I was introduced to the Baby-Sitters Club through the Little Sister series. I was in one of those three-books-in-the-mail-each-month clubs, I constantly borrowed them from the library and I gradually memorised which number corresponded to each title (and once made my mum test me). So, once I graduated to the Baby-Sitters Club, I was completely used to Karen Brewer. In fact, she was one of my preferred clients since I always felt that I knew her better than any of the other kids.
When I started rereading all my Baby-Sitters Club books and getting into internet discussions, I discovered that the general consensus among many BSC fans was that Karen is an annoying brat. People had many reasons, good reasons, for disliking her. In fact, they were so good that I reassessed my opinion of Karen and decided that she really was quite irritating and I no longer liked her very much.
However, once again, I’ve decided to reassess my view of Karen. In this article, I’ll be discussing different aspects of Karen’s personality as conveyed through the Baby-Sitters Club and Little Sister books, including the various spin-offs. I’m not going to make any conclusions, but I’m going to try and provide as much fuel for discussion as possible. So… is Karen bratty or cute? Annoying or loveable?
Part one: What a Brat!
It’s not too difficult to find evidence for the “Karen is a spoiled brat” argument. In BSC Super Special #1 Baby-Sitters on Board she mentions “Daddy said we could order [at the café] whatever we wanted. I ordered crab’s legs. But I didn’t eat them.” (p46) In the same book, she lies and says it’s her birthday so that a room full of people will sing to her. Although whether these two incidents can be deemed “bratty” is arguable, for the sake of this article we’ll say they are. Either way, it can’t be denied that Karen does plenty of things that can be interpreted as bratty. But is there more to it than that?
The crab’s legs incident is a tricky one to discuss since it just has that one fleeting mention, so we’ll focus on the fake birthday incident. This occurs while Watson, Elizabeth, David Michael and Karen are eating breakfast on the Empress Lilly at Disney World, a meal punctuated by visits from Disney characters. When the host of the breakfast asked if anyone was having a birthday, a boy replied that it was his eighth birthday. In Karen’s words, “The man raised his arms and began to sing [Happy Birthday]. Everyone joined in. The grown-ups smiled at him. The kids looked at him like he was really special. Boy, what a lucky duck, I thought.” (p186) So, when the host asks if there are any more birthdays, she says that it’s her seventh birthday since she wants people to look at her like she’s someone special. She told the lie because she wanted to be in the spotlight.
Since Karen is only six years old, the response of her parents/step-parents when she does something wrong is just as important, if not more important, than her initial actions – otherwise, how can she learn not to do these things? And it’s easy to say that Karen gets away with this. But I’m not sure it’s that simple. As Watson states, “I have half a mind to make you wait outside with me until breakfast is over … but I’m not going to. Not here. Not on the last day of our vacation. Besides, everyone thinks it’s your birthday.” (p188) Watson and Elizabeth are in a tough position – how can they give her an obvious punishment (like being sent outside) without looking completely heartless? Everyone thinks it’s her birthday. Punishments along the lines of “no TV for two weeks” are ineffective because they’re on vacation. It’s a bit too nasty (not to mention a waste of money) to forbid her from doing anything fun on their last day. The only thing left is guilt. And Watson’s telling-off achieves just that. Do you think it was enough? Even if it’s not enough, could Watson and Elizabeth have done much else? Do you think Karen deserved a worse punishment? Or were her actions at Disney World really not that bad to begin with?
Another issue behind the “brat” image is that young children aren’t always great at explicitly expressing their problems. Actions that are interpreted by adults as bratty may actually be a cry for help. In LS#7 Karen’s Birthday, Karen desperately wants her divorced parents to get married again and tries to use her birthday as a way to bring them together. She knows her mother and father talk to each other when there’s a problem with her or her brother, so she writes a birthday present list with 212 items to make herself appear greedy. It works – her father calls her mother to talk about Karen, but they fight about her instead. They call her a brat, greedy and spoiled and blame each other for raising her that way. Most of the adults, as well as her older step-siblings, are annoyed by Karen’s actions in this book. But the reader sees everything from Karen’s point of view, and we know that she’s only doing these things because she’s upset about her parents being divorced. She’s not being a brat for the sake of it, but because she’s unhappy. I’m not for one minute saying that she should get away with everything she ever does wrong because she’s had some unhappiness in her life, but that it may not be fair to unconditionally deem her a brat when sometimes her actions have legitimate explanations. Do you agree?
