NOSTALGIC READS: Jessi’s Secret Language

Nostalgic Reads

Hello everyone and welcome back to Nostalgic Reads! Today we are headed back to Stoneybrook and the continuing adventures of Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, Dawn, Mallory and Jessi – the Baby-Sitters Club!

About the Book

Jessi's Secret LanguageTitle: Jessi’s Secret Language

Author: Ann M. Martin

Series: The Baby-Sitters Club #16

Pages: 145

First Published: September 1988

Blurb: Jessi knows a secret language! She learned it from Matt Braddock, the BSC’s newest charge. Matt’s been deaf since birth, and he uses sign language to speak. Since Jessi is Matt’s baby-sitter, she has to use sign language, too.

Soon all the kids in Stoneybrook want to learn to sign… which keeps the members of the Baby-sitters Club busy. Jessi’s the busiest of all: she’s working on another super secret, just for Matt.

Will Jessi be able to keep the secret and pull off her special event? Of course she will – she’s a member of the Baby-sitters Club!

Review

Yay! Another BSC book that I actually remember from when I was a kid! I know I read pretty much all of them at some point, but some of them stick out in my memory more than others do. I think it was because it made me really curious about learning sign language at the time. I never did, but I always thought it would be fun to learn.

There was something else that I distinctly remember, not just about this book, but about a lot of the books from Jessi’s perspective – the part in the first chapter when Jessi is describing her family and lets the reader know that they are Black.

I know it sounds funny to announce it like that. If we were white, I wouldn’t have to, because you would probably assume we were white. But when you’re a minority, things are different.

I don’t usually add quotes to my Nostalgic Reads posts, but I thought this was important. Because Jessi is right. Unless a character is explicitly described to be otherwise (whether in appearance or other signifiers), my brain automatically defaults to them being white. Which is unfortunately, and also why having diverse books in your reading list is so important. I’m trying to do better in that regard.

The book starts off with Jessi getting ready for an audition at her new ballet school. She’s nervous because it’s a much bigger school than her old one and she doesn’t know how they will run things. Luckily, she feels like she did pretty well. After auditions, it’s off to the Baby-Sitters Club meeting. At this meeting, they get a call from a new parent who has a seven year old, Matt, who is deaf. The mom is willing to train a sitter to use sign language and this would be a regular job two days a week. Because of all the various scheduling conflicts, Jessi is chosen for the job.

At Jessi’s next dance class, we find out that not many of the other students like her, partly because she is the youngest in the advanced class. Two of the students in particular, Hilary and Katie Beth, are particularly rude, not even wanting to hold Jessi’s hand during a routine. Jessi is nervous the entire time because she knows they will be announcing the results from the audition at the end of class. When they do, she finds out that she got the lead! She will be playing Swanilda in Coppelia. Jessi is really excited but also really nervous. Several of the other students congratulate her, but not the two catty girls. They whisper that they think Jessi only got the part because she’s the teacher’s pet and new.

Jessi mopes about it, but her mom sets her straight. This ballet school is one of the best in the area, the teacher has a stellar reputation. There’s no way they are going to cast someone as the lead in a production who doesn’t deserve it. Jealous brats gonna be jealous. Ignore them. Easier said than done, but still. Jessi doesn’t have time to dwell on it. She needs to get ready to meet her new baby-sitting client and start learning American Sign Language.

Mrs. Braddock is very nice and loves that Jessi is so enthusiastic to learn ASL. Their whole family knows it, including Matt’s older sister, Haley. Mrs. Braddock also gives Jessi a rundown of Matt’s situation. He was born deaf and has almost total hearing loss. She also breaks down the fact that some people don’t think that deaf people should use sign language at all, but instead learn speech and lip reading so that they can communicate with more people. Because Matt signs instead, he will potentially be more limited in what he can do and who he can communicate with.

Once Matt gets home from school, they start going over signs. Also, Matt is an absolute sweetheart. There does, however, seem to be some tension between him and his sister Haley. We find out more about it when they run into Mary Anne, who is sitting for Jenny Prezzioso, who is known for being a bit of a spoiled brat. Her mother loves dressing her in fancy, lace dresses and Jenny loves wearing them. So much so that she won’t change out of them into more casual play clothes in order to actually play. They end up going for a walk and running into Jessi and the Braddocks kids and Jenny is horrible, calling Matt weird. Haley defends her brother, but then is really angry at him after Jenny and Mary Anne leave. She loves her brother but is tired of always feeling like they never fit in.

