Title: Five Girls and a Baby
Tagline: The baby-sitting job that won’t end
Summary: When my friends in the Unicorn Club and I took this baby-sitting job, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I just wanted to help out Ms. Kemmer, this great woman who lives down the block. She just got divorced from her husband, and their separation is not exactly friendly. In fact, they’re having a huge custody battle.
I really feel bad for Ms. Kemmer. My parents just split up, and believe me, divorce is no picnic even without a custody fight! I’d do anything to help her, so when her regular baby-sitter couldn’t watch little Annabel, I stepped right in.
But then Ms. Kemmer called with some bad news—she’s stuck in Mexico! It looks like we’ll have to take care of Annabel for days! And we can’t tell anyone, because if her ex-husband finds out, Ms. Kemmer could lose custody of Annabel. But how can you keep a tiny, screaming baby a secret?
On the one hand: this is an Ellen book. On the other, we’ve been on a run of not-great books. I think I’ve come to resent the Unicorn Club series more than SVT. SVT was always spotty, you’d have good books followed by terrible books, you could never find your feet. It started out boringly, moved to bullying, and then got interesting in the first third, then was completely uneven once we got through Grapplegate.
The Unicorn Club started out strong with new characters, the Unicorns being given character growth and the addition of Team Boring to the Unicorns, to give interesting contrast. And then about five minutes later, a Janet Howell expy walked in and set everything back to the most uninspired of statuses: the Unicorns are a bunch of idiotic bitches, and Team Boring only like books. I feel lied to. And while I’m delighted to see an Ellen book, I am really sick of this petty bullshit we’ve had to read about for the past too many books, because the first book in this series promised something vastly different.
If this whole series had been what the first book promised, it would have been amazing. It would have easily become my favourite thing in the Sweet Valley canon. I think people universally agree that the thing that makes the Super Editions/Chillers/etc fun is that Team Unibore have to work together for whatever reason. This could have been a whole series of that. Instead, we’re back to bullying, clothes shopping, and who has the better party. For fuck’s sake.
Ok, so I know that’s not my initial thoughts on this book in particular, but I thought it was fair to give you an idea of where I’m at with this series overall, since that does colour my feelings on each individual book.
[Raven: I’m still a little softer on this series than Dove, but I too long for the earlier books, with the Newnicorns being a great amalgamation of both worlds. Kimberly Haver’s return was a major mistake for me. As for this book… is this the Purple Babysitter’s Club?]
[Wing: I wasn’t as big a fan of the first book as Dove and Raven were, but I much prefer the first few books to what we’ve had lately, the petty back and forth shit about which club is best and who is betraying whom and blah blah blah.
HOWEVER, the premise of this book is so damn ridiculous I might even prefer the petty shit. Plus we’ve already had Unicorns trying to hide a child. We’re only 12 books into this series and even the non-club versus club plots are repeating already. Thanks, I hate it.]
We open with Ellen recapping everything for us, starting from her parents’ divorce, so skipping the bits of the series that I actually enjoyed. She has a lovely turn of phrase, and is completely out of character. I don’t think Ellen would know how to use the word “renaissance” in a sentence.
She tells us that there was a bit of a skirmish over school politics, which she describes as “ridiculous”, rather the actual truth that the Unicorns actually stole something [Raven: Yeah, this reductive retconning pissed me off.]. She claims that because of this Mandy “was actually considering joining up with the Angels”. So… those books where Mandy was not just a member, but actively vying for president didn’t happen? *shrugs* We’re off to a flying start.
Still, all’s well that ends well, so Mandy’s got over her snit with them over their horrible behaviour because fun is the most important thing.
Ellen enjoys being president because it gives her something to focus on, and with her mother on a constant diet and her father having a mid-life crisis (gym, moustache and makeover… um… ok), she needs something normal to think about.
Ellen tries to make the most of her new and disgusting breakfast of oatmeal, while Mark (her brother) says he doesn’t care, because he’s going camping for a week. And on that note, he needs a new sleeping bag. He cannot use Ellen’s because hers is baby-blue/pink reversable, and if he showed up with girl colours, the toxic masculinity that is so rife in Sweet Valley, would pulverise him. He would be nothing but red (gay) mist on the breeze. So he needs his own sleeping bag [Raven: I have some sympathy for him not wanting his sister’s handmedowns]. [Dove: I do too, but mostly I was jabbing at the toxic masculinity that would end a ten year old’s life for showing up with a sleeping bag that was pink on one side.] [Wing: Both worth mocking and sadly believable as to the response he’d get.]
Mrs Riteman, post-divorce announcement, is working to get her real estate licence, which is baffling to this particular Brit, because no qualifications are needed here. Though it is preferred that you’re the wife of a wealthy man – you need to have experience in quaffing champagne elegantly at 3pm, after a hard day’s work. (Disclaimer: I grew up in the British version of Sweet Valley, so every estate agent I’ve ever met was a trophy wife. I’m sure in other areas, people are actually expected to be good at their job. But as far as my home town and Sweet Valley go, champagne quaffing is all that’s needed.) [Raven: All I know about Real Estate in the US I learned from Modern Family. For Estate Agents in the UK, I’m going with Stath Lets Flats, which I’ve not seen yet but it looks ace. And yes, I know it’s lettings rather than sales, but the parallels are there.] [Wing: California requires a license and to get the license, you must pass a real estate salesperson examination. In order to qualify to take the exam in the first place, you must successfully complete three college-level courses: Real Estate Principles, Real Estate Practice, and a third class from a long list that covers things like real estate law, finance, and accounting. I had to look up the specific classes but otherwise knew about the requirements, in part because Ostrich’s mother was a real estate agent in California for awhile.]
Anyway, Ellen and Mark feel as if their needs are not being met, and in fact they’re getting in the way of her life. The only evidence presented is that they don’t have any Corny-Os in the cupboard because Mrs R is on a diet, and Mark wants a sleeping bag that isn’t gay as fuck right now and can’t have one, as Mrs R has commitments (including meeting a fellow divorcee for moral support, and going to class for her Real Estate licence).
I usually love the Ritemans, but I’m willing to hoof both kids into the sea based on this scene alone. Mrs R, you get down with your diet and your learning, you badass woman. If it makes you happy, keep it up!
