PHBC2: The Baby-Sitter by R.L Stine

babysitterWhat’s it all about?

Christmas is just around the corner so day-dreamer Jenny Jeffers accepts a job as a baby-sitter for the Hagens. Just her luck that the family live in a house direct from your worst nightmares AND there’s been a recent series of attacks on young baby-sitters. Perhaps she should have gone to Afghanistan to be on the safer side. As soon as she starts, Jenny starts receiving menacing phone-calls, people lurking outside and sinister messages in her school bag. The phantom childcare basher has his, or her, sights fixed firmly on Jenny.

The Girl

After last month’s epic character fail, I’m pleased to say Jenny is a MUCH more pleasant specimen. Jenny Jeffers is a fully realised high school girl, far better painted than many contempory YA characters. Stine quickly establishes Jenny as a girl with a vivid imagination, which helpfully explains why she later chooses to remain at the Hagen house: ‘She was always trying to make the world more interesting than it actually was.‘ Amen to that sister. Later, Jenny ponders her own cautious nature: ‘Why had she been so reluctant? Because she preferred imagining things to actually doing them.’ Take that John Green.

DemiAs if putting a picture of her on the front wasn’t enough, Stine helpfully does all the imagining for the reader: ‘You shouldn’t put yourself down. You look just like that actress Demi Moore.’ Here is what Demi Moore looked like as a sixteen year old.

It’s also worth noting that Jenny does VERY well not to punch Donny, the precocious brat she’s in charge of, in the face.




The Love Interest

After last month’s highly confusing love square, Jenny gets just one PLI (Potential Love Interest) in the hunky, yet goofy, form of Chuck. He’s described as follows: ‘He had a dimple in his right cheek. With the curly blond hair and all the freckles on his face, he looked like Huck Finn.’ From this point on, I shall be using my sister’s 1990s board game ‘Heartthrob’ to ID the Point Horror love interests. If you can’t remember it, here’s a reminder:

Sadly for Jenny, I feel ‘Jerry’ is most like Chuck (there isn’t an actual Chuck in the UK version – again, see above). One look at the picture should confirm that Chuck is a mega dickhead. OK, let’s be fair. From the evidence in the book (hiding under Jenny’s table to peer up her skirt, lurking outside the window in a Halloween mask) it seems pretty likely that Chuck has what we would now call ADHD. That doesn’t stop him being really annoying. More annoyingly, after each irritating thing he does, he provides Jenny with a glimmer of honesty and she thinks this is mega hot. I’m gonna try that on dates from now on. ‘I only went out with you because I like your arms. Let’s face it, there’s no gym on earth for your face…I’m sorry, I have intimacy issues so I lash out.’ I wonder how well that’ll go down.

ChuckWith his serious boundary issues, it’s no wonder Chuck is firmly in the frame as a suspect. In fact, without giving too much away, he’s ALSO a suspect in The Baby-Sitter II, in which he’s replaced by the far, far sexier Cal as Jenny’s main piece.

Dialogue Disasters: Please – this is RL Stine, his dialogue is fantastic. Jenny gets a believable mate called Laura who rings especially true – she crashes Jenny’s job as a make-out venue for her string of lovers and Donny, although a brat, is also well-realised. However, if I was forced to pull some choice lines…

‘Wipe that fiendish look off your face this instant!’ and ‘I didn’t kill any baby!‘ are perhaps a *tad* hysterical.

Body Count: 1

Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes. Jenny’s mum and Mrs Hagen also feature.

Is it scary? In places, certainly. On her first night Jenny meets neighbour ‘Willers’ only to later discover the house next door has been empty for months. A scene where Jenny investigates a ‘strange noise’ in the garden is also effective. I think police liaison officers should be in our schools teaching young people what do when they hear ‘strange noises’ in back gardens. Answer: lock the effing door and hide in a cupboard. Never: Go outside with a torch.

