Vilate: We're talking, today, about The Summer Before by Ann M Martin. The book is the pre-quel to the Baby-sitters Club series. It's actually our first official Middle-Grade book on Three Viewpoint Thursdays... What are your initial impressions?
Renee: Well, I usually don't read middle grade books, but looking at this objectively (and not in terms of my personal interests) I found it mediocre. There were some characters and situations that made sense and seemed believable, but others that were just boring or felt out of context. It wasn't terrible, and I did like some parts, but I just feel kind of indifferent to it.
Aly: I, on the other hand, actually read a fair amount of Middle Grade books. And recently just finished one that I loved and it was so well written. I'm not sure but maybe that really influenced me while I was reading this one. I couldn't tell if my reasons for not really liking the book had to do with not having read the series as a "kid" and having an understanding as well as an emotional connection to the book or if it was just awkwardly executed by the author. I feel like I need to reserve some judgment because I haven't read the other books. Unfortunately, the prequel isn't making me want to run out and read the BSC.
Vilate: Being the one who has read the series as a child, I'll of course be the one who loves this book a lot. :) I'm not sure I can see why someone wouldn't like it, but I'm certainly not unbiased on that front. I felt like it was a definite extension of the series and I got exactly what I expected from reading it. That said, I do think that it's more for those of us who have read the rest of the series, although I know that the author really hopes that it can be something passed on to new readers from old readers.
Renee: Part of my lack of enthusiasm was a lack of character development and exposition (which I guess, if you are already a fan of the series, you already know who everyone is and what they are like). I LOVE coming-of-age stories, so I really related to Kristy's dealing with her absentee dad and Claudia's first "romance," but I felt like Mary Anne didn't really have a voice or a story worth telling (in this book) and with Stacey being in NY for most of the novel, her sections always felt like a break from the real story. For me, some parts really worked and others felt unfinished.
Vilate: I can see that. Mary Anne doesn't really come out of her shell, though, for the first few books in the series so, for me, I felt that it was natural for her to sort of fade out. I also felt like Stacey's parts were a break in the flow, but I also felt like that was natural because her story was meant to be apart from the other three at the beginning. I understand, though, that it can be jarring or 'meh' to some people. What did you think about the four viewpoints in the book, Aly? Did you like one more than others?
Aly: I think with a prequel you should be able to jump in even if you don't know the story. Technically this is the beginning and we are talking Middle Grade fiction not something more advanced. However, I felt like the “voice of the characters" were off. I kept trying to imagine these conversations happening with the sixth/seventh graders that I know. Something wasn't working for me. I understand the whole - everyone develops/matures at their own rate - which is true - but something still felt off. And I did wish Stacey's character could have been developed a little more. Not knowing the series I can't say whether it would have been better to start it more when she arrived rather than while she was still in NYC? *shrugs*
Aly: And I also liked the issues that the girls were struggling with in terms of Kristy and her dad or Claudia and boys - which are very realistic. Though Mary Anne and her father seemed strange. It seemed somewhat 1950's - ish. I wanted to like it but after reading several other MG novels that were so much better developed I had a hard time with this one. It was simple enough to read but maybe that was part of the problem.
Renee: I agree... The "voices" didn't always seem age appropriate, and they weren't always distinguishable from one another. I find that when there is alternating first person POV separating each voice is usually a problem, unless there is a guy and a girl...
Vilate: I'll admit that I'm disappointed that the two of you didn't enjoy the story more. Since I'm not able to separate this book from the others, I can just say that I felt that the characters stayed true to form with the rest of the series. Granted, there was a lot of growth for them over the course of the 100+ books, but this starting-off point jives with the first four books in the series. I liked seeing the four girls in their different stages of development, and I liked seeing them work out some of their issues here.
Vilate: Kristy was never my favorite sitter, but I felt more connected to her in this book and I thought her story was pretty strong. Mary Anne was always my favorite and seeing her starting-off point was great for me, but it was rather frustrating at parts. Claudia and I never got along as well as I read the other books, so she did annoy me a little in this one, although I still liked reading her views. Stacey was my other favorite and I definitely felt some empathy towards her situation
Aly: I wondered as I was reading it if I would see Nancy Drew differently today if I went back to read the original books. I also wonder if an adult just picked up a Nancy Drew book and hadn't read it as a 9 year old girl would they think "OMG, this is horrible". So I knew that going into this book that I might have a strange reaction. I also read the reviews on GoodReads because I was curious to see what people thought. Most of the people who read it as children (which were all the reviewers) loved the BSC and hence loved this book. However, a few of them did seem to be able to look at this one more objectively and questioned the writing.
Aly: Overall though I think most of the readers connected back with the series that they loved and I think in that way the author did her job. And I could see how as a 9 or 10 year old girl you might love these books. And find certain ones that you connect with - either because of their personality or because of the issues that they struggled with.
Aly: Just curious, did the girls age in the series or did they stay in Middle School?
Vilate: They aged over 7th and 8th grade, but after a certain point, they really just stayed in 8th grade until the last book in the series. They were in 8th for 90% of the series, I'd say. Which Ann Martin commented on when I interviewed her. I remember thinking it was weird, but as a child I liked the series too much to worry about it.
Renee: I think the personality of some characters and their stories did endear the story to "outsiders" of the BSC fan base, but I agree with Aly that having no emotional connection to the phenomena of the Baby Sitter's Club, I couldn't appreciate it to its max. (I know personally I have revisited some childhood TV shows and books this summer that seem completely foreign to me now, esp. since I usually read stories with characters at least 15/16 years old).
Aly: You were saying that it was weird that they stayed in 8th grade for 90% of the series...think about this...Nancy Drew has been 18 for 80 years with the same boyfriend too. :)
Vilate: lol! I know there are plenty of series that have the same thing about age. Honestly, I've re-read the books (especially a few of my favorites) as an adult and I still really enjoy them. But I think we've pretty much covered what we thought about plot/characters/etc., for this book. I'll give this over to final thoughts, and would you recommend the book to anyone? I think you know that I'd be more than willing to give this out to middle-graders.
Renee: Sure. If you are a fan of middle-grade books and series like THE SISTERHOOD OF TRAVELING PANTS (Ann Brashares) or the THE INTERNET GIRLS series (Lauren Myracle) books or any of Jaclyn Moriarty’s stuff, I think I might recommend it.
Aly: Oh, I can see where girls who like this type of story would love this especially if they already have read some of the books in the BSC series. So I would still pass it on. With 9 to 12 year olds, anything that gets them reading and pulls them in is fine by me.
Vilate: It's great to hear that. Great chat tonight!