As a reader, I have always felt the need to be able to sink into a character, to identify with their moods, their actions, their motivations. As a young reader, this kinship was more superficial: did I look like the character? Were they interested in the same things as me? How much were they like me, and how much were they like I wanted to be?
There are few book series that enabled this tendency more than The Baby-Sitters Club. Reading about capable, creative, independent teens a few years shy of entering those golden years for myself not only contributed to my skewed perspective of adolescence - Saved by the Bell is also to blame - but also provided my weird little soul several comfortable archetypes to try on.
I wanted to be Dawn. She was cool, easy going, and could wear an embellished denim jacket with effortless style. Her hair was hippie-long and blonde, two things mine would never be. She cared about the planet and people listened.
But she didn't eat chocolate, and I just wasn't down for that. So I couldn't, wouldn't be Dawn.
Mary Anne was closer to home. She was bookish, reserved, wore a lot of sensible skirts and saddle shoes. She had brown hair - bonus - and her dad was super strict and picked out all of her clothes. My mother may have dressed me through eighth grade, maybe. Not telling.
But Mary Ann had Logan, and for a girl who didn't get kissed until just before her eighteenth birthday, I felt that Mary Anne's ability to acquire and keep a boyfriend was essential to her character. And fraternizing with boys? Not my strong suit. Mary Anne just wasn't me.
In retrospect, I was really a Mallory. Anxious, eager to prove herself, with literary aspirations enough for the whole BSC. Glasses, braces, wild hair. Her family was a mess and her best friend her life line. I just never wanted to be Mallory. She didn't feature prominently in any of the Super Specials, which were my favorite because they were thick and featured the girls' handwriting fonts. She was a junior member - and thus junior in my esteem.
At the time, none of the baby sitters felt like a perfect fit, which I judged as a personal deficiency, rather than an issue with an ensemble cast of fictional, suburban tweens. I had the same problem with The Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Unicorn Club, Animorphs, with any middle grade fodder offering me more than one female character to latch onto. I wanted to see me in what I was reading, or at least someone near enough that I could use their behavior as a model in the rocky waters of middle school.
Is the impulse to find a representative in books still there? Sure. It's complicated now by the fact that as I get older, the heroines I admire, and the heroines I feel compelled to write, are younger than I am. They're grappling with the challenges of youth, new love, and self-discovery, while I am a woman in her mid-30s, married, with two young children and a relatively sound understanding of my heart and mind. Books about women in my situation bore the hell out of me, but I'm quite happy with my life.
Perhaps what's possible now that I've grown up off the page is the ability to let go more easily of who I am because I know exactly who that is. I have the space to let a character be, without needing them to be me.