Scripts of Girlhood: An Interview with Holly Tommasino

What was your experience of handwriting in school? I loved what you might call the art of handwriting. The markers or the rapidographs could have been interchangeable. HOLLY TOMMASINO: I was one of three or four graphic designers in the Young Adult Department. AUGUST 18, 2018

FANS OF The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC), a young adult series published by Scholastic Books between 1986 and 2000, will remember the club notebook, a private journal collaboratively written by the babysitters. I went away to college in Connecticut for one year and then transferred to Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, where I earned my BFA. That could be right. ¤
KELLY BLEWETT: Tell me about your role at Scholastic when you were hired in 1986. Also, I do think the handwritten journal entries were unique, in part because of their privacy. What’s a rapidograph? These designs would be presented at weekly meetings, where initial choices between design options would be made. Once I had a picture in my mind of each babysitter, I created a handwriting style that I felt would reflect them. There were a number of pens in a set, each with their own thickness. They asked me to letter each character’s handwriting in spaces on the form. It seems you might have used a marker to create Kristy’s penmanship since her handwriting is so bold, while a rapidograph would have been helpful for Mary Anne’s, since her penmanship style was so loopy. How did you develop that style? She describes her process of producing the girls’ writing styles. I was already working at a job I loved, a job that felt like a dream come true. I’m actually flipping through a BSC book right now. And I paid attention to the mail. Then we’d choose the illustrators and models, and go on photo shoots. And these forms were long! I looked forward to doing the handwriting, though, especially as a freelancer. Mary Anne’s handwriting
Kristy’s handwriting
One character’s handwriting seems to have inspired quite a response in readers, more I’d say than the others. If I’m feeling energetic and positive, then my handwriting reflects that. BSC presented models of girlhood for consumption — models referred to by Elena Schilder as “seven brands of human teenager,” each defined by “one or two choice adjectives.” As a young adult reader, I was not immune to the pleasures of imitation. And I thought, gee, someday maybe I could design a nicer looking milk carton. In other words, we worked on the projects from conception to completion. Can you say more? I would write the journal entries on lined paper to ensure it would fit exactly in the area allotted in the book. Most memorably, these passages appeared in the “handwriting” of each babysitter. 
These handwriting styles have inspired discussion, imitation, and nostalgia, thanks in no small part to the tremendous success of the BSC franchise. I continued to produce the handwriting even after I left Scholastic. I’m wondering if you can guess which one got readers most excited. The fluidity of the movement was what mattered most. I love them both and still do to this day. They had me do a few different y’s and then write a w attached to a y or a t attached to a y. Notebooks were a big thing. Did you start at Scholastic after college? Certainly not as much, if any. Everything was designed by hand all the time. Writing was all over the place. But readers had a special connection because they were able to read the entries. Some handwritings I admired and some I didn’t, but they all reflected personality — confident, bold, quick, sad, or shy. The journal entries were shared only among the babysitters — not everybody in the stories had access to them. From a design perspective, I was always thinking about how to make each style unique and immediately identifiable. Can you locate us a bit more? Stacey. I think it might have been the one with the little hearts. They told us their general personalities, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. And then I handwrote all portions of the manuscripts that were flagged by editorial — usually BSC journal entries, but also the postcards and letters and lists that popped up from time to time. Graphic art back then was on the products and everyday objects right in front of you. I remember writing book reports, and notes to friends, and letters. For the ones that were lengthier, I’d have to take breaks because my hand would get tired. As I think back to books for children published during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I don’t think that handwriting was a terribly common feature in books for children. In it, each of us writes up every single job we go on. These objects were different and unique and artistic. If I’m sad or in a rush, if I’m concentrating on something or not really paying attention — all of this can affect my handwriting. It was a feast of handwriting in all different styles. Could you walk me through how you originally attached these various forms of penmanship to the different characters — Kristy, Claudia, Stacey? Stacey’s handwriting
Which of the penmanship styles was closest to how you yourself wrote? She also recalls moments of inspiration from her own childhood and adolescence in Queens that shaped her approach to design during the 1980s — including those memorable little hearts above Stacey’s i’s. I looked forward to sitting down and getting the area set up and reading about the BSC story and getting into that zone of doing the handwriting. The combination of the two was ideal. Yes! The process felt very intuitive and fun. After that, the freelance work stopped, but the books continued. So, for instance, Claudia wasn’t very good at spelling. My family got lots of letters, and I could tell just by the handwriting who it was from. Did you have a handwriting style that was your favorite? Were you able to produce the samples quickly? I grew up in the 1970s in Queens, New York, where I went to a public school. And everything there revolved around childhood and art, two things I’ve loved since I can remember. As a little girl, I was always writing letters and cards to friends. I would imitate my mother’s handwriting, which was very swishy-swashy and graceful, and my best friend’s handwriting, which was more bubbly and bold. They wanted someone