There's a moment in every reader's life when she comes to the sad, startling realization that she's grown out of a beloved series. Nancy Drew becomes too predictable, Animorphs start seeming too young, the Alice books suddenly feel a bit too silly. It's a depressing moment, that discovery that growing up means saying goodbye to all those characters she'd come to know over her childhood, even if it is time. Yet for devotees of The Baby-Sitters Club series, discovering that Mary Ann's crushes and Kristy's new charges just wasn't cutting it anymore came with a silver lining; Ann M. Martin, we learned, had written a Baby-Sitters spin-off series meant for those who'd loved the books, but needed something a bit more mature: California Diaries.
For those who'd spent the last few years reading about Kid Kits, school plays, and 7th grade fashion, California Diaries was a huge deal. The series, written by Martin (well, Martin's ghostwriters) during the late-'90s and early-'00s, covered "older" themes like alcohol, anorexia, even a parent's untimely death; certainly nothing you'd find in a Baby-Sitters Club book, where the most serious issue was if Stacey had taken her diabetes medication that day. Really, the only actual similarity of California to the original series was that a main character was Dawn, the environmentalist step-sister of Mary-Anne's whose move back to California prompted the new series' creation.
Otherwise, California Diaries was as far from The Baby-Sitters Club that you could get — which, of course, is why we loved it. Reading these books made a girl feel mature, so much more grown-up than her Baby-Sitters-loving peers. So what if the series was overly dark and far too melodramatic? We wouldn't know that for another few years. At the time, California Diaries just seemed cool. Seven moments that solidified California as a far more superior series than Baby-Sitters, at least in our 12-year-old eyes:
1. The Party
The series opens with Dawn and her new 8th grade friends attending a party thrown by upperclassmen, their first "real" high school event. Do they enjoy the night, have fun, and get home safely? Of course not. Girls "accidentally" get drunk, people are thrown in pools, police are called, and friendships are ruined, because this is still an Ann M. Martin book and actions have consequences.
2. The Death of Sunny's Mom
In the diaries of Sunny, Dawn's childhood best friend, we learn that her mother is suffering from lung cancer. Already, this is way more intense than the type of topics covered in The Baby-Sitters Club, and it gets even darker when her mom passes away. In grieving, Sunny begins dressing too "adult," skipping class, and running away from home — no cliches here, folks! Still, the fact that the subject matter of death gets covered at all is a pretty huge deal, considering how problem-free the lives of the BBC members are in the first series.
3. Every Possible Issue in Maggie's Life
Let us count the problems faced by Maggie, a friend of Dawn's: OCD. Anorexia. Charges of nepotism. Depression. An alcoholic mother. This poor girl gets tasked with every possible issue a teenager can have, but hey, it makes her diaries more interesting than the rest, especially Dawn's, whose "problems" include an annoying step-mom and people who don't recycle.
4. Amalia's Breakup With Her Abusive Boyfriend
Now this was a topic you'd never find in a Baby-Sitters Club book. Amalia, a new student at Vista, dates a verbally abusive guy for awhile until she gets the good sense to break up with him. It never becomes physical violence — that'd probably be too much for an Ann M. Martin book, even a California one — but James' emotional abuse is still a much darker topic than one typically discussed in a book by the author.
5. Ducky's Sloooow Realization That He's Gay
Although it's never explicitly discussed, even the youngest California Daries readers could probably pick up that Ducky is gay, or at least confused about his sexuality. There are hints throughout many of the early books, but in the series' final diary, narrated by him, he wonders why he's so different from other boys. He likes to shop, is best friends with girls, and doesn't feel a thing when he has his first (straight) kiss. At one point, he wonders if there's a manual for being a guy out there that he just never got. Oh, Ducky. If only this great run-down of every moment in the final book that Ducky's sexuality becomes crystal-clear to everyone except him had been written back when the books were out; maybe his diaries would've been a little less angsty.
6. Alex's Suicide Attempt
Although Alex isn't a main character in the series, he's mentioned often enough, usually in Ducky's books, that his suicide attempt is a major, shocking event. The boy's depression, therapy sessions, and stays in the hospital make most of the other characters' problems look trivial. Except for Maggie. Her life kind of sucks.
7. Those Titles
This may not be a specific moment, but you can't talk about the melodramatic aspects of California Diaries without mentioning its titles. Each book was labeled as "character: diary one/two/three," with a subheading that was perfectly morose, such as: Sunny. Diary One: Living. Dying. Run. Or: Amalia, Diary Three: Confusion. Pain. Away. And, perhaps the best, most succinct one of all: Maggie, Diary Two: Weight. Problems. Not exactly understated, but that's exactly why we then-12-year-olds loved them so much. And really, who needs subtlety when you have the mature, addicting melodrama that is California Diaries?
Images: Sabrina-WritingCorner/Blogspot; Scholastic