Part Two: Witches, Ghosts and Martians
Karen is constantly scaring other children with her wild imagination and stories of witches, ghosts, martians and who knows what else. She’s convinced that the ghost of Ben Brewer, an eccentric ancestor, haunts the attic and third floor of her house, and she constantly claims that her next-door neighbour, Mrs. Porter, is actually a witch called Morbidda Destiny.
Karen’s treatment of Mrs. Porter is a common argument in the Karen-is-a-brat argument. And it’s not hard to see why. In LS#1 Karen's Witch, Karen goes into Mrs. Porter’s house during a gardeners meeting, thinking it’s a secret witches meeting, and tells them that she knows their secret and to get out of the neighbourhood. Many have said that this incident, and other times when she’s insisted that Mrs. Porter is a witch, demonstrates an inexcusable lack of respect towards her elders.
While I’m not condoning this behaviour, there is more to be said about the Mrs. Porter/Morbidda Destiny issue. Karen’s belief that Mrs. Porter is a witch has existed in the BSC-verse since the very first book, BSC#1 Kristy’s Great Idea. Karen says to Mary Anne, “Her witch name is Morbidda Destiny. The big kids on the street told me so.” (p93) Karen didn’t invent the story about Mrs. Porter being a witch herself, she was told it by other kids. Does this affect the “disrespect” interpretation? The fact that she believed it and ran with it is no-one’s fault but her own, though it needs to be remembered that in Kristy’s Great Idea she’s five years old, gullible, and has a particularly active imagination. Can she be blamed for believing it? This is not to say that Karen was in any way in the right when she went into Mrs. Porter’s house during the gardening meeting, but perhaps suggests she’s not simply making up stories to cause trouble.
It’s a similar story with Old Ben Brewer. In LS#12 Karen’s Ghost, Karen says “I had heard bits and pieces of the rest of this story from Daddy and other people.” (p21) After she tells the story of Old Ben Brewer to Hannie Papadakis, Hannie asks two questions about Ben Brewer (why Ben was haunted by a ghost in the first place and how he became a ghost himself) which Karen doesn’t know the answer to. If Karen was just having fun and making up stories, wouldn’t she have made up the answers to Hannie’s questions? Karen really believes that the stories about Ben are true, due to a mixture of stories other people have told her combined with her imagination. If she’s not intentionally making up stories about her ancestors, is it still a mark of disrespect?
But, back to Morbidda Destiny. As the Little Sister books progress, Karen starts to learn that Mrs. Porter isn’t so bad. In LS#29 Karen’s Cartwheel, Karen is moping in the backyard because she can’t do a cartwheel and is disappointed that she wasn’t chosen for a special team at her gymnastics school. Mrs. Porter comes over and talks to her, and Karen learns that Mrs. Porter used to be a figure skater. She even sees photos of the young Mrs. Porter in competitions. Mrs. Porter tells her a story that makes Karen realise that it doesn’t matter if she isn’t brilliant at gymnastics, because she has plenty of other talents. Not only does Karen get help from Mrs. Porter, but she also sees that she wasn’t always an eccentric old lady. While this incident doesn’t cure Karen of thinking she’s a witch, it does make her behave better around her (for instance, she stops screaming whenever she comes near). In LS#55 Karen’s Magician, Karen, Hannie and Nancy go to a garage sale at Mrs. Porter’s house; something they would never have dared to do in the earlier books. While they’re there, Karen never hesitates to go to Mrs. Porter and ask her questions about the items for sale. While Karen still believes she’s a witch, she doesn’t make it a problem: “In case you did not know it, I think Morbidda Destiny is a witch. She swishes around in a black dress. She has a wart on her nose and hairs on her chin. I used to think it was scary living next door to a witch. But Morbidda Destiny is a nice witch.” (p34). Do you think it makes a difference that Karen believes her to be a “nice witch”? Or is it disrespectful to call her a witch at all?
Part Three: Big Sister
Karen’s younger brother Andrew often features in the Little Sister books. While Karen and Andrew have the usual arguments that siblings tend to have, they generally have a very good relationship. Andrew is the complete opposite of Karen – he’s timid, shy, quiet, and usually looks to Karen for protection. Karen loves her brother and is always willing to protect him when he needs it. For example, in LS#31 Karen’s Bully, the class bully from Karen’s class at school (Bobby Gianelli) moves into their street and targets Andrew. Karen does everything she can to protect him, including challenging Bobby to a fight. There are countless references throughout both the Baby-Sitters Club series and the Little Sister series to Karen and Andrew’s relationship, his dependence on her and her protectiveness of him.
Even if you firmly believe that Karen is a brat, what are your opinions of Karen and Andrew’s relationship? Do you think that her general kindness towards Andrew (though they obviously have their negative moments) is a redeeming quality?