At Jessi’s first official sitting for the Braddocks, remembering all the nastiness that happened with Jenny, she decides to take Matt and Haley over to the Pikes’. A ton of kids to play with and, hopefully, new friends to make. At first, there was some awkwardness, but then Jessi explains that Matt speaks a sort of secret language. All of a sudden, the Pike kids are excited to learn about it. It turns out to be wonderful and in fact, the next time the BSC sits for the Pike kids (it’s Dawn and Mallory), they find them sitting in a circle trying to remember the signs for various things and then making up fun signs of their own. When they tell Jessi about this, she is so happy since this will give Matt and Haley a chance to have friends in the neighborhood.

In ballet news, the rehearsals for Coppelia are going well. Jessi gets complimented by the teacher and even the two mean girls grudgingly admit that Jessi is doing well. After class, while waiting for her dad to pick her up, Jessi has a chance to talk briefly to Katie Beth, who is waiting with her younger sister, Adele. Adele is also deaf and uses sign language, although Katie Beth doesn’t seem to know any. This is because Adele goes to a special school for the deaf and lives away from home. They talk a little in sign language and Jessi realizes that Matt is really lucky that his family is so loving and supportive.

Soon, more and more of the BSC’s kids are hearing about the “secret language” and wanting to learn it. Claudia helps teach it to Karen Brewer. The Pikes keep learning more. Buddy Barrett joins in and soon Matt, Buddy, and Nicky Pike are good friends. Even Jenny Prezzioso comes around. Haley also starts making friends, particularly with Vanessa Pike. She confides in Jessi how happy she is that Matt is fitting in because she had always stood up to kids in their old neighborhood who used to tease him. It made her seem like a weirdo and she would sometimes feel very resentful towards Matt, even though it wasn’t his fault. Haley is proud of her brother and all the things he has been able to overcome, even though he’s only seven. She also mentions, almost in passing, that he can’t go to a concert or a play.

This gives Jessi an idea, actually several ideas. First, at the next BSC meeting, she offers to start teaching the other sitters more sign language, since so many of the kids in the neighborhood are learning it thanks to Matt. She also invites them to the opening night of Coppelia and they are all very excited to go. They also get a phone call from Mrs. Braddock with the cryptic message that everything has been arranged. That everything involves Jessi getting to leave school early to go to Matt’s school with Mrs. Braddock. She visits Matt’s school to talk to them about ballet and invites them to the opening night of Coppelia. The kids are very excited and have a ton of questions, but the best part is afterwards when Matt gives Jessi a big hug and calls her his “best grown-up friend.” Isn’t he the cutest!

Opening night is here and Jessi is nervous, but also excited. The Baby-Sitters Club is here, Matt and his class and his family are here. The other sitters are very impressed that Jessi had arranged all of this for Matt and his classmates. She has also incorporated Haley and Mrs. Braddock into the proceedings, arranging for Haley to give a narration before each act that Mrs. Braddock will then sign for the students. The performance goes well. Katie Beth tells Jessi that when her family heard about the other deaf children and the signing for this performance, they arranged for Adele to come home for it too. Katie Beth has also registered for a class in sign language so she can communicate better with her sister.

The ballet is a huge success. At the curtain call, Matt comes up to the stage with a big bouquet of roses for Jessi. Adele also brings flowers to Katie Beth. After everything is over, Jessi is bombarded with her family and friends. She is also surprised by her cousin Keisha, who had been her best friend when she lived in New Jersey. Everyone ends up at a restaurant to celebrate and it’s all a beautiful happy ending.

This book is just so sweet and wonderful. I also really love how Ann M. Martin used these books to talk about important topics in a way that younger readers can understand, things like accepting people who are different, learning about disabilities and seeing how they can impact people. These are complex topics, of course, but simplified enough that younger readers won’t forget them. Like I said, I remember this one quite well, and it’s been over 30 years since I read it. So it definitely sticks with you.



Categories: nostalgic reads

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