We cut to Ellen and Jessica at the daycare centre, which is back to being called the daycare centre and not the child care centre, so that’s something, I guess.
Mrs. Willard is the director of the daycare center. Sometimes she takes her job so seriously that you’d think she was running a multi-zillion-dollar operation and that the future of the world depended on its success. Her attitude would really bug me if it weren’t for the fact that Mrs. Willard loves the kids and totally appreciates it when the Unicorns come by to help.
Um. She should take her job seriously. She’s responsible for children. Is Ellen implying that money needs more attention than kids? I feel like I’m not going to get along with this book. Or this version of Ellen.
Mrs Willard then hands Ellen a stack of dirty stinking blankets that turn out to be a baby. Apparently she takes her job so seriously that she doesn’t prep a teen for holding a newborn. Also, this is apparently against the rules, all kids must be three or over. Which is weird, because I’m pretty sure that babies have been at the shelter before [Raven: Yeah, I remember them from Book 1 of this subseries. Weren’t the toddlers /babies in peril in the storm?]
Anyway, this is Annabel, her mother is late picking her up (but why is she there if it’s against the rules?), and now she’s Ellen’s problem. Mrs Willard exits the scene without giving any advice at all. I ranted extensively in the first recap for this series about how cross I’d be if my hypothetical child was foisted off on some tween with no experience and no supervision, and apparently I’d be even more cross now, because that unsupervised and untrained tween can now have my hypothetical newborn.
Ellen manages to get through her first diaper change without knowing how, by imagining she’s the mom in an advert. Ok, cool. And now that the baby doesn’t reek, Ellen thinks she’s kind of adorable.
That is until she starts crying then screaming. Ellen wonders if she swallowed something while she wasn’t looking and runs to Mrs Willard with her yelling that the baby is dying. Mrs Willard says that’s she’s not. And by now the baby is quiet and content again. Ellen says that she doesn’t have a lot of experience with babies, then realises that someone else is in the room. Mrs Kemmer, a neighbour of hers. She’s the baby’s mother.
“Wow, I never would have guessed that Annabel was your baby,” I said. “Though come to think of it, she does look a little like Mr.—”
“Thank you for taking care of her, Ellen,” Ms. Kemmer broke in with a sniffle. She came forward to take Annabel from Mrs. Willard.
In any other series, I would take this exchange to mean that Mr Kemmer is not the father. I mean, that’s exactly what this kind of pointed interruption means in any other fiction, right? But surely not in Sweet Valley. Surely not. [Raven: I think the “Though” in the sentence means it’s likely to have ended with “Mr Kemmer”. Nice idea nontheless.] [Wing: I took that to mean Dove thought that the reason Ms Kemmer interrupted her would, in another series, be because Mr Kemmer wasn’t actually the father and that Ellen was going to say Mr Kemmer anyway.]
(I will be genuinely aghast if that’s the case. And give the series kudos for trying such a scandal in this deeply white-picket-fence series.)
Mrs Kemmer is crying her eyes out and Ellen feels obligated to say something to help, so she offers to babysit if Mrs Kemmer ever needs her.
When Mrs Kemmer leaves, Ellen demands to know what that was all about. Mrs Willard says that it’s personal, but Ellen thinks to herself that she does deserve to know. Why are they breaking the (brand new, never-before-in-existence) newborn rule? Why are they breaking the finance rule (since Ellen knows that the Kemmers are loaded – Mr Kemmer has an “outrageous red convertible”)? She conveys these interesting points with a frown, and Mrs Willard crumbles like Elizabeth’s spine. [Wing: Mrs Willard clearly does not take all the responsibilities for this job seriously. Fuck all this.]
She tells Ellen that Mrs Kemmer had a board meeting at work and her nanny was unavailable, so this was a last resort.
Ellen pries further, saying that she might be able to help, and that the Kemmers are her neighbours. Mrs Willard has two options here: 1) she could have said, “As you know her personally, I absolutely cannot tell you anything further.”; or 2) she knows how fast Sweet Valley gossip goes and decided fuck it. She goes with option 2 and tells Ellen that the Kemmers are getting divorced. Mr Kemmer comes home late and spends all their money and she doesn’t trust him any more. Mr Kemmer is going for full custody of Annabel. Silly man. Doesn’t he realise that we’re in the 80s/90s and ovaries are the only thing that count in custody battles? (Aside from Lila and Brooke. Ignore them they’re anomalies.) Besides, he sounds like a tool. Especially because he plans to put Annabel in commercials in order to buy a new house. [Raven: I was totally expecting to see this grotesque picture of Mr Kemmer be debunked by the end of the book, when we hear his side of the story. SPOILERS: It’s not, and we don’t.]
All jokes aside, unless Mrs Kemmer has some LGBTQ+ secret, this sounds like a slam dunk for her. Surely she’ll get full custody? Even if Ned is her lawyer. Wing? [Note: I know that Wing does not do family law, and treating her like Ned Wakefield (who floats from discipline to discipline) is not the greatest way to butter her up. However, she knows significantly more about law in the US than anyone else on the recap team.] [Wing: I cannot believe I did this, but I read some case law from the 90s RE California custody proceedings along with some other analysis. This means I have studied more about it than Ned Wakefield, I’m sure. From what I read, by the late 90s courts were more likely to grant some sort of shared custody unless one parent could prove the other parent unfit, and mothers did not automatically receive the benefit of the doubt. Mrs Kemmer likely has cause to worry, particularly if the custody evaluation/divorce mediations were going badly, which I’d bet they were, since this is an acrimonious divorce.]
“Ms. Kemmer is really torn up about it, too,” Mrs. Willard told me. “She believes that it’s unfair to put a little baby to work, and I must say, I see her point. And if Annabel’s forced to stick with it, who knows what could happen? A youngster who’s exposed to the pampering and attention of being in the limelight has a lot of trouble adjusting when it’s all over.”
Honey, ending up with a spoiled brat is pretty much the best case scenario for child actors. Things to run away from fast: the entertainment industry + minors.
[Wing: And yet in Sweet Valley life, we have Maria as someone Ellen actually knows who has experience with this.]
We cut to Ellen’s dad’s apartment (have I mentioned the tennis courts?), where they’re eating Chinese food on the floor because the furniture hasn’t arrived yet. Ellen thinks it doesn’t feel very homey yet. All the personal photos just look out of place. And her home smells of home cooking or baking, whereas his smells like takeout Chinese food.