There is also an Elm Street-ish quality to the fact that Jenny HAS to keep returning to the Hagen house. With each evening, you start to dread what will await Jenny at her job. Stine deals with this quite well – Jenny handles the situation pretty much as any of us would, including calling the police, locking the doors etc.

The only down side is that Stine relies on ‘shocks’ for scares. This is almost impossible to do in print. There are a series of BANG, BOOM and YAIIIIs to represent ‘jumps’ but these don’t really come off. They would on screen, but as a reader, the capitalisation drew my eye at once, actually spoiling the surprise slightly.

Did the best friend do it? No. But you will figure out who did.

Is it good? Very good. Much better than Trick or Treat. There’s a reason RL Stine is rightly considered the Godfather of teen horror. The characters are rounded and sympathetic, the set pieces are excellent, the villain has good motivation. The Baby-Sitter could sit confidently next to any recent YA. If anything there’s an ease to it – it feels current and modern. Unlike like some current, overwrought, over-seasoned YA, it isn’t trying to be something it’s not, it’s simply a well-written, pacy thriller aimed at readers exactly like Jenny Jeffers.

Over to you!

Some questions to consider:

1. At what stage would you have quit the baby-sitting position? Would you have taken it in the first place?

2. What do you think Jenny sees in Chuck?

3. Do you think Jenny’s a good baby-sitter?

4. What do you keep in your SHOEBOX OF SECRETS?

5. What do you think happens to Mrs Hagen and Donny after the novel ends?

Join us on the 13th July when we shall be discussing FUNHOUSE by DIANE HOH.




‘Gendered’ Covers and Cover Flipping

The brilliant Maureen Johnson is a fantastic advocate for both women’s and author’s rights in the field of YA publishing. She’s a New York Times best-selling author who has been very vocal about the different covers male and female authors seem to get. Johnson rallied her Twitter followers to take well known books by both genders and ‘flip’ the design. The results were very funny, but also very telling.

The thing is though, I have a winky AND I’m an author, but I have had two covers which I think would fall into the ‘female authors’ category. Here are my first two book covers:

Hollow PikeCruel Summer_FC_hi-res






















Click on each image for a bigger version. That was good fun, please excuse my LIMITED Photoshop skills.*

I think it’s really important to state that I LOVE both of my original covers. YES, they are very different, but I think they are exactly right for the time of year at which they were released. Cruel Summer was designed for the summer holiday market as it comes out first week of the hols. Perfect. I also think neither cover fell prey to the ‘headless girl’ syndrome, ‘girl in ball gown’ syndrome, ‘dangerously thin cartoon girl’ syndrome or ‘wistful girl in field of daisies’ syndrome. I suppose my books prove that not all male authors get neutral, graphic covers. So why did I, a man, get arguably ‘female’ covers?

Is it because I is gay? No. At least I bloody hope not. The incredibly talented designer, Laura, probably didn’t know. I’ve said this elsewhere, but there was a brief conversation as to whether girls would be keener on my books if I was (potentially female) JM Dawson instead of James Dawson. My awesome publicist quickly took that idea outside and buried it because it makes NO sense to hide authors. I’m very grateful I’m not the new JT LeRoy. I was very lucky in that I was invited to discuss both covers with my editor, and my opinions were very much taken into consideration. It was explained to me the reason we needed beautiful girls on the cover was to signify to the (mainly female) readership that this was a novel for them.

Can open, worms everywhere. What are girl things? What are boy things? I talk about this at length in Being A Boy, but publishing does seem to work around the assumption that girls like hearts, flowers and PINK, and boys like guns, skulls and BLUE. I suspect, for example, that my dear friend Will Hill’s Department 19 books are being aimed at boys (although are widely loved by girls and features one of my favourite female YA characters). In an appeal to reach the broadest possible readership, publishers (I guess) look for cover trends and what is selling especially well at the time. When first planning Hollow Pike, Lauren Kate and Becca Fitzpatrick were leading the pack.

