The REadWind series gets contributors to re-read the books they haven’t read in years and self-reflect. The goal is to explore how the contributors’ growth as a person plays a role in their experience in revisiting the book. Do they still like/hate it? How has it changed? Why?
Growing up, my mother ran a small daycare out of our basement, with anywhere from two to ten kids (usually pairs of siblings) as charges. Kids would come by, before or after school, until it was either time to head off to class that day, or time for their parents to come pick them up. When the weather was bad (usually during the terrible prairie winter,) or if a kid was sick and couldn’t move around a whole lot, it was my job to read them a story so that they’d stay entertained.
That made sense, because reading was what I did to stay entertained too, since it was the late 80s/very early 90s and we didn’t have cable (a fact about which my mom’s babysitting charges often complained.) Incidentally, one of the charges’ parents brought over some of her eldest daughter’s old books for me. I gleefully took the stack to my room and spread the titles out on my bed to examine the various covers. There was an assortment of Sweet Valley High (these very blonde, Doublemint-commercial twins looked much older and more confident than I was!), Sleepover Friends (I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at anyone’s house, especially on a school night!), and a yellow book whose alphabet-block font boasted a club of babysitters. Babysitting! That was something I knew about. Instead of a group of girls having fun on the cover, there was a concerned brunette in pigtails taking a sick child’s temperature. Unlike the girls on the other covers, she didn’t look like she was having much fun. As it turns out, though, I didn’t need to worry, because, as the book’s title promised, Mary Anne Saves the Day. And who wouldn’t want to save the day?
So I plucked Mary Anne from the pile and was immediately delighted by the fact that she was the one telling the story, as opposed to some unnamed third-person voice. I didn’t know the name for it then, but even as a 9-year-old, I never really trusted books told in third person as much as ones where I felt like the narrator was a friend telling a story just to me. And the more Mary Anne told me about herself, the more I realized that not only was Mary Anne a lot like me, but Mary Anne’s Dad was like my Dad. This was huge, as with most of the books I’d read before, Dads had been barely present, or pretty chill. Mr. Quimby in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series comes to mind- he smoked! He drew! He wanted to be a teacher! I’d never read a book about a girl with an overprotective Dad before, and I was hooked. I wanted to read everything I could about this new friend and her life, a friend who was so much like me in so many ways. She was smart but quiet, tidy and organized, wore generic clothes that her strict Dad picked out, had a nondescript hairstyle, and was definitely the plain-Jane, good-girl type, and not necessarily even by choice. Having read exactly zero books featuring South Asian girls my age (or featuring any PoC really, other than maybe Judy Blume’s Iggie’s House, which was specifically About Race in a pretty political way) I identified with Mary Anne so much that I’d essentially Mary Sue’d myself (Mary Anne’d myself?) into her, and had unconsciously read my own ethnicity onto her, assuming in my head that she and her Dad were also brown.
Though Mary Anne Saves the Day (and subsequent BSC titles) was sure to mention, in troubling exoticist language, to boot, that fellow BSC member Claudia Kishi was Japanese-American, child-me never really thought about what that might have meant, because I couldn’t relate to Claudia at all— even though I also have “almond-shaped eyes” and was frequently mistaken for Asian-Canadian when I wore my own jet black hair pulled back. Physically, I may have looked more like Claudia than like any other member of the BSC, but she and I were nothing alike. As a child-nerd (as opposed to the adult-nerd I am now,) Claudia’s bad grades, and the terrible spelling in her journal entries, frustrated me. Growing up with a Dad like Mary Anne’s also meant that couldn’t understand why Claudia’s parents would let her have a phone in her room at all – especially if she was so bad at school.
Upon rereading, part of the answer to this might have had to do with the fact that Claudia’s folks likely weren’t first-generation Americans, because Mimi, Claudia’s grandmother and close friend to Mary Anne, was! And of course looking back on it, Claudia was a great character who defied many an ethnic stereotype— actually, she (and Vietnamese adoptee Alison from Judy Blume’s Just as Long As We’re Together) makes me wonder if maybe, the first Cool Girls in middle-grade literature were Asian. More to the point, though, unlike her genius older sister Janine, Claudia didn’t behave like a model minority.
But, even though her race was never explicitly mentioned (and in 1991,the default was definitely white) the most obvious model minority of the BSC, in my mind, Mary Anne Spier. Unlike side-character Janine, whose genius and confident know-it-all behavior frequently afforded her the opportunity to assert herself, Mary Anne upheld model minority myths in even more subtle ways, specifically because she never drew attention to herself. And I think that a lot of not wanting to draw attention to yourself, for a lot of young WoC (or at least, certainly for me,) comes from a place of already being visibly different. Enter the internal struggle of, as Mary Anne puts it, wanting to “create a sensation, but not attract any attention.”