She makes a comment that the food is bad for him, but he replies that he’s never been in better shape (did you know there’s a gym attached to his complex? That an the tennis courts, of course). Ellen feels alarmed that her dad has a “washboard stomach” instead of the “love handles” she’s used to. Her words, by the way, not mine. [Raven: Is this meant to be cute? Becuase it’s skeevy as all fuck.]
Mark says that Mrs R is starving them with nothing but healthy food. Ellen immediately stands up for her, saying she’s lost weight (not that she needed to) and she looks great now she wears dresses and wears her hair down. She thinks to herself that she has to do this with each parent. If one mentions the other, she has to tell them how great the other is doing.
[Wing: I really feel for Ellen here.]
They’re interrupted by the phone ringing. Mr R says that he can’t tonight, he’s got the kids, sorry Bianca. Ellen’s eyes narrow at this. Especially when it seems like Bianca is asking him out on a Saturday night, and he seems genuinely regretful that he can’t because Ellen will be over.
She tries to quiz him on it, but he’s evasive, saying Bianca’s just a friend [Raven: Bianca’s not a friend… Bianca’s a tiger.].
The next day at lunch, the Unicorns are reliving Ellen’s three paragraphs of babycare, as if it was a seminal event. Kimberly makes it clear that if there were babies at the daycare centre all the time, they would not be volunteering [Raven: FUCK YOU, KIMBERLY HAVER.]. Mandy says she’d volunteer more. Lila just maintains that she was born potty trained and she is never ever having a baby. It will wreck her figure irreversibly.
Jessica agrees, largely because it will impact her ability to take vacations with her husband – is there anything worse than being stuck on a flight with a screaming infant? Which is surprisingly aware of other humans for Jessica. Overall, a baby would cramp their style, they’d have to give a lot.
The book is implying that these are daft reasons for not having children, but if what you most value in life is something that is done without children – like having a nice grown-up vacation without kids doing cannonballs into the pool – then dude, don’t feel obligated to have a baby just because society tells you as a woman it’s your job.
Mandy plays the part of SOCIETY by pointing out that they can get their figures back, and the kids grow up, so they’re not totally reliant on their parents, so they should totally have babies.
“That’s another reason why I’ll never have kids. I couldn’t bear to deal with what I put my parents through,” Jessica said seriously. “The messy room, breaking curfew, fighting with my brother… of course, I know that my parents will be itching to be grandparents, but Elizabeth will be good for that. Let her be the fat Wakefield.”
Jessica, we are on exactly the same page right now. This is a perfectly reasonable look into the future. And you know Elizabeth will want children. She’d be one of those hideous helicopter parents. Urgh. Actually, she’d be the type of person who frequently shows up on r/EntitledParents, you know, arguing with the teachers over grades, doing the kids’ homework for them, never once saying no, and raising something even more selfish, spoiled and monstrous than Jessica is now [Raven: And so it goes, throughout the ages, exponentially worstening in accordance with the prophecy.]. [Dove: Trump is a descendant of the Wakefields?]
Mandy does not agree with me. She thinks Elizabeth will be a perfect mother. Mandy wants six kids, which makes her the only person at the table who wants any. Well, who’s spoken, anyway. Everyone stares at Ellen like in a horror movie.
I shifted in my seat. I was hoping they’d somehow skip over asking me the fatal question, but I guess I was out of luck. “Well, I used to want to have three,” I admitted. “My idea was to name them for the months they were born in. June and May for the girls, August for my boy. I was planning to have August first, because I thought it’d be good for my girls to have a big brother to look out for them and I know how obnoxious little brothers can be.”
Ok, Ellen, you’re kind of adorable. Though her friends point out that she can’t guarantee the order of kids or when they actually show up, but Ellen’s since changed her mind. She says that half the people in school have divorced parents – which is a turnaround from her last book, when Lila was an outlier. [Raven: And as we’ve established there’s a thousand kids in the school, that means Ned’s firm is making bank.]. But that’s not really the point. It’s common for kids who have just lived through their parents’ separation to not really believe in happily ever afters any more. In fact, in a rare show of insight, Mr Riteman actually advised Ellen against doubting happy marriages/relationships. Just because he and her mother didn’t work out, doesn’t mean love is doomed.
“Plus it’s kind of hard to imagine you as a mom,” Kimberly chimed in. “You can barely get through the day in one piece. Can you imagine what could happen to your kids?”
“I’d probably forget to pick them up after school and they’d get kidnapped,” I said, playing along.
Mandy chuckled. “Poor June. She’d probably end up on the back of a milk carton.”
I looked at my friends appreciatively. Leave it to the Unicorns to find a funny way of looking at a sorry situation. “Yeah,” I added. “You’d have to pity any kids of mine.”
It sounds kind of mean, but it seems to cheer Ellen up, so I guess, go Unicorns.
The next day there’s a Unicorn meeting, and Lila is late because she had a manicure, and then wanted a milkshake from the Dairi Burger, where she met a cute boy called Jimmy Lancer, who mistook her for a high schooler. The rest of the Unicorns want to meet him and also get high school dates. Urgh, this again?
It turns out that all this is a clumsy lead-in to Jessica realising that if Ellen had a high school boyfriend she could tell her dad she was at her mom’s and her mom she was at her dad’s. Which I’m sure won’t come up later.
Lila says that while she can’t make that play, she gets everything she wants because her dad feels guilty. Ellen counters that she would never use her parents’ guilt to get her own way. Her family means too much to her.
And I’m sure that won’t come up later either. (Poor Ellen for having to do that, I guess.)
The next morning, Ellen walks in to a decision that’s already been made for her. Mrs R has managed to get a last-minute-cancellation place on a seminar that she really wanted to go to – a networking event that will give her a boost when she gets her licence. So she’s arranged for Ellen to stay with her dad, and, to be fair to Ellen, doesn’t really listen to Ellen’s response. She also borrows Ellen’s overnight bag, even though Ellen needs it. Also, Mark’s lost his torch and Mrs R just keeps responding to him that it should be in his bag.