But what about TFiOS? At John Green’s recent appearance at London Cadogan Hall, an audience that I’d say was about 80% female screamed, cheered and wept for YA’s spiritual leader. His covers are stylish, graphic and gender neutral. They also sold a gazillion copies. The Hunger Games and Divergent also have gender neutral covers and are best-sellers. The affliction seems to particularly effect supernatural or contemp fiction written by women. On the back of TFiOS, perhaps we’ll see more graphic covers (Like Wonder, More Than This, Noble Conflict, The Eternity Cure etc).

Is it because the book is ABOUT a girl? No. Hollow Pike is about a girl (Lis London) but Cruel Summer is MOSTLY about Ryan Hayward, a boy. Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy boasts one of the most nuanced female characters in YA, Viola, yet have graphic covers. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses sequence (although notably avoiding people of colour on the covers) were graphic. We’ve already discussed The Hunger Games and Divergent.

“Fluffy, romantic beach reads”? Johnson uses her own novel, The Key to the Golden Firebird, as an example where a distinctly unfluffy subject matter is made to look like a forgotten Audrey Hepburn screwball comedy. One can only assume such covers sell really well, otherwise publishers wouldn’t do it. However, they arguably lack integrity and fail to convey the themes of the novel – also a risk.

Is it misogyny? Hard to say. The publishing industry, especially children’s and YA, is more or less balanced in terms of women and men in positions of power. I was talking the other day about a very well known TV writer who seems, rather than HATING women, to have simply forgotten about them. I wonder if it’s laziness more than misogyny. It’s EASIER to stick with proven sales trends. It’s SAFE to assume that ‘the average woman’ like certain colours and designs. That said, I think that’s its own kind of misogyny – not thinking about women at all is a horrible side-effect of male dominated culture. Is it OK for a female character to be one-dimensional as long as she’s not depicted as an apron-wearing, child-caring, soufflé chef? Oh, wait.

Why it’s not good enough. I really hope she won’t mind me using her book as an example, but one of my favourite books of last year, What’s Up With Jody Barton? by the hugely talented Hayley Long, threw up a dilemma. The cover is so, SO pink that I actually chose not to read it in public (and this is the guy currently reading Point Horrors on the Underground). Jody Barton is as relevant, moving and funny as TFiOS and just as important because there are so few books featuring LGBTQ characters. The TFiOS cover can be read by anyone, the Jody Barton cover is a pantone I could only refer to as ‘Barbie’. I feel like a total shit for saying that, but I love Hayley and the book and you should ALL read it. It should be studied in schools, but as a teenage boy I’d have sooner ripped my eyes out than be seen with that cover in public. Here’s the cover, so you can decide for yourselves.

Jody BartonIf you’re reading this, I guess you’re a big YA fan or possibly an author, so perhaps we spend more time worrying about this stuff. We also know what a book is about sometimes before we see the cover, so it doesn’t matter – we often read books DESPITE their covers. I’m more concerned about casual readers (male or female) who wouldn’t pick up a powerful book like Jody Barton because it’s stereotypically ‘girly’.

Maureen Johnson wrote a fantastic follow up to her original piece called Coverflip – What Now? She suggests there are several ways in which readers can make their voices heard. A key message is – IT’S YOUR CHOICE. It’s OK to like any covers you like. All art is subjective and that’s what book covers should be – they should be arresting, beautiful, intriguing objects d’art! Like what you like, read what you like, but ALWAYS read the blurb!

I wanted to write this piece because I think I prove that not ALL male authors get one sort of cover. I think it’s about so much more than the gender of the author, but that’s not to say there isn’t a problem. Anything gender typed in a stereotypical fashion is going to make a percentage of young people feel like freaks for liking something they shouldn’t like. I was one such freak for most of the 80s and 90s.

What do you think? Which versions of Hollow Pike and Cruel Summer do you prefer? Are ‘gendered covers’ simply good sense marketing wise or do they reflect a limited view of women, or worse, all out misogyny?

*Raven image ‘Inquisition’ courtesy of Larry Vienneau. Check his faboluz Etsy store HERE.