows, they pick people from the audience to be in the spotlight. She's sure that with her gorgeous new looks, she will be picked. Meanwhile, she has to borrow money from Jessi to even get into the park, and later, when half the crew buy disposal cameras (SO QUAINT!) she feels a little left out. Later, Mallory is NOT selected to be a volunteer in the shows (Jeff is, though), and Jessi begins driving Mallory crazy. Every time they learn something new about special effects, Jessi says something like: "I knew that... I learned it on the set of P.S. 162.

Thinks Mallory: "I was fascinated, but I would have been even more interested if Jessi hadn't been acting like such a know-it-all. I almost told her to shut up, but I realized that I needed to borrow money from her. Besides, we're best friends and we'd never had a fight. I didn't want to start one then."

Kristy makes it through the day at Universal with the two bratty boys, and feels quite proud of herself by the end of it. (I just hope it was worth it, Kristy.) Stephie has a great time at the park, but Mary Anne spends most of the day worrying about an impending asthma attack. Claudia spends the day worrying too, but not about kids -- about Terry. When they return from the park, she decides to do the unthinkable. She calls her older sister, Janine. And their exchange is delightful:

(Why Claudia called...) I wanted to ask her about world affairs.

"World affairs?" repeated Janine.

"Yeah. You know, like greenhouses and stuff."

"Do you mean Greenpeace? Or the greenhouse effect?"

"Anything," I said. "I know there are things going on in Russia and -- and in other countries. And some wall came down."

"Claudia, you're on vacation," said my sister. "Why do you need to know these things? It seems quite odd."

"I need to know them," I said, sighing, "to impress a boy. A really smart boy I met on the beach."

Janine urges Claudia to be herself, and also suggests she invite Terry to go with the group when they go to Hollywood the next day. Lo and behold, it turns out Terry likes old movies and movie stars and stuff, and he agrees to come, and has a great time. Claudia finally opens up about her art and the BSC to him. At the end of a great day, Claudia thinks: I realized I wanted to keep seeing Terry. How come such a great guy had to live in California when I live in Connecticut? Oh, well. There was nothing we could do about that.

I mean, there are things you could do about that, Claudia, but it's probably best to save any transcontinental moves until you're out of the eighth grade. So... only 10 years to go.

Jessi gets invited back to the set of P.S. 162, and this time she's allowed to bring Mallory along. Even though they're on shaky ground, Jessi really wants to make an effort to get their friendship back on track. Meanwhile, Jessi's also feeling pressure about the whole acting thing. Derek is always trying to convince her to get an agent and become an actress or model. And she doesn't want to have to tell him no. (Keep in mind, Derek is EIGHT.) Jessi's true love is ballet, and that's that. So she's not super excited about visiting the set again. 

But they go, and once again, the director needs extras for a crowd scene. Mallory is certain she'll be picked, but... nope! The most epic line of the entire book happens here, and it comes right from the director:

"Sorry. I'd like to let you in this scene, but your looks aren't quite right."

Mallory is truly shaken. HOW? How could her looks not be "right"?

Back at Dawn's, Mal mopes a bit, and Jessi gives her a pep talk. Mal says she realizes she got carried away with the whole makeup and hair dye thing. Jessi and Mal are now true friends again. But then Stacey comes bounding in and says they're all going to go to a movie theater to see Mary Poppins. Mal doesn't feel like going, which... totally legit. But the next day, when she decides to stay home while the rest of the girls go to Knott's Berry Farm, well, that's not okay. 

When the girls get back, Kristy overhears Mal talking to herself in the mirror, calling herself ugly and a toad. Kristy confronts her... rather rudely, I might add. But one good thing comes out of Kristy's speech -- she convinces Mallory that the old, red-headed Mallory was preferable. And the other BSCers chime in and agree. Mallory concedes that she would like to go back to being a redhead, but that the blonde washout dye isn't exactly as washy-outy as she thought it would be. 

"Then there's just one solution," says Stacey. "You'll have to dye your hair red again."