This time I feel for Ellen. Although it’s well documented that I do not like it when adults take their kids’ possessions because they’re adults/they paid for it/whatever, without respecting who owns it. So obviously my view is, “Ok, your seminar is important, but GIVE THAT BAG BACK TO YOUR CHILD RIGHT NOW!”
Ellen’s pissed off, so she tells Mark she’ll help. They unpack his bag and find the torch at the bottom. Mark is shocked and grateful. Ellen reassures him that she forgets things all the time too, and it’s ok. It’s actually a nice bit of sibling bonding. [Raven: Quick shout out to the recently-divorced Mrs R telling her son that if he can’t find his flashlight, she has “a purple one in [her] dresser” … Of course she does. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.]
When they return to the kitchen, Mrs Riteman is talking to a hairdresser. Ellen starts to make cereal for Mark, but the bus arrives, at which time Mrs R suggests he takes a banana.
Mark is clearly a bit ticked off, and allows Ellen and her mom to walk him to the bus, but refuses a hug and kiss from his mom. He does accept one from Ellen though, which surprises both of them, since they’re probably never hugged before.
When Mark’s on the bus, Ellen turns to her mom and says that she’ll miss him, but her mom’s already gone.
Yeah, this isn’t a great moment for Mrs R, but overall, she’s been the best parent Sweet Valley has ever seen – an admittedly low bar – so I’m willing to overlook it. Also, personally, nothing frazzles me more than SUDDEN! URGENT! PLANS! Freaks me the fuck out. I’m useless at anything except following the new plan. The house could be on fire, and I’d be like, “I’ll just get to the seminar, and then ring 999.”
We cut to Ellen walking with Mandy after school. They’re talking about the social studies project, which prompted me to ask, “Raven, what is social studies?”
“Social studies,” he replied thoughtfully. “It’s, ah… I don’t know.”
We’re four years in and we’ve suddenly realised we have no idea what this class is about. I’ve used it as a plot point in a couple of fanfics, and I don’t actually know what it is. So feel free to enlighten us.
We had Health & Personal Development, or something along the lines, and that ran the gamut from periods, to Just Saying No to drugs, to humiliating people who couldn’t afford to learn to drive. (Yeah, no, really. The teacher made fun of me for not learning the highway code when I was a year too young and didn’t have the funds to learn. And then encouraged other people to laugh at my “irresponsible” ways. Asshole.) So is it that? Kind of an “intro to adulthood in a very vague way” or does it have actual academic merit? [Raven: I have an A-Level in General Studies, maybe it’s something like that? We didn’t have classes for that though.]
[Wing: It varies a lot depending on state requirements, but it’s basically history/cultural studies at a very high level. Sixth grade is usually world history with maybe some ancient civilization studies early in the year, seventh grade is usually world geography, citizenship rights and responsibilities, government, civics. Eighth grade is usually US history from era of exploration through “modern times” which in the 90s usually meant ending shortly after WWII before we got into things like Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War.]
They see someone called Leslie Cariani, who’s a college student. She seems delighted to see them and hugs Ellen saying she’s her saviour. Ellen thinks Leslie is nice, but even by Ellen’s standards, she’s a little on the ditzy side.
Anyway, Leslie is delighted to see Ellen, because she’s Annabel Kemmer’s nanny, and Mrs Kemmer said that Ellen had been such a help and agreed to babysit Annabel any time. And Leslie’s kind of on her way out, because her fiancé just called to say they should go away for the weekend, so can Ellen watch Annabel right now, since the plane leaves in an hour?
Both Ellen and Mandy point out that it’s very short notice and surely Mrs Kemmer should ask Ellen directly, but Leslie brushes this off. She has complete faith in Ellen. And besides, Mrs Kemmer will probably be home in ten minutes. Five, more likely.
With all of these terrifying red flags welcoming them into the house with a crying baby and no adult present, Mandy and Ellen have no choice but to say yes. [Raven: Okay, so Leslie can fuck right off.] [Wing: Childcare in Sweet Valley sucks across the board.]
Ellen is not likeable in the next few paragraphs. Her first instinct when faced with a wailing child is to leave the room and find something to eat. Then she mistakes a bell on a toy for a phone ringing. This is not endearing silliness, this is carelessness and stupidity. Do better, ghostie.
Mandy says they should let the machine get the call, but Ellen says what if it’s important. It is. It’s Mrs Kemmer on a really bad line. She can’t seem to hear Ellen and calls her Leslie throughout the call. There’s some kind of emergency at work, and she’s on a plane to Mexico and she’ll call back when she lands. Byeeeee! 🙂 [Raven: And Mrs Kemmer can fuck right off too. Or maybe the weird state of workplace and labour rights in the US can fuck off instead. Or both.] [Dove: I would say that Mrs Kemmer’s work can fuck off. To her understanding, her usual nanny is looking after the baby and might even be aware that her job pulls this shit with Mrs Kemmer – also as a woman in what I believe is a high-powered job, she probably has to work twice as hard for half the recognition, and having a baby is a big black mark against her name. That said, torpedoing her nanny’s weekend (which presumably she doesn’t usually work) without waiting for confirmation that it’s ok isn’t cool either. Basically, Mrs Kemmer and her job suck here, but her employers are the worst for expecting a new mother to drop everything and fly to Mexico for a week right now.] [Wing: Even with the horrible work culture in the US, I find this highly implausible and I am tired of working so hard to suspend my disbelief for this shit series. Bring back the fun of the New and Improved Unicorns.]
Ellen and Mandy have to update the Unicorns, which is fantastically tedious, except for Lila deciding the baby is ugly, and Jessica deciding she is not, in fact, she looks like baby Jessica, and maybe Mr Kemmer is onto something with his commercials idea. Ellen is resolute, they cannot contact Mr Kemmer. Also, Ellen can’t remember “limelight”, so says “lemonlight”. This ghostie has no idea how to write Ellen. On that subject, Ellen is suddenly a manipulative genius.
“And because we’re so wimpy we have to hand her over,” I added, glancing quickly at Kimberly, Lila, and Jessica.
Lila’s eyes narrowed. “Wimpy? Who are you calling wimpy?”
I shrugged casually. “It’s like you guys are afraid of a little baby or something. I mean, I was thinking we could come up with a more creative solution than just forking her over to a man who will probably ruin her life, but if you’re afraid to be around her for another second—”
Kimberly sniffed. “We’re not afraid.”
