Name a small town with the following Christmas Eve tradition:
“After the parade, Santa Claus arrived in town and not just waving from the last float. No, the method of his arrival was magical and unexpected and different every year. No one (except the mayor) knew who played Santa; it was a big [town] secret. And no one knew how he would appear. Min said that once Santa had sprung out of a giant jack-in-the-box in the town square, and once he had been flown in on a helicopter, and once he had even ridden down Main Street on an elephant.”
If you answered “Woodstock,” you’re not far off. The small town with the mysteriously athletic Santa is Camden Falls, Massachusetts, created by bestselling young adult author Ann M. Martin for her latest series. “Woodstock was definitely my inspiration for Main Street,” Martin affirms between bites of a grilled veggie sandwich from Bread Alone. Soft-spoken, petite, and simply dressed in a pink fleece sweatshirt and jeans, she’s extraordinary self-effacing for a publishing phenomenon.
Martin’s long-running series The Baby-Sitters Club has sold more than 176 million copies, prompting Publishers Weekly to declare, “Ann M. Martin rules the paperback roost.” Her other books include the award-winning A Corner of the Universe, Belle Teal, and A Dog’s Life: The Autobiography of a Stray, plus two more series coauthored with Laura Godwin (Doll People) and the late Paula Danziger (P.S. Longer Letter Later and Snail Mail, No More)—in all, over 200 titles.
Martin never imagined such a prodigious output when she published her first book, Bummer Summer, in 1983. A recent Smith College graduate, she worked as an editor at Scholastic and Bantam Books. The Baby-Sitters Club was originally sold as a series of four, and Martin remembers her editor talking about how to construct a story arc that spanned several books. “I’d never heard the term ‘story arc.’ I didn’t know what I was doing—I was just thinking of each book and how to tell that story best.”
Clearly her instincts were golden. Scholastic commissioned more BSC books right away, planning to release four per year. “I was surprised and very grateful,” Martin says. By book number six, “they realized it was taking off, and the schedule jumped up to one a month.” Scholastic also launched the Little Sister spinoff series, hiring a small staff of regular writers to work from Martin’s detailed outlines, like a TV staff working with a head writer who plots, supervises, and does final line-editing to maintain a consistent voice. By the time the Baby-Sitters Club’s perennial eighth-graders booked their last client in 2000, Martin had been on the production treadmill for 14 years. “I thought I would never write a series again,” she asserts.
But one of her BSC editors, David Levithan, wooed her back via her love of sewing. “Maybe he left me alone for four years,” she grins, clearly fond of the man who cajoled her into creating Main Street, which debuted in May 2007.
Camden Falls’ Main Street features less tie-dyed versions of such Tinker Street mainstays as the Golden Notebook, Clouds, and the Woodstock Wool Company, locus in quo for Martin’s sewing store and community hub, Needle & Thread. The hardware store with knotholes in the floor was actually in Princeton, NJ, where Martin grew up. “We used to lie on our stomachs on the floor trying to peer through those knotholes and see what was below,” she recalls.
Seeing what’s below is one of the author’s recurring themes. Though the New England facades of Camden Falls’ shops and row houses seem Norman Rockwell timeless, Martin is careful to fill their interiors with lives that are not picture-perfect. Her two leading characters, sisters Flora and Ruby, lose both parents in a car accident and come to live with their practical grandmother, Min, co-owner of Needle & Thread. Min’s neighbors include two Chinese artists, an African-American widower struggling to remain independent, and families coping with a mentally handicapped teenager, Alzheimer’s disease, and the shame of poverty.