In her monthly column YA of Yore, Frankie Thomas takes a second look at the books that defined a generation.
This is an allegory, but it’s also true: I grew up in Chelsea, the Manhattan neighborhood that was, at the time, the center of gay life in New York. We moved there in 1989, when I was two. I was one of the only children in my neighborhood. There was a park right across the street from my building, but only grown men hung out in it, and I wasn’t allowed to play there. I was enchanted by the rainbow flags that hung from windows in the summertime, but I couldn’t get any adult to tell me what they were for. “Brotherhood,” my preschool teacher told me, and then refused to answer any follow-up questions. In elementary school we had an art teacher who was openly living with AIDS, and every Christmas he had us decorate paper gift bags to donate to a meal service for AIDS patients. When he died, in 1996, I was nine years old and had still never heard the term gay. I was in middle school when I first began to encounter it, but only from classmates, and only as an insult. I was thirteen when I was finally deemed old enough to be told who in our family was openly gay. (My late grandfather, for one. Long story.) I told my ten-year-old brother and got in trouble for upsetting him; he was too young, I was chided, to handle such things.
Such was the cultural cognitive dissonance around homosexuality in the nineties. To say it was a transitional period does not begin to capture the weirdness of growing up internalizing the idea that gay people were deserving of rights, worthy of social acceptance, and outrageously inappropriate to discuss in front of children. This paradox is crystallized in the 1993 Seinfeld episode that gave us the catchphrase “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” That episode won a GLAAD award. So did the first season of Friends, in which every utterance of lesbian was met with uproarious canned laughter, as if the word itself were raunchy and daring—and it was, in 1995.
Gay people were, of course, nonexistent in children’s entertainment. In the nineties, the Scholastic industrial complex would sooner have published a bomb-building manual than include an openly gay character. But the paradigm shifted so rapidly in the mid-2000s that even I am occasionally tempted to judge the books of my childhood by the standards of subsequent decades—hence my long-held, largely irrational grudge against Ann M. Martin.
Ann M. Martin was the creator of the Baby-Sitters Club series, a blockbuster hit for Scholastic that ran from 1986 to 2000 and sold 176 million copies. There were hundreds of books in the series, all of which took place in a heterosexual hellscape of babies and boyfriends as far as the eye could see. This was the golden age of ghostwriting, and Martin was not the true author of the vast majority of the books, but her name and face and cutesy bio (“She likes ice cream, the beach, and I Love Lucy, and she hates to cook”) appeared on each one; she was as familiar as an aunt. When the news came out in 2016 that she was a lesbian, I was surprised by the uncomplicated rejoicing among my queer-woman cohort, and then surprised by the force of my own resentment. My knee-jerk reaction, I’m not proud to say, was: So what? What did she ever do for us?
Poor Ann M.! It wasn’t her fault, and it surely gave her no pleasure, that The Baby-Sitters Club was such an anodyne fantasy of straight childhood. How, in the nineties, could it possibly have been otherwise?
Except it almost was. It came close, once.
In 1997, a new Baby-Sitters Club spin-off called California Diaries began to appear on supermarket shelves. The crossover character was Dawn Schafer, and the occasion for the spin-off was her relocation from Connecticut to California. The cover art of this new series signaled forcefully that it would not contain babysitting. Rejecting the original BSC’s kiddy aesthetic of letter blocks and pastels, the California Diaries had matte covers with soft-focus photographs of gorgeous, unsmiling teens. They were plunging into pool water, or sprawling on disheveled bedsheets, or just gazing sadly into the distance. Sometimes, at first glance, they even appeared to be naked. In a word, they were sexy—a quality heretofore utterly alien to the BSC universe. The California Diaries clearly communicated, without having to say it explicitly, that they were for mature readers, those who had grown far too cool for the Baby-Sitters Club. I was ten years old, and I was instantly hooked.
I can only assume that Scholastic didn’t think it through, because the spin-off’s fundamental flaw was obvious from the start: with the original Baby-Sitters Club series still ongoing, the California Diaries could not violate the Groundhog Day timeline of the BSC universe, in which characters were not permitted to age past eighth grade. They got around this, sort of, with the belabored premise that Dawn and her California friends were transferred from their overcrowded middle school to a high school building, which placed them in tantalizing proximity to high schoolers. With the main characters permanently stunted at age thirteen, though, the potential for sexiness was limited. Alcohol was consumed, but never by the first-person narrator, who could only look on disapprovingly until the drinking was punished. Anorexia was suffered and cured within a single book. There was no problem that could not be solved by confiding in a trusted adult (except when Sunny Winslow’s mom died of cancer, but that wasn’t sexy). No one even kissed with tongue.
And amid all this edgy chastity there was Ducky McCrae, the only boy and only bona fide high schooler (a sophomore) in the core cast. He hung out with Dawn and her fellow eighth graders because his peers bullied him. You might expect this arrangement to generate some romantic tension, but Ducky’s relationship with the girls was purely platonic. He went shopping with them. He listened sympathetically to their virginal dating dilemmas and had none of his own.