Jessica glared at me, then walked over to Annabel, who was still bundled up in Mandy’s arms. “How could anyone be afraid of a little darling who looks just like me?”
All of a sudden, everyone’s into it. However, Ellen says she has to go, because she’s got to stay with her dad, and she already feels like she’s cramping his style, so if she rocks up with a baby, he’ll track down Mr Kemmer, and she’ll be on the “one slice of pizza” list before sundown.
Jessica then brings up the idea that was clumsily foreshadowed a few chapters ago. Mom thinks Ellen is with Dad, Dad thinks she’s with Mom. Win.
Ellen’s up for this, actually. She calls her dad and tells him that she’s going with her mom to the convention for mother-daughter bonding. He says she’ll be in seminars the whole time, but Ellen says they’ll bond on the drive. Also, she needs to tan, her friends are making fun of her for being so pale. Mr Riteman reminds us there is a pool at his apartment. (Did you forget? I sure didn’t. How about the tennis courts? Did you remember them?) She actually feels bad about it because he sounds disappointed, but she has to stick to her lie for Annabel. [Raven: I’ll take some Elizabeth input here. It’s a way to get the Unicorns and Angels back together.]
Annabel starts wailing, so her diaper needs to be changed. Ellen takes care of that like a pro, but she won’t stop crying. They don’t try anything to stop her crying, they just offer suggestions. Finally Jessica snaps and decides she’s calling someone, “Miss Know-it-all herself. Elizabeth.” Well, gotta laugh when even the ghostie thinks Elizabeth is insufferable, even when she’s been off-screen for the whole book so far.
Actually, this ghostie loathes Elizabeth, because she is described as “shaking her head disapprovingly and squinting with concern… and then finally voicing her objection.”
Ellen says she feels like she has to protect Annabel because they have something in common. Kimberly makes a mean joke about Ellen’s lack of vocabulary, and Ellen tells her that if she knew anything about divorce she wouldn’t be making jokes. And it should be a big moment, except it’s badly written.
I bit my lip. “I just feel this responsibility to protect Annabel. It’s like we have something in common.”
“Is it your peewee vocabulary or is it the divorce thing?” Kimberly asked.
I felt my face flush. “Thanks, Kimberly, that’s really thoughtful.”
“I was just kidding,” Kimberly said sincerely.
Kimberly’s comment about Ellen’s vocabulary isn’t particularly clever, especially since earlier Ellen used the word “renaissance” to describe her mom’s new lease on life. Ellen’s response seems bashful and genuine, and then adding “sincerely” to Kimberly’s reply just shows that the ghostie can’t really do clean and to the point dialogue. [Raven: Agreed. And also, Kimberly needs yeeting into the sun.]
And so I’m not loving this book so far. I like dialogue over description, and this ghostie can’t do it.
Elizabeth wants to call an adult, but when she realises that it’s so important to Ellen, she says she’ll help. She asks when the baby last ate, and they say a few hours ago. Wow. So they’ve just been with a squalling infant for hours and nobody thought to feed it? Excellent. This poor child is doomed.
Doomed further when Ellen idiotically suggests the baby might like a candy bar she has.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but thank god Elizabeth is here. Because I don’t think I could get through a book where they tried everything wrong before they figured out the right answer. At least Saint Elizabeth will make sure they only suggest the wrong thing, rather than trying it.
They feed the baby, and Ellen volunteers to try the food first to make sure Annabel doesn’t burn her mouth on it. It’s all good.
Then the phone rings. It’s Leslie. She’s calling to say that she and her fiancé are eloping in Vegas (don’t knock it, that’s what Raven and I did) and she’s taking a week off! She ignores any protest Ellen makes, then hangs up before Ellen can explain the situation. They are now stuck with the baby until Mrs Kemmer gets home.
Um… wasn’t that already the situation? Leslie was already going away for the weekend. Does it really make any difference that she’s going to Vegas instead of Carmel (wherever that is)? [Wing: It’s Carmel-By-The-Sea on the south side of Monterey Bay, basically across the bay from Santa Cruz! We were in the general area when we drove from Vegas. Not that eloping Vegas trip, readers, a different Vegas trip.] I know she was already going away for the weekend, but surely Mrs Kemmer is coming back soon? It’s a work emergency, not a vacation. [Raven: Also, why is Leslie calling? As far as she is concerned, Mrs Kemmer was due back home five minutes after she originally left Ellen in the lurch. Why is she telling the woman she babysits for about her lovelife?] [Wing: Maybe to let her know she’ll be gone for the entire week? Which is short notice bullshit, and I’d fire her.]
Jessica asks the same question as me, saying surely Mrs Kemmer will call to let them know when she’ll be home.
The twins call their parents to say they’re sleeping over at Ellen’s house. They’ll wait for Mrs Kemmer’s call and then go to Ellen’s.
“We’re all set,” Jessica reported. “When I told my mom that Elizabeth and I wanted to spend the night at your house, she got totally excited. She loves it when we can cross those Unicorn-Angel barriers and do stuff together.”
Yeah, we all get excited about that. Too bad this series torpedoed that idea, huh?
The rest of the Unicorns have been sent home, but put on notice that they’re on call.
Then Mrs Kemmer calls. And you know how I was bitching that this ghostie can’t do dialogue? I stand corrected. There is this moment:
“You have nothing to worry about,” I assured her quickly. “I’ve got it under control for the night. My friend Elizabeth Wakefield already fed Annabel, and she—”
“Oh, my baby!” Ms. Kemmer began to sob.
“No, Ms. Kemmer, Jessica is the irresponsible Wakefield,” I said quickly. “I mean she’s here, too, but Elizabeth really knows how to handle this.”
Ellen explains that Leslie has run off to elope but that she is in charge. Mrs Kemmer hyperventilates in response. Understandably so. Especially when Ellen reveals that they’re only thirteen. And if she leaves Mexico she’ll lose her job, which she desperately needs as her tool of a husband has run up breath-taking debts in her name.
#MURICA. Where as a single parent you can pick one of only two options: child endangerment or bankruptcy. Be proud, America. Be very proud.