And that's what is done.

Then Stacey and Claudia offer to buy Mallory's makeup from her, which is especially nice considering A) it might not even be their colors/type, and B) clearly this makeup was an overpriced ripoff (not that I think they're paying full price or anything.) Still... nice friends, there.

A day or so later, Stacey goes to the beach to surf again, and this time, disaster strikes. On the way home, Beau the wild driver is speeding and he switches lanes without checking his blind spot, and sideswipes another car. A chain reaction ensues, and their car hits a truck, and then a guard rail. Even though multiple vehicles are involved in the crash, no one is seriously hurt. Beau asks the others to lie for him about his awful driving, but Stacey won't do it. This causes the others to shoot daggers at her, and she realizes she'll probably never see any of those kids again.

Stacey has to call Dawn's dad to pick her up from the hospital (where they all end up). Carol is the one who answers the phone. Thinks Stacey: Oh, that was perfect. Carol was just like one of us. If she picked me up at the hospital, Mr. Schafer might never even know about the accident. HAHAHA, Stacey, THINK AGAIN! Of course Carol tells Mr. Schafer, because YES, the lady who has been carting you seven ingrates around for the past week and a half HAPPENS TO BE A RESPONSIBLE ADULT.

So they all go back to Dawn's, and Stacey has to tell Mr. Schafer what happened, and oh, I feel for her. I felt for her reading this as a kid, too. He asks her what lesson she's learned from all this. It's so awkward! They also call Stacey's parents (individually? I guess) and let them know what happened.

Meanwhile, all this makes Dawn gain respect for Carol. So much so that she tells her dad it's okay with her if he eventually marries Carol. 

Later, Dawn tells Jeff to "give Carol a chance." She even writes a letter to Carol and hands it to her, basically saying Carol is all right with her. It's very sweet, but it also seems like a really quick about-face. Give Carol a chance? Fine. Tell your dad it's okay if they get married? Um, maybe wait a week...?

The vacation is drawing to a close. Mary Anne babysits for Stephie one last time, and THIS IS IT. THE MOMENT WE'VE ALL BEEN DREADING. Stephie (I keep wanting to call her Sophie) has an asthma attack. And Mary Anne has been so diligent, so careful. But in vain. While contemplating Mary Anne having to return to Stoneybrook, Stephie has an attack.

But Mary Anne is ready. She has Stephie's inhaler (they keep calling it an inhalator, which... okay) at hand, and gives it to Stephie. Stephie survives, and she and Mary Anne bond still further. They promise to become pen pals. (We've heard Mary Anne promise that to people she's met on vacation before, and she's not delivered, so... beware, Stephie.)

Dawn takes the last two chapters and uses them to reflect on the lessons everyone has learned during this trip. One important one that maybe Kristy learned? She's not the baby-sitting expert of the galaxy. 

Dawn, of course, has learned that Carol is A-OK. I decided that Carol was a kid and an adult at the same time, and that was nice. She would do kooky things with us, but she knew when to open her mouth and when not to. 

On the final full day in California, the girls go to Magic Mountain and Medieval Times. The next day they say their goodbyes and fly back to Connecticut.

Dawn: So that's our story. Did you ever think that a lottery ticket could cause all this -- a trip, a boyfriend, surfing, dyed hair...

Yeah, okay. It feels like surfing is kind of demonized in this book. Like, Stacey loves it... and sure, surfing is the reason why she wants to go to the beach, and that's why she gets into the car with the teens, and eventually that turns out to be a bad thing. But none of that is the fault of surfing itself. I guess mayyybe surfing could have led to drowning? But c'mon! These baby-sitters need more sports in their lives! Let Stacey have this one thing!


Let's take a look at our trusty Super Special tropes checklist...

☑Will someone make an unusual friend who is then never heard from again? Yes, Mary Anne and Stephie, and I guess Stacey and her surfing buddies.

☑Will one of the baby-sitters fall in LUV? (Yes, Claudia + Terry.)

