Georgia O’Keeffe. I Love Lucy. The definition of stoic, trepidation, and pariah. Mononucleosis. Insulin. And…Tofu. All things I learned about for the first time from The Baby-Sitters Club. For a time, this long-running series of books absolutely dominated my life — I would fill notebooks with drawings of the characters; I wrote screeds of what I would later come to learn was fan fiction; trips to the library were anticipated like Christmas Day; and I would speed-read new editions in the local book shop in lieu of being able to afford them.
In hindsight, the Baby-Sitters Club could be read as children trapped, via Simpsons-like arrested development, in a cycle of monopolistic corporate capitalism and happiness derived through labor and compliance, which in turn cunningly locked millions of young readers into a long-term purchasing cycle. “The best friends you’ll ever have!” tagline could be a threat or a promise in equal measure. But in the early 90s, seven distinct friends who supported each other through fluctuating family units, social hierarchy, bicoastalism, and degrees of sophistication, with comparable autonomy and financial independence — to me, that was a fantasy world that I longed to be a part of.
Dawn Schafer, one such baby-sitter, debuted four books into the series in 1987, when Whole Foods was only seven years old and terms like wellness, plant-based, and sustainability were decades away from infiltrating our vernacular. Dawn was a child of California and divorce, not to mention the tail end of the hippie movement of the seventies (at least for the first few times the sitters went through eighth grade.) She shook up her new burger-loving East Coast friends because she was a proud vegetarian for whom carrot sticks were a sublime treat. Now, chaos and mundanity are evenly weighted in the Baby-Sitters Club books. The outfit your narrator chose to wear that day is described with the same loving detail afforded to the time the babysitters got shipwrecked on a deserted island. And with every single new book in the series, the narrator would carefully outline each babysitter’s life story as though it was your very first time meeting them. As such, readers were exposed to the idea of Dawn’s vegetarianism a whole lot.
In a series as vast and increasingly ghost-written as this continuity errors and extrapolation of personality traits are an inevitability. Sometimes Dawn describes herself as not being a strict vegetarian, sometimes she lectures people about eating “cow carcasses.” At several points Dawn actually seems pescatarian, and there are a few double-take moments where she eats chicken. But for a character introduced well over thirty years ago, Dawn was pretty radical.
“I eat no red meat, and I find sugary things absolutely disgusting. Whole grains, sprouts, tofu, organic vegetables — I love natural, healthy foods. Okay. Are you done saying “Ew” and pretending to barf? Good. A lot of kids feel the same way, but you know what? I’m shrugging. It doesn’t matter to me. That’s the way I am, and I’m pretty happy about it.”
Right on, Dawn.
While she does acknowledge that some people think it’s strange, her refusal to eat red meat is nevertheless highly normalized and a part of who she is. When she’s with the Baby-Sitters Club, they always arrange to have healthy, meat-free snacks for her. When she’s with her like-minded family and friends in California, they talk about vegetable chimichangas, soba noodle salads, fifteen-grain bread and cashew butter as if it’s second nature. For me, a girl in New Zealand growing up eating microwaved vegetables and meat pies, I thought this was incredible.
Dawn encourages the kids she’s looking after to write to the president to demand environmental action; she organizes a recycling plant at her school; and she teaches people about biodegradability, pollution, and conservation.
Dawn is a polarizing character amongst book fans — she lacks Mary Anne’s sweetness, Claudia’s humor and creativity, Stacey’s glamour, or even Mallory’s undeniable downtrodden pathos. Dawn could be single-minded and didactic, overly righteous and self-absorbed. But through Dawn, we get so much bigger-picture knowledge — she was a girl ahead of her time. The “true individual” descriptor so often pinned to her by the other girls is admittedly redundant, but Dawn really wasn’t afraid to go it alone.
(I also learned what the word “redundant” meant from the Baby-Sitters Club.)
“Do you know that the chemicals used to make Styrofoam are ruining the ozone layer?” (I didn’t realize it but I was practically shouting.) “That causes the greenhouse effect, which is why the Northeast is having a drought right now, and why Texas is getting waterlogged.”
This is from #57 in the series, a book called Dawn Saves The Planet. It was published way back in 1992, but it feels astoundingly fresh and surprisingly politically charged. Dawn encourages the kids she’s looking after to write to the president to demand environmental action; she organizes a recycling plant at her school; and she teaches people about biodegradability, pollution, and conservation. Packaged in the book’s exposition are numerous facts and tips — there’s instructions on how to make bird feeders from milk cartons, and we learn that in one year a dripping tap will leak up to 3000 gallons of water and the US will throw out 65 billion cans.
In an age where single-use plastic bags are slowly being phased out, it’s positively wild to read about Dawn, twenty seven whole years ago, promoting reusable canvas totes for groceries. Throughout this book Dawn becomes obsessed with her ideals and starts to alienate her friends and family, as the shouting in the above quote illustrates. Naturally it’s resolved with a group hug by the end — but in 2019 her urgency feels apt, and only marginally out of line.
Dawn Schafer could be blunt and inconsiderate, and as with all the characters she was occasionally wronged by continuity, not to mention story-generating fatigue from never being allowed to age. But Dawn was also fearless, and so clearly fulfilled by her own self-government. The joy of the Baby-Sitters Club, and one of the key factors to its success, was that each character was wonderfully fully-formed, with distinct personality traits to identify with or aspire to. All the girls brought something to the table from which we could learn — Kristy’s trailblazing entrepreneurial streak, Claudia’s artistic passion. From macrobiotics, to seitan, to the simple joy of tofu, Dawn Schafer expanded our lexicon, and gave us a new idea of what a teen girl could be.