Mrs Kemmer is utterly heartbroken and sobbing down the phone to Ellen, which prompts Ellen to lie. She says, sorry, she misspoke. While she and her friends are watching Annabel right now, her mom will be home shortly and will watch Annabel. Mrs Kemmer is stunned, why would a near-stranger help her? Because, Ellen says firmly, divorcees have to stick together. [Raven: I guess this makes Mrs K a little more sympathetic. And I do appreciate she’s between a rock and a hard place here.]
The phone call ends with Mrs Kemmer clarifying that she’ll be in Mexico for six days.
Ellen relays this to the group, and Elizabeth is deeply unhappy. Anything could go wrong. Pumpkin, anything could go wrong over the weekend that you’d already signed off on.
Mrs Kemmer will phone the Riteman house to speak to Mrs Riteman later. Jessica offers to pretend to be Mrs Riteman. Um, weren’t there about three books where Ellen was described as a fantastic mimic and could do her mother’s voice perfectly? I know we all know that happened, but the ghostie doesn’t.
The call goes without a hitch and Mrs Kemmer passes on all the details of Annabel’s doctors and feeding schedule. [Raven: Also, shout out to Jessica’s Mama Riteman impression. Much fun! I like Jessica in this book, she’s very self-aware.]
In the night, Ellen wakes up to crying. Alone she changes a diaper, feeds Annabel, and chats away to her until she falls asleep, only to realise that Elizabeth has been watching her the whole time. Saint Elizabeth compliments Ellen on a job well done and says that she’s changed recently, still the same, but more. Ellen says it’s the divorce, it changed everything. Elizabeth says maybe it’s more that the divorce forced Ellen to use a strength she didn’t know she had. Ellen feels validated by Elizabeth’s approval and compliments. And actually, this is really nice. It’s nice to see someone being nice to Ellen, and I actually believe her when she says that she finds Elizabeth intimidating and they’ve never connected, so being respected by her means something. [Raven: This was a nice scene.]
The next morning nothing much happens. Ellen takes charge and the baby cries a lot.
They go to the park and see Mrs Beals, their social studies teacher. She asks who the baby is an Ellen has completely forgotten the baby is there, even though she was literally adjusting the baby’s hat when Mrs Beals approached. Ghostie: I hate you. Ellen is daffy, but she’s not so gallopingly stupid that she will literally forget when an infant is in her arms.
Then the baby pees on Ellen.
We skip to Sunday night where Ellen is trying to figure out how she will take care of Annabel. At first she proposes they all call in sick a day each, but Mandy points out that Elizabeth won’t go for that. So Ellen says she’ll call in sick all week. Mandy says she can’t miss her oral report for social studies, the teacher will call her mother.
What, seriously? Hypothetically, a mother calls in to the office to say “My kid has tonsillitis, and won’t be in for the rest of the week” and on Tuesday afternoon, some teacher calls the mother to say, “Look, I know you reported your kid’s absence, but do you realise that she missed an oral report?” That’s ridiculous. If a kid is sick, the kid is sick, so screw any report. And, as far as I can tell, American schooling seems to be 90% comprised of make-up projects and extra credit and shit, so that nobody can fail if they do enough additional work. [Raven: A bit later on, Mandy warns Ellen that if she misses dielivering her oral report she’ll fail and be forced to skip a grade. Surely it’s not that draconian? Like, one strike and you’re out? Although I guess it would explain why Ellen doesn’t make it to Sweet Valley High. Maybe she’s still repeating grades in Sweet Valley Middle at the age of forty-three.] [Dove: No, she’ll drop one grade level. Like if her average is a B, she’ll drop to a C. Or at least, that was my understanding of it. This is why we Brits use the words class, year and marks for each individual thing, rather than “grade” for everything. It makes it easier to understand what’s going on.] [Raven: I did not get that, it seems.] [Wing: In the 90s, it was possible to fail and even to be held back, but probably not as likely in Sweet Valley, since that would reflect poorly on
the Unicorns the town. It’s more likely that a week off would run into attendance and even truancy issues. It was around this time that schools here in the middle of the USA started having more draconian attendance policies where even sick days needed to fall within a certain number of days (often 10, or two weeks total for the entire year) barring individual exemptions based on situations. To be out a week, the school might also require a doctor’s note either immediately or upon her return.]
Ellen suddenly remembers the daycare centre, and even if that brand new rule about babies exists, they’ve already taken in Annabel before, so surely Ellen can just drop her off each day, saying Mrs Kemmer sent her.
We skip to Monday where Ellen has just dropped Annabel off at the daycare centre, and is now thinking about her social studies project.
I could do a study on the different social clubs at school—the Unicorns, the Angels, and the Eights, this group of obnoxious girls in the eighth grade. I could use examples of different warrior tribes from the Middle Ages and show how history keeps repeating itself. My conclusion would be that as long as there are separate clans, there will be war. Well, maybe not war, but conflict. But what if word got around about my research and it gave the Angels an idea to wage an all-out battle against us? I’d be putting the lives of my friends at risk, and it just wasn’t worth it for one good grade.
This ghostie cannot do dialogue for the most part, but this? This is gold. I love the idea of Elizabeth leading a massive paggar against the Unicorns and the Eights. I’ll admit, mostly it’s because it taps into how Jessica vs Elizabeth went down, so I feel validated that someone else worries that Elizabeth will one day decide that enough is enough and her spine is not made of chalk, but titanium and BITCHES WILL DIE. [Raven: I think the Ghostie runs hot and cold in this. There’s some really good Lila and Jessica lines, but also a smattering of crap woven throughout, like marbling in a good steak.] [Wing: Even without the potential risk to her friends’ lives, Ellen’s idea here is wonderful. I’d read the hell out of a paper about that sort of comparison.]
Just imagine the three groups in the lunchroom. We need a score. The Battle from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be perfect. The Unicorns and the Angels run towards each other. The Eights, because they are irrelevant, join in, and are slaughtered as they reach the centre first. Their deaths are quick and bloody to set the scene, to show how bitter and deep this feud goes. Even I don’t know their names. Their broken bodies line the floor.
Now the Unicorns and the Angels take a moment to regard each other. Every frustration over the past hundred and thirty-seven months of middle school reaches boiling point.