It’s difficult to describe Ducky without sounding like I’m speaking in coy euphemisms, flapping my wrist suggestively, as if trying to talk over the heads of children: he was sensitive, if you know what I mean. He enjoyed fashion and Broadway musicals, if you know what I mean. He was just one of the girls, if you know what I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Have you ever played Taboo? It’s a card-based party game in the tradition of Charades. You draw a card with a secret word on it (say, mustard), and you must convey this word to the group without uttering it or any of the related forbidden words on the card (yellow, condiment, spread, Dijon, hot dog). “It’s a … flavor agent … used on grilled meats … and a weaponized gas in World War I,” you sputter, until someone shouts “Mustard!” or time runs out.
Reading the California Diaries is like an endless game of Taboo in which the secret word is always gay and time always runs out. At the climax of Ducky: Diary One (book 5), Ducky is taunted by a male classmate: “You can’t change, can you? … I give you all these chances to be a NORMAL GUY, and what do you do? Act like a WIMP. Maybe that’s the way you ARE, huh? Maybe there’s a REASON you can’t meet girls! Maybe I’m wasting my breath and all these guys are RIGHT about you—” The bully is quickly cut off before he can specify what, exactly, “all these guys” are speculating.
The series liked to use wimp as a stand-in for the unsayable word. In Dawn: Diary Three (book 11), Ducky is the target once again, and the reaction makes no sense unless you mentally swap it out for a different word:
“You know what? You are a wimp,” Sunny said to Ducky … “No wonder your friends are a bunch of thirteen-year-old girls. Guys think you’re a dweeb, and girls your own age don’t even look twice at you.” … Ducky cast his eyes to the floor. For a moment, no one said a word … I was much more worried about the stricken look on Ducky’s face. I knew how he felt, or thought I did. He felt the way I would feel … if he had just insulted me in the most hurtful way he could think of.
It takes Ducky two entire books to forgive Sunny for the cruelty of her outburst. (I mean, she called him the w-slur!) By Ducky: Diary Three (book 15), he is reconciled with Sunny but troubled by his lack of attraction to her:
I’m not very good at guy things. And I just don’t get it. It’s like all the other guys have this book of rules that someone forgot to give me.
Or maybe I got the book, but some of the pages were left out.
Or maybe I got a different book? Is there more than one book of how to be a guy? …
What am I?
Am I a failed guy?
Suddenly, in the next paragraph, he seems to realize something he can’t quite articulate:
Wait a minute: Just because I’m not IN LOVE with Sunny doesn’t make me a failure. And there are plenty of guys who cook (aka RICH AND FAMOUS CHEFS) and like cool clothes (ROCK STARS, MOVIE GUYS).
Still, if I understood this whole guy thing, would I feel so freaked out about Sunny?
I work in a bookstore. Where on the shelves is the book on how to be a GUY???
Ducky: Diary Three came out in 2000, by which point I was thirteen and hyperattuned to all things Ducky McCrae. Reading about him felt like trying to hear my favorite song on a just-out-of-range radio station, waiting anxiously for the static to clear. I was beginning to suspect that the unspeakable g-word might apply to me, and I kept careful track of books that dared to deploy it. In the entire Animorphs series it appeared exactly twice. (Spin-off book Megamorphs 4, Tobias: “Was it really true that [this cultlike organization] didn’t care if you were young or old, male, female, black, white, Asian, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, straight, gay, rich, or poor?” Book 23, The Pretender, Tobias again: “Hard to imagine humans welcoming [Hork-Bajir aliens] into the local Boy Scout troop when they couldn’t even manage to tolerate some gay kid.”) A minimal gesture, but it rocked my world. It’s a major reason I remember Animorphs so fondly, and a major reason I soured on Ann M. Martin. If nerdy old Animorphs could say the word, was it too much to hope that the sexy California Diaries would go there?
It was. Ducky was never allowed to figure out why he wasn’t attracted to girls. Ducky: Diary Three is the final book in the series. The above-quoted “What am I?” reverie ends, unresolved, with Ducky at his bookstore job, staring curiously at a collection of poetry:
It’s a mix. Whitman. Adrienne Rich. And Baudelaire.
Maybe I’ll have to check them out sometime.
“Come on! Whitman!” I imagine the ghostwriters shouting in a last desperate attempt to win this unwinnable game of Taboo. “Fucking Adrienne Rich!” But that clue was too esoteric for me. Whom was it intended for? Whom was any of it intended for? If this thwarted coming-out narrative was meant as a coded reassurance for readers like me, it failed: for my thirteen-year-old self, Ducky McCrae never inspired hope or courage or anything but closeted despair.
On the other hand, he’s never left me. Every now and then I catch myself wondering what became of him, as if he were a real guy I used to know. I wish I could somehow liberate him from the California Diaries and replant him in a different book where you can say gay without breaking the laws of the universe. Perhaps some part of me will always be holding Ducky: Diary Three in my hands, studying the page where Ducky is studying the poetry book in his own hands, the two of us a recursive image of reading in the nineties, searching for something that can’t speak its name.
Author’s note: This essay owes its existence to Christy Admiraal’s podcast The California Diarists, on which I appeared as a guest in five episodes.
Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.