And sure enough, one of the first things Mary Anne lets us know is how she’d “give anything to be Stacey [McGill],” the proto-hipster BSC member from New York City, blonde-haired, blue-eyed and sophisticated. When I was younger, my family would sometimes take weekend trips across the border and go to North Dakota, especially if we needed back to school clothes. Whenever I was at a mall down there, I’d marvel at the cliques of Staceys and couldn’t help agreeing with Mary Anne, thinking that Stacey was what a teenage girl was “supposed” to look like. Thanks, overwhelming whiteness of 90s beauty standards!
All kidding aside, Mary Anne’s secret desire to be Stacey is pretty important in the context of the BSC fight that kicks off this book. Claudia calls out club president Kristy for accepting a job without asking around to see who else was free that evening, and the fight escalates from there. Mary Anne mostly stays out of it (hating confrontation, as she does) until Stacey, the person Mary Anne most wants to be, points out her difference by calling her “a shy little baby.” Of course Mary Anne would have liked to have Stacey’s confidence and sophistication, which is why that insult likely hurt more coming from Stacey than it would have from anyone else. Consider also that before this book, Mary Anne had only been seen through the eyes of the other BSC members, which is also how we as readers saw her. So, Stacey’s comment about Mary Anne’s immaturity only reinforces our heroine’s own fear of being perceived in this way.
Understandably, it’s this particular comment that causes Mary Anne to finally snap: “’Maybe I am shy,’ I said loudly, edging toward the door. ‘And maybe I am quiet, but you guys cannot step all over me. You want to know what I think? I think you, Stacey, are a conceited snob.’” Mary Anne’s insult is especially apt considering her own perspective and perception of both herself and Stacey—Mary Anne’s frustration has caused her to label Stacey’s confidence as conceitedness, and Stacey’s sophistication as snobbery. More importantly though, “snobs” deal almost solely in politics of exclusion, taking it upon themselves to decide what/who isn’t cool and what/who does and doesn’t belong in certain spaces, or, more specifically in the spaces that they themselves frequent.
And the BSC as a business was supposed to sit for babies, not be babies themselves. If Mary Anne was seen as a baby, it was because her Dad was overprotective, and if I had needed any more convincing at the time that Mary Anne was a WoC, this was it – the act of being told, by a glamorous big-city blonde, no less, that she didn’t belong, essentially because the rules at her house were different. Claudia belonged because she was cool (likely since her sense of style put her on equal footing with Stacey, nevermind that the rules at Claud’s house seemed really lax in comparison,) but where did that leave Mary Anne?
On her own, a lot. We got to see her make friends with Dawn Schafer, another new girl, from California. Notably, upon meeting Dawn, Mary Anne immediately judges her appearance with the ire of a thousand brown Aunties, remarking that Dawn “wasn’t exactly pretty… but she was pleasant, which was more important.” This made me laugh out loud upon a reread; Mary Anne’s pettiness was real, and somehow only made her more endearing.
The time alone afforded to Mary Anne as a result of the fight also meant that we got to know the intricacies of her home-life and her relationship with her Dad. Richard Spier’s rules were dated, for sure, but so were the rules at my house. My classmates were allowed to have sleepovers on school nights. Kids that my mom sat for were allowed to stay out later than I was, even though they were younger, and I was also only allowed to talk on the phone if it was about homework. As for Richard, I never considered how hard it might have been to be a single Dad to a daughter, with no discernible family to help out, and a demanding job on top of it. As a kid, I had just assumed Mary Anne’s Dad was strict because of course, Brown Dads were strict.
Reading, then, about how Mary Anne interacted with her Dad only reinforced for me how much she and I were alike. She was a serious student with a perfectionist streak (partially because of her strict Dad) and possibly even OCD, counting noises compulsively. She put a lot of pressure on herself to do well, partially so that she could let her Dad know she was doing well. Mary Anne definitely used grades as a bargaining chip, which is something I also did as a kid. Getting good grades in my house (and in Mary Anne’s house) meant that you were being responsible, and being responsible meant that you could perhaps earn certain privileges, like being able to do fun stuff with your friends once in a while. Reading about how Mary Anne built a case for herself to be able to stay out later, and how anxious she had been about approaching her Dad at the exact right time, only to get her request denied, resonated so strongly with me especially upon a reread – I’d always been an anxious kid too, and as much as I wanted to fight for some independence, I knew that arguing rarely worked, especially when it was with your parents. So did Mary Anne, likely for the same reason, and especially given that her Dad argued for a living (he was a lawyer) and wasn’t always super approachable because of his high-stress job.