Mary growls, “Not my speech, you bitch!” and lunges at Kimberly, where she uses a spork to remove Kimberly’s eyes. Lila reacts instinctively and slits her throat with a plastic cafeteria knife. This is the moment of no return. Everyone leaps forward and starts fighting to the death. Maria manages to beat Lila’s head against a wall. Ellen falls to friendly fire as Jessica tears towards them. Mandy just backs into a corner and turns to beige paint while she cries feebly. Elizabeth is sick of this middle-ground nonsense, and fashions a shank out of her favourite navy blue barrette and begins slashing at Mandy until there is nothing left but beige paint and dead neutrality.
Jessica realises that it’s three against one. She raises her purple scrunchie aloft and yells, “FOR THE UNICORNER AND FOR JANET HOWELL!”
With the clever use a lunch tray, Mary and Maria are quickly dispatched. Also Evie, because I’ve only just remembered she exists. Jessica takes down three Angels with a lunch tray. You know she is capable of it.
Now the twins face each other, hatred in their eyes. And in order to please the fans we have an ending like Freddy vs Jason, where each fandom thinks their monster won. It will be subject to rewrites, but you will feel satisfied by the end.
Right. Um. What the fuck was I on about? [Raven: *backs away slowly*] [Wing: Dove wrote us amazing fic in the middle of her goddamn recap. I’m so fucking impressed.]
We cut to after school where Lila has accompanied Ellen home. Lila is watching Gallagher Hour, some kind of talk show. Her reasoning is that it’s educational, it will help Ellen deal with her stress.
“One of the people on the panel is a mom,” Lila replied. “We’ll learn how she copes with the stress of motherhood on top of her job as a topless dancer.”
No. I didn’t edit that. It literally says topless dancer. This ghostie might be hit and miss, but damn were they’re daring. I feel like that can get you blacklisted from Bantam.
Frustrated with Lila’s disinterest in actual chores, Ellen leaves her to start the laundry. She decides not to sort by colour, and reasons that if you wash white in hot and dark in cold, washing everything in warm makes sense. And, yes, that’s exactly how I do it. Everything gets washed together at 30 degrees.
Ellen learns a painful lesson here. You always do a “dependant check” once you close the door and before you switch the washer on. You make sure that your dependant(s) (in my case, two cats) are present and accounted for and that the door is firmly closed with them on the non-water side of it.
Don’t worry, the baby’s not in there. She’s crawled off. I haven’t even read any further, but I know that Sweet Valley would never put a baby in a washer. [Raven: NOBODY puts Baby in a
Ellen opens the washer and there’s no sign of her. She asks Lila for help, and Lila’s only response is that she should go on TV and talk about her stress. Lila is hopeless and not fabulous in this scene. She refuses to leave the TV, and says that it can wait, Elizabeth can look for the baby when she arrives. Ellen has to pull rank (Unicorn president) to get her to help. And I know Lila is a snobby little diva, but I’m pretty sure over the past few books she’s learned that small humans are actual humans and deserve to live. The characterisation in this book is awful. [Raven: The Ghostie does some great Lila in this book. And some absolutely appaling Lila, like this section.]
They search the house and can’t find the baby. Ellen says it’s time to call the police. She knows everything will come tumbling down if that happens, but it’s the right thing to do.
The Unicorns arrive and Ellen is a blubbering wreck. Only for Annabel to be found in the garden eating petunia petals. Hope they’re not poisonous.
A police officer arrives, but since the baby is present, the girls claim to be baby-sitters, and everything seems fine, they send him away. Well, that was a journey in about four paragraphs.
Next Mrs Willard calls to talk to Jessica-as-Mrs-Kemmer to shout at her for letting Ellen drop off Annabel. Their insurance doesn’t cover babies and it cannot happen again.
Elizabeth declares this is the moment that things have gone too far. Time to tell an adult. [Raven: Can’t say I disagree.]
Then they get a message from Mrs Kemmer saying she’ll be home tomorrow evening. Surely they can keep it up until then. Ellen offers to stay home from school, but instead they come up with the genius plan of taking the baby to school with them. Each of them will cover one period.
For some reason Elizabeth does not point out that this is the stupidest idea anyone has had thus far in a book filled with dimwit ideas. Nobody gives any thought to what will happen if the baby cries, or needs changing or feeding. They just assume they can take a baby into school and nobody will notice.
This is fucking stupid. [Raven: This threw me too. I had to check back that Elizabeth was there, and yes, she was. Although they don’t specify which period Elizabeth is handling. She would NOT condone this for a single second. And yeah, the whole idea is fucking ridiculous.] [Dove: This ending is a complete mess. This ghostie does not care at all.]
We cut to the next day and Ellen has hidden the baby in a car seat in some bushes and is talking to her when Caroline Pearce comes over. Caroline, by the way, now has a raspy voice. I’m imagining that she has the voice of a 50 year old who smoked 40 cigs a day. Ellen says she’s practicing giving her oral report to the bushes, it’s less intimidating than students. Caroline actually takes notes on this before moving on.
[Wing: I’d forgotten Caroline Pearce was even still alive.]
We cut to lunch and somehow nobody has noticed that a student has brought a baby into each lesson so far, even though on Kimberly’s watch she filled her diaper and stunk up the room, and she gurgled and cooed all the way through Jessica’s class.
Ellen moves to another table with Annabel – again, nobody has noticed that someone has a baby in a car seat? [Raven: In a car seat in a duffel bag. That’s the kicker. Don’t want a thing to be seen? Put it in a duffle bag.] – to practice her speech again. At the end of lunch, Lila is supposed to take over, but when Ellen returns, Lila is gone.
Ellen decides to check the bathroom, where she finds Lila hurling her guts up. Ellen asks her if she can take Annabel when she’s done heaving. Um… I know this is a particular phobia of me, but seriously, if someone’s sick, do not hand a baby to them. That is not good for the baby. And it’s not really great for the sick person, because now they have to juggle an infant while vomiting.
Again, there’s Ellen-dim and then there’s ridiculously stupid and this is the latter.
As far as I can tell, Ellen puts the baby in a duffel bag and goes to class, leaving the baby next to Jessica. Who apparently shares her class now, even though earlier it was only Mandy she shared this class with. *shrugs*
The baby starts gurgling, then crying and Jessica can’t cover it, so she says Annabel is Ellen’s visual aid. Actually, she “quips” it. And it’s about now I have to rage about this. Quip is used instead of said throughout this book, never once correctly.
