The Baby-Sitters Club, But Witches: How Kate Williams Channeled '90s Classics For Her Very 2019 Novel
Kate Williams’s debut YA novel, The Babysitter’s Coven, will be published by Delacorte in September 2019. She is a writer, editorial director, and ghostwriter with bylines in Seventeen, NYLON, and Elle.
I have never, nor will I ever again, read as much as I did as a tween. In those ill-defined, ill-fitting years between being a kid and a teenager (known to some as middle school), I read a book a day, if not more. I combed the young adult shelves at my local library, and checked out books by the foot. I preferred The Baby-Sitters Club (inane hyphenation and all), Nancy Drew, and Sweet Valley High, but I wasn’t particularly picky. If it was printed on pulpy paper, and had a soft-focus drawing of a youngish person on the cover, I was in.
Quantity, not quality, was the guiding principle of my reading life, and whenever I try to recall particulars of these books that so consumed me, well, I can’t. My memories mix and blur into an apricot-hued, Dr. Pepper-scented, scrunchie-bound bouquet of slumber parties, shopping malls, babysitting disasters, ringing phones, evil twins, gym class humiliations, and taunting crushes. I remember this period of my reading life fondly, hours spent curled up, snacking away on mind candy, safe and cozy knowing that no boundaries would be pushed, and that any problems my beloved characters encountered would tie up nicely at the end.
Then one afternoon, my library stacks depleted, and I was scavenging the house for new reading material. I found it in the bathroom (not actually all that odd, since I come from a family of toilet readers), forgotten about on the tiled counter: a slim volume with a graphic black-and-white cover. Witch Baby, by Francesca Lia Block, a book my sister had bought at a Scholastic Book Fair, but hadn’t yet gotten around to reading. I had never heard of the book or the author, but figured it would do. I flopped down on my bed and cracked it open.
From the first line, Witch Baby blew my 15-year-old mind. I read it in one sitting, and then read it again. Then I read everything else Francesca Lia Block had written. My world went from homogenous pastels to vibrant, passionate, disparate jewel tones. Her books were gutter punk fairy tales set in Los Angeles, and though they were steeped in magic, they were the first books I had ever read that felt real. Her characters weren’t just white, and they weren’t just straight. Instead of emotional tantrums, they had existential crises, and they navigated problems — addiction, abuse, discrimination — that could never be fully resolved by the last page.
Before Witch Baby, I primarily read books about the in-crowd. Fitting in was a holy goal, and diversity was represented by personality types (sporty! smart! shy!) that were all socially acceptable. Block’s writing blew all that up, like she’d lobbed a bomb right into the middle of the prom. Sorry, Kristy and Nancy and Jessica and Elizabeth—after meeting surfers and punks and wild-haired witches, there was just no going back. I wanted outsiders and rebels and misfits because they were better than popular. They were cool.
A couple of decades after the credits rolled on my own young adulthood, I started to work on a YA novel of my own. For years, and a couple of hundred thousand words, none of my ideas seemed to stick. Writing them was work, not fun, and I knew that if I wasn’t having fun writing it, then no one would have fun reading it. As I labored away at humorless story lines about love triangles, I kept joking that I would someday write a book called The Babysitters Coven. Though as I said it, over and over, it started to become less of a joke and more of a calling.
Eventually it became clear to me that the book I needed to write would be — had to be — an homage to all the books I loved before. There were plenty of elements that I didn’t want to channel: Block’s characters pine after romantic love in a way that is at odds with our era of independent women, and the homogeneity and exclusivity of the other books deserve to be left in the early ‘90s — but the elements of ‘90s books that I did want to incorporate in my book were obvious. I pulled from both my pastel and passionate influences. My characters bow down to Claudia Kishi’s closet, and there is a confrontation at the food court, but my story is laced with magic, mess, and loneliness that comes from a deeper place than just being the only one not invited to the sleepover.
You can’t be a writer without first being a reader, and so I’m forever indebted to the books, authors, and long summer afternoons that transported me away to Stoneybrook, Sweet Valley, and Shangri-L.A. If I hadn’t spent so much time visiting other worlds, I never would have been able to create my own. My one regret with The Babysitters Coven is that I never figured out a convincing way to make landlines a core part of the plot. However, I am working on a sequel, so hold onto your butts (er, coiled cords?) for book 2.