It was especially interesting then, to see how Mary Anne, who came from a House of Rules, dealt with a babysitting charge for whom there didn’t seem to be any rules at all. Jenny Prezzioso was worse than the most unruly of any of my mom’s charges, and was likely this way because it seemed like her folks weren’t around much. Instead of Richard’s helicopter parenting, Jenny’s folks just let her do whatever she wanted, with no real consequences or discipline. That Mary Anne was able to be so patient and level-headed with Jenny (with help from Dawn) was particularly impressive, sure, but it was also so much like my Dad that Richard only believed Mary Anne to actually be mature and responsible when she received praise from other parents. What this meant for Mary Anne is that because Mr. Prezzioso calls Mr. Spier to commend Mary Anne on how she handled Jenny’s very high fever, Mr. Spier is so impressed that he allows Mary Anne to stay out later on babysitting jobs.
Having received both praise from Jenny’s parents and from her own Dad, as well as an extended curfew, Mary Anne finally felt as though she did belong in the BSC after all, and set about making sure that the club didn’t end for good – with everyone else still feuding in the middle of an important birthday party-sitting job, Mary Anne takes charge and calls an emergency meeting so that everyone else stops acting, so to speak, like babies. Essentially, the BSC club fight finally ends because the other club members listened to Mary Anne, proving that the loudest voice isn’t always automatically correct (sorry, Kristy!) This was a pretty important thing that child-me picked up on from having read Mary Anne Saves the Day, and the payoff from Mary Anne’s decision to stick up for herself made me want to be more assertive too, even if being heard meant drawing attention to myself.
I was also overjoyed that, in Logan Likes Mary Anne (the next BSC book written from Mary Anne’s perspective), Mary Anne is the one that new boy Logan Bruno gets a crush on, instead of glamorous, confident Stacey (who of course chats him up first!) and that Mary Anne’s Dad continued to allow her small freedoms (he even gives her his credit card so she can buy an outfit to wear to the dance with Logan, and allows her to get a kitten). He even allows Mary Anne to get a super short haircut and new wardrobe in Mary Anne’s Makeover (because what was the 90s without a teen-makeover plot?)
As I kept reading the series, I remember rooting for Mary Anne the most. I don’t think I ever stopped thinking of Mary Anne and her Dad as brown like me, either, especially in contrast to California girl Dawn and her mom Sharon, whom Mr. Spier ends up marrying in a later book (the pair actually dated in high school, but Sharon’s parents didn’t approve of him—looks like Richard had a hard time finding acceptance too!) After marrying Sharon, Richard loosens up even more, but there are still adjustments with the Schafer-Spiers sharing space (see: Dawn’s Wicked Stepsister), mostly due to Sharon and Richard’s differences in parenting styles (which I definitely, unconsciously also read as culturally-based.)
Looking back on Mary Anne Saves the Day, though, it was specifically the plot of that particular story that lent itself so well to reading Mary Anne as brown – though feeling like you’re not enough and having to prove you belong are pretty universal themes, they really do take on additional implications as a WoC, especially when the majority of your peers are white. Oddly enough, I recently also picked up Raina Telegmeier’s graphic novel adaptation of Mary Anne Saves the Day, half-looking for a small brown girl with thick hair and slumped shoulders, hiding in the back. But of course she wasn’t there (even though Claudia somehow had dyed purple hair, and Stacey’s outfits were definitely toned down, with her signature perm looking more like a body wave.) Given all of these other changes, a racebent Mary Anne would have been a welcome addition, especially since Telegmeier seems to have no issue writing WoC in her other work).
But, even in 2015, Brown Mary Anne was still only headcanon, even though, in 1991, she came into existence for a couple of important reasons that I didn’t realize until later on. Consciously or not, even my nine-year-old self must have known (or at least, have felt) that representation really does matter. My own negotiation of fan identity as a WoC likely even started here, because I still didn’t see myself culturally represented in a protagonist whose specific experiences otherwise matched mine almost exactly. Not having the option to see myself in Mary Anne Saves the Day, I’d instead created a space for myself (or, a counternarrative, if we want to get fancy) by reading Mary Anne as my Mary Anne, that is to say, as brown like me. This small act of something like resistance meant that maybe I could be Mary Anne (even the confident version at the end of the book!) and that fully imagining her as myself meant, in some way, that I was enough, that I was also worthy of a story of my own, one in which I too could maybe even save the day.