Annabel cried even louder.
“I told you to leave her alone,” I quipped.
She didn’t. It’s not a quip. It might be a grumble, but not a quip.
“Exactly. Well, we’re all gathered at the Kemmers’ house because Leslie’s on her way to Carmel with her sort-of fiancé.”
“I don’t see the connection,” Kimberly quipped.
Now, if there had been some mention of the travel having a connecting flight/train/whatever, that would be a quip, but as it stands, it’s a fucking observation.
My jaw tensed up. “My visual aid?” I managed to say.
“You know,” she quipped, “The… the baby you need to explain the whole point of your report.”
That is a lie, not a quip. It’s a quick thinking lie, but there’s nothing witty or amusing about it. Unless I’m supposed to be in hysterics over this frankly foolish chain of events that doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Basically, this ghostie has no idea what a quip is, but they really like the word and keep using it instead of said.
And if the logic is that Ellen doesn’t know what a quip is, that’s why dialogue is being attributed badly, then the ghostie shouldn’t have used “renaissance” on the first page, because I’m certain that if pushed, Ellen would think it means, “some kind of theme park or party for nerds”.
Anyway, Ellen pulls together a great report on the fly about how things have changed since the dawn of time, but not raising children. The crux of her report is that while preparing the food for them may be easier now, it still takes the same length of time to potty train them, they still need the same amount of love and attention, etc.
It’s fine. I mean, if we’d have known what the report was supposed to be about we could make an objective conclusion about whether this works or not, but since we were only given “social studies oral report” as the criteria, Ellen could be facing expulsion for all I know. [Raven: She’ll be forced to SKIP A GRAAAAAAADE! *scary fingers*] [Dove: Nope. Lose a grade. Also, skipping a grade would send her up a year, not down.] [Raven: I’m very confused.]
Mrs Beals asks to see Ellen outside class. Short version: Ellen gets an A, it was a great report, but should Annabel be here? When Ellen says that she’s supposed to look after her all day, Mrs Beals seems unphased by this. I guess all Sweet Valley parents are pretty terrible, and no matter how implausible something seems, in Sweet Valley the correct response is just to nod and say, “Seems legit.” [Raven: Every fucking adult in this town needs kicking in the stomach. Bring on the fucking FAYZ.]
Ellen is now excused from the rest of her classes to look after Annabel.
The Unicorns plus Elizabeth walk home, while Ellen recounts the speech she gave. They arrive home to find Mrs Kemmer with Mr and Mrs Riteman in the living room.
Every adult is furious with Ellen. Mandy and Elizabeth both step forward and say that Ellen has had a hell of a week, and they should be proud of her. If they’re not, they should be mad at everyone.
Basically Mrs R got home early from the seminar, and called Mr R about picking Ellen up. They then started panicking, and upped the ante when Mrs Kemmer arrived with a big thank-you bouquet of flowers.
Anyway, all’s well that ends well. Annabel is still alive. And Mrs Kemmer has heard that the hearing for custody has been dropped and she’s got full custody without a hearing. See! Ovaries, am I right? [Wing: Nope, he dropped the case for some reason. Pretty much only way one of them would have gotten full custody at this point is if the other stopped pushing for it and even then, there might still be an investigation into why he’s suddenly changed his mind.]
… or Mr Kemmer just got swept up in the #MeToo cleanup? [Raven: I was fully expecting a Mr Kemmer vs Mrs Kemmer scene in which their issues are solved for Annabel’s benefit, but no. Mr Kemmer is just a bellend, apparently, while Mrs Kemmer is either hobbled by her job or a fucking flight risk. I fear for Annabel’s long term safety.]
Mrs Riteman says she’s going to arrange ice cream for everyone, and Mr Riteman takes Ellen to a side to say he’ll head home, because he wasn’t really invited. At this point Mrs R returns and Ellen points out all the times she’ll want both parents present, like graduation, parent-teacher nights, etc., so they need to get used to being in the same room without drama.
And we have the end chapter, where everyone eats ice cream and renounces their childfree ways, because they’ve learned something today: babies are awesome, and why have ovaries if you’re not going to use them?
Ellen has a conversation with her dad, where she finds out that he’s lonely and was looking forward to spending the week with her.
Then she has a conversation with her mom, where Mrs R is proud of Ellen.
And we’re done. There’s a half-arsed lead-in to the next book, but it’s barely a sentence and explains nothing, so skip it. [Raven: The foreshadowing here? WORST I’VE EVER SEEN.]
That was awful. It was boring and repetitive and the characterisation was utterly awful.
Ellen was so thick she forgot she was holding a baby. And Lila was such a lazy cow she wouldn’t even look for a missing baby. These are not our characters, they’re Flanderized versions of them.
Thanks, I hate it.
And the final plot to take the baby to school? The only reason that worked is because we have 100+ books in existence that already prove beyond reasonable doubt that the teachers at Sweet Valley Middle School are utterly clueless about everything and give zero fucks about doing their jobs.
This sucked. The high point of this book was imagining the Angels/Unicorn/Eights battle scene. And that wasn’t even in the book.
[Raven: Again with a book in this series, I find myself enjoying it a little more that Dove. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. I liked the Unicorn and Angel connection, even if it was just “the purple bitches plus Elizabeth”. There were more than a few good lines, especially from Jessica and Lila. And there were moments of real worth, like Elizabeth’s exchange with Ellen and Anabelle, or Mandy helping with ideas for Ellen’s report.
But also, everything that Dove said. There were serious missteps in characterisation in places, every adult was a hot fucking mess, and the Annabel-in-school plot was asinine.
So overall, it’s the same old tired refrain: bring back the Newnicorns, and please kill Kimberly Haver.]
[Wing: I cannot cannot CANNOT suspend my disbelief to this level for the series anymore. This plot was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read, including books I was not able to finish because they were so stupid. These books have become both boring and ridiculous-without-being-entertaining, and this book was especially terrible.]
I am Dove (she/her). I am: Team Jessica (Sweet Valley); Team Bad Guy (Point Horror); Team Geiger (Making Out); Team Nina/Lucas (Making Out); and I am the voice of a claymation cow named Daisy, and I was in an advert for Fairy Liquid in the 80s.