Ask kids and tweens today how they know Peter Lerangis, and they’ll list his popular Seven Wonders series or his incredibly smart YA novels like Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am and WTF. But ask a twenty-something (usually female, usually still rocking a scrunchie) why they know Peter Lerangis, and she’ll think for a minute and exclaim, “Ohmigod – The Baby-Sitter’s Club!”
Though Ann M. Martin created the beloved series, she went on to hire a handful of ghostwriters to flesh it out. The most popular ghostwriter, by far, was Peter Lerangis. Within the growing BSC online fanbase, Lerangis is known for penning the more controversial stories; Kristy + Bart = ? had the BSC president locking lips with a rival softball coach, while Stacey and the Bad Girls saw one of the most popular members quit the club and get kicked out of a concert with booze.
The career of a ghostwriter is tricky to navigate, and Lerangis got further experience with the Sweet Valley High series, another touchstone of 90’s adolescence. How do you take on the responsibility of handling these legendary (by thirteen year old standards) characters? And more importantly, how did he make the transition from ghostwriter to writer writer? We asked him these questions and more, all the while trying to temper our BSC fangirling.
How did you come across the opportunity to ghostwrite for the Baby-Sitter’s Club?
The series editor called me and asked. I told her I was a guy. She said that didn’t matter. I said I’d try, but I begged her not to give me a contract. For the first time in my career I actually asked to write sample chapters. I was petrified I’d be terrible at writing this kind of book, so if the chapters were bad they could find someone else, and we’d part friends. My one request was that they give me an outline of a book that had not yet been written (rather than an old outline from an already published book) — so if I miraculously did a good job, I could continue writing. Those first chapters became Dawn and the Big Sleepover.
Were you given free rein with the characters’ plotlines, or were those outlined for you in advance?
Outlined in advance by Ann. She really kept a hand in the series all the way through, which was why the books stayed so good. They let me loose to outline one or two books, but then never asked again. Probably for good reason.
Did you have a favorite BSC member to write for?
Claudia. Also Stacey. For some reason I didn’t write many Kristy books, but those were surprisingly fun. Actually by California Diaries, I was enjoying writing about Dawn, too.
The books are known for incredible details such as slang, fashion, and pop culture tid-bits. How did you go about researching the lives of pre-teens?
I guess I never really thought much about the slang and pop culture. I was part of it, living in the U.S. and having ears and all. The fashion was harder. I was clueless. So I would gather up my wife’s catalogs, look through them to find outfits I thought the characters would wear, then pretty much use the clothing descriptions.Has Ann M. Martin ever commented on your work with her characters? Did you ever get feedback from her?
She said that there was always at least one moment in each of my books that would make her fall off her chair laughing, and she would look forward to that. She had padding on her office floor. It was painful to see. I also once spilled wine on her during lunch. It’s amazing she still talks to me.
You’ve also ghostwritten Sweet Valley High books, which have a slightly different tone than the BSC books. Was the writing process the same for this series? Did you enjoy one more than the other?
My first novel was a horse-themed book in the Sweet Valley Twins series. I didn’t know a thing about horses so I had to spend time lurking in the Claremont Stables in New York City, watching little girls ride and trying to ignore the baffled glares of their moms. The outlines for those books were like beat poems. The stories were little soap operas, and people liked them.
I learned a lot, especially about plotting, and horses, but writing for the BSC was a breath of fresh air. I knew Ann Martin from when we were both copy-editors, I liked her, and I thought she was an elegant, under-appreciated writer with a great sense of humor. I also liked the BSC characters and really clicked with her writing style and her heart. It’s still pretty astonishing to me that the whole thing worked out so well. And that I never had to write about horses again.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in YA/middle grade books during your career? Do the books seem more mature or fast-paced?
The YA market was something of a
backwater through much of the ’80s and ’90s. The books were usually found under the stairwell near the radiator and
the mouse droppings... What’s happened in the last fifteen or so
years is astonishing — these kinds of books simply never existed
before. Some of the reason is that the
readers of middle-grade books at that time ... grew up. They forced a market into being, and many of
the most talented of them began writing books for that market. And now we look forward to books by John
Green and Suzanne Collins and M. T. Anderson and Libby Bray. We have a rich choice of issue novels,
dystopias, sci-fi, romance, LGBT themes, and historical fiction. It’s a glorious time. Plenty of writers have tackled mature themes
for years, but there is less constraint now and a hugely wider breadth of
topics dealt with honestly and provocatively...
As for middle-grade books,
they’ve stayed robust, thanks to teachers, librarians, parents, and the
wonderful sponge-like openness of the age group. It’s an area that welcomes humor, and there’s nothing more glorious than
luring kids into lifelong readership by making them laugh. Middle-grade books are more able than YA to
resist trends, and good old-fashioned storytelling will always have an
outlet... While the rest of publishing is
scrambling to survive, middle-grade and YA books seem to be charging along at a
much healthier clip.
What current YA/middle grade authors do you enjoy now?
M. T. Anderson, John Green, Suzanne Collins, Libby Bray, Gordon Korman, Judy Blundell, David Levithan, Paolo Bacigalupi, Bruce Coville, Blue Balliett, Rebecca Stead, and I am so far behind in my reading (and so forgetful) that if you ask me in a year, this list will be three times as long. It really is bigger now, but I couldn’t possibly list them all!The 39 Clues, for example, we’ve been able to draw new readers into the world of print, by creating a rich on-line gaming experience that happens to make no sense unless you actually read the books. Young gamers have become avid book people for the first time (to the many grateful hosannas of their parents). And the website’s social component has allowed a robust group of fan-fiction writers to grow as storytellers, critiquing each other’s work in a safe, supportive community. Through the message board, I’ve been able to provide writing prompts, and some of the responses have been extraordinary.
And yet, a huge percentage of our readers haven’t even bothered with any of the on-line stuff. They just like the stories and the novelty of the multi-author approach. It’s been so gratifying to see how the possibilities have expanded for all different needs and personality types — and this is only a scratch on the surface of what can be achieved.