☑Will at least one baby-sitter who is supposed to be on vacation/sans children be put in a position where they must care for children anyway? (Yes, Mary Anne and Stephie, and Kristy and the bratty boys.)

☑Will someone have a near-death experience? (We have two! Stephie's asthma attack and Stacey's car accident.)

☑Will someone act like a major jerk, even though they're normally pretty pleasant? (Jessi acts like a know-it-all at Universal, Kristy acts superior to the W❤KC, and Mallory does all kinds of annoying things, including hogging the bathroom at Dawn's house so she can apply her makeup. She's in there for, like, an hour, when there are six other girls that need to use the facilities. Rude little thing.)

☑Will the airplane seats have two seats, then five seats, then two more? (YES YES YESSSSS!!!!)

* * *

Things the various baby-sitters learn about throughout the book:

•Knott's Berry Farm (Jessi initially thinks it's a berry farm)

•Asthma (Mallory has never heard of it, apparently)

•Elaine Stritch (Jessi and Mal have no clue about the actress who's guest-starring on P.S.162.)

•Escargot (Snails, Claudia! Snails!)

•Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

Things California Girls taught 10-year-old me...

*Escargots is NOT pronounced ess-car-gotts

*Max Factor = makeup

*Wash-out hair dye doesn't necessarily wash out

*Always wear your seat belt, but also maybe don't drive around with hooligans

*The San Diego Zoo is really far from Los Angeles because California's A Big State

* * *
A quick aside...
My 1991 California Adventure

My family and I went on a trip to California almost exactly one year after this book came out, and I couldn't wait to see how many things on our trip would line up with things in the BSC books. How accurate was it? 

So, the Universal Studios stuff felt very spot-on. The animal effects show the girls go to -- that's a perennial thing at the park. The Conan show is mentioned in this book -- we went to that, and I loved it. The studio tour was a little different than what was described in the book... once we got in the tram, we stayed in it till the end of the ride. Our special effects demo was a separate thing, but... I got chosen as a volunteer! I was just like Jeff! Only he he was chosen to portray Elliott from E.T., and I was picked to be Jennifer from Back to the Future II. (THE DREAM!) 

I didn't think there'd be any real chance of being an extra on a TV show, like Jessi, since I didn't personally know any child stars myself, but we actually did get to do that! The Dom DeLuise version of Candid Camera was filming at Universal in 1991, and my brother and I got to be on camera for a segment along with a dozen other kids. Being on TV was a huge thrill.

My family went to Knott's Berry Farm on that trip, but I can't compare it to the BSC's experience, because they go there during a Mallory chapter, and Mallory doesn't go with them! FOOL.

We didn't go to Magic Mountain, Medieval Times, or Hollywood on that trip. We also didn't go to any malls, and I didn't get a makeover. 

Unlike the baby-sitters, we visited the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose. I think Dawn, particularly, would've enjoyed the QM's haunted tour (I decidedly did not), but perhaps she'd already done that earlier in her life.

And also unlike the baby-sitters, my family went to Disneyland. WHY DON'T THE BABY-SITTERS GO THERE? Seems like such a waste. (And yes, I have drunk the Disney kool-aid... would you care for a cupful?)

* * *

Thoughts on this cover...

Once again, it's hard to tell which one is Dawn and which is Stacey. But I'm now convinced Stacey's the one in the chair. How come only SHE gets a chair? And why is her bikini so tiny? And what's with all the beach balls? Oh well. It's fine. 

* * *


On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being a rousing Baby-Sitters Club adventure, and 1 being a book I'd send straight to Goodwill, I give California Girls! an 8.3. People learn lessons, in a good way, so yay. Fun is had. I would've raised it a few points if they'd A) Gone to Disneyland, B) Showed us Mallory's blonde hair, and C) Not had anyone baby-sit, for pete's sake. I know, shocking.

* * *

In conclusion, say hello to your...

I blame Claudia.

* * *

For more BSC Super Specials check out:

Super Special #7: Snowbound (My rating: 8.1)

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