to come on full-time. I was just a shy family girl from Queens. A rapidograph is a type of pen that you have to fill up with ink. This was very different from Kristy’s or Stacey’s writing, which was bolder and more confident. I don’t think so. And I do think that the handwriting in the case of BSC added a lot. I’d say it enhanced each character’s personality. It was our job to come up with different designs for each project. Your signature was almost like your personal logo, and so those loose-leaf covers would be filled with beautifully designed handwritten names. But really the choice of tools was not as important as controlling how my hand styled the letters. Yes, although different books required different amounts of handwriting. And teachers would write on the board in their own handwriting. Certain entries in my childhood diary were written to resemble Kristy’s style (“tomboyish, bossy”), while others, whose i’s were dotted with little hearts, were inspired by Stacey’s (“sophisticated”). They didn’t want the handwriting samples to look totally uniform, so it was quite an extensive process. What happened then? Each different type of pen would help make the handwriting look more distinct from the others. It came pretty naturally, probably because I loved handwriting and had different styles of my own penmanship anyway. I loved working in a publishing company at a real job so much that I decided to continue to work full-time and go to college at night to finish my degree. In book number 56, Keep Out, Claudia!, the notebook is described as “more like a diary. It took me an extra year and a half to graduate, but it was well worth it. Scholastic and the corporate world just felt like a better fit for me. It didn’t matter which one it was, it was just the fact that I was using my hand and putting a flair into the penmanship that was enjoyable. Well, the editors gave us a description of each of the characters in the series. I remember a lot of spiked purple and green hair. I feel like a dinosaur since that’s so different from how we work today! When it came to Stacey and her personality, I’m sure I imagined someone like her from my own school days, and the handwriting just followed suit. When all the design elements for the series were initially coming together, I created the handwriting styles for each character. And that made readers part of this secret, part of this little crowd, part of the babysitters club themselves. More than 180 million copies of the novels have been printed. That was certainly not unique. At that point, due to advances in technology, I was sent font forms by a company. I was very aware of the different personalities the writing styles expressed. Then we’re responsible for reading the notebook to find out how our friends solved [baby-]sitting problems, and to stay in touch with the lives of our clients.” Readers of the series typically encountered entries from the club notebook three times per installment. What did you like about Scholastic? In fact, I started while I was still in college. I was looking for a summer job and saw an advertisement on the job board at Parsons for a designer at Scholastic Books. How did you create the handwriting samples? I just liked the creativity of the handwriting and designing. Also, I write differently based on how I feel. Since this was a weakness, I made her handwriting smaller and more tentative, reflecting the lack of confidence she might have when writing. [Laughs.]
It’s interesting to hear about your process. I remember sitting at my drawing table, taping heavyweight bond paper down, and creating my own “note paper” using my T-square, triangle, and non-reproducing blue pencil. Do you remember when you first noticed different handwriting styles? So, for instance, when Dawn was introduced into the series, I knew her writing needed to be unlike the other characters, and her clear oversized print with the backward slant made that possible. The really popular kids would write strongly and boldly, and the girls would add things like stars and hearts for decoration. You’re right! For one thing, handwriting added a dimension to each character’s personality that typeset print couldn’t do. My classmates wore leather and chains. ¤
Kelly Blewett teaches in the English Department of Indiana University East. The editor would send us a summary of the upcoming books, plus a few general ideas for the cover. We had these loose-leaf binders — kids would carry them on the bus and throughout school. What started as a modest series for girls became a media phenomenon consisting of more than 250 books, three spinoff series, a handful of graphic novels, a television show, and a movie. I’d say that each of the handwriting styles in the BSC represents a way I wrote naturally at one point or another, although the differences between the handwriting styles are probably exaggerated. I worked as a freelancer until 1996. Did you produce handwriting for any other projects you worked on? My handwriting is pretty variable. As different as they might have seemed to the tween reader, all seven scripts were in fact created and produced by one graphic designer at Scholastic: Holly Tommasino. 
In this interview, Holly, who has never publicly discussed her contributions to BSC, looks back at her work for the series from 1986 through 1996. How did you get into graphic design? Kids would write like that all the time. For some penmanship styles, I used rapidographs and for others I used markers. I’d choose a pen from the rapidograph set based on how thick I wanted the line to appear. I liked how everything at Scholastic seemed different from my life as a student at Parsons. I remember, going back to my own school days with those denim binders, how important it was to have an impressive signature. They were made of denim cloth, and people were always writing on them. It was a lovely time and the work flowed easily. The width of the line of each rapidograph would always be uniform. I went for an interview, showed them my portfolio, and was offered the job. Or cereal boxes. What was your role with The Baby-Sitters Club? I even remember looking at a milk carton while I was eating breakfast one morning, and there was somebody’s artwork, right there on the side of the carton. Reading the notebooks was an insider moment. Well, let’s see. They all look like mine.