IN THE 'CLUB' Fan club: Ann Martin's Babysitters Club books have led legions of young readers through difficult years and earned her cult status. She's still getting used to the last part.


WILMINGTON, Del. -- WEATHER ADVISORY: Major storm to hit Baltimore area today. Highly localized. Expected to strike hard at two area bookstores and bring with it heavy accumulation of girls between the ages of 7 and 12. Nearly 100 percent chance of flood of Babysitters Club books, diaries, jump ropes, posters and soap.

Forecasters are confident about this prediction because they have tracked the storm since it gathered last summer and started moving across the country. They have noted that it lands anywhere Ann M. Martin, author of the mind-bogglingly popular Babysitters Club books, holds a book signing.

If her name means nothing to you, it's only because you are not a girl in that age group or the parent of one. Otherwise, you already know that Ann M. Martin is very nearly an addiction for hundreds of thousands of pre-pubescent girls who voraciously consume every publication rolling off the presses that bears her name.

On average, that happens three times a month, which is either fortuitous or not -- depending on what you think of her books -- but is most certainly a staggering rate.

The books follow the escapades of a group of young teen-age girls who form -- what else? -- a babysitting club. Since Scholastic Books began the series 10 years ago, it has sold more than 137 million copies of the books with a retail value in excess of $400 million.

In other words, Stephen King and John Grisham have nothing on Ann Martin.

And now the books have spawned four other series under Ms. Martin's name as well as a string of merchandise, videos and, last year, a feature film. There is a Babysitters Fan Club, which claims a membership of 60,000 and also an untold number of Babysitters Club-inspired babysitters clubs. There is also an Ann M. Martin biography, which is -- surprise -- a best seller.

As a 10-year anniversary/promotion of the Babysitters phenomenon, Ms. Martin is on a tour of the United States that will carry her to every state by the end of next year. According to her publicists, the book signings have been enormously popular, with as many as 1,000 kids showing up in some places.

Despite all the excitement she generates, Ms. Martin goes unrecognized at a store here Thursday as dozens of her adoring fans gather for the start of her book signing.

She stands off by herself, a slight woman with shaggy, blond hair and a vaguely somber and apprehensive look on her face, as though she is about to see a doctor for a shot.

Later, after signing about 250 books, she sits for an interview in the storeroom and allows that while she enjoys meeting her fans, she is not comfortable with a public role. "I don't like being on stage so much," she says. "If this were a speaking tour, I never would have agreed to it."

Aside from her shyness, the other surprising thing about Ms. Martin is that she does not seem to have great rapport with children. When the signing starts at the Zany Brainy store, she greets each child with a tight smile and a "Hi." She signs the book ("Happy Reading, Maggie! Ann M. Martin"), and it's on to the next kid.

The children, all aflutter before they reach her, display their own nervousness when it is finally time to approach Ms. Martin. Hardly any of them venture a word, and they walk away without a glance back at her.

"I see the kids be real chatterboxes, then freeze up in front of me," says Ms. Martin. "Then as soon as they move away they're jumping up and down with excitement. I would have done the same thing. I might do that now."

It is that identification that make Ms. Martin's creations such a success. Though Ms. Martin is 40, single and childless, she manages to create characters who are adored by her readers.

"I get 17,000 letters a year from kids, and many of them say, 'I'm like the kids in the book. I'm like Kristy because I'm bossy, or Mary Anne because I'm shy or Dawn because my parents are divorced."

She's right. Jordan Price, 8, who rushed from swim team to make it in time for an autograph, says, "I like Claudia because she's artistic and real cool. She's a lot like me."

Jordan's mother, Dana, tells Ms. Martin, "I want to tell you the hours and hours of pleasure you've given her." Ms. Martin reddens and says, "Thank you."

The idea of the Babysitters Club was hatched by Ms. Martin, then a fledgling children's author, and a senior publisher at Scholastic books. The plan was for four books. That was 90 Babysitters Club books ago. "Me, my editor, my publisher, nobody ever expected it to take off like this," Ms. Martin says.

Now she supervises a staff of six writers who actually write the Babysitters Club books from story lines she and another editor develop. Three other writers do the spin-off, "Little Sister" series. So far, Ms. Martin is the only writer on a new series, "Miss Coleman's Class."

For every parent and critic who finds the Babysitters books insipid, there are others who praise them for their relevance and honesty, gently putting before children real-life issues. The books, which are based in a fictional suburban Connecticut town of Stoneybrook, have dealt with such topics as prejudice, eating disorders, death and drug use. Each book is told from the point of view of one of the sitters, who must work her way through one or two problems, always to a satisfactory, comforting ending.

Children enjoy the tension of the stories. "Some books go along and everything's fine," says 10-year old Chiya Stonehill, "but in these, everything's not perfect. There are accidents."

"Yeah," chimes in her friend, Leslie Watson, 10, "like Abby had an asthma attack on the job. That was exciting."

Ms. Martin, who grew up in Princeton and now has homes in New York City and the Catskills, says in choosing topics, she sometimes takes advice from her readers. "There were issues that I thought I would never touch, like the death of a peer, but then kids wrote in and asked me to deal with drunk driving deaths, so I have."

So far, she has avoided sex and child abuse and AIDS. "But there's nothing to say those subjects won't come up in the future."

At the end of Thursday's signing, Ms. Martin looks worn out. She was scheduled for another yesterday, two in Baltimore today, then on to Washington before going home to New York tomorrow.

By the end of this foray, she will have seen several thousand of her fans, all of whom will be waiting ravenously for the best seller she will begin writing bright and early Monday morning.

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