I could have never predicted what would happen next…
Background: Willo Davis Roberts was one of the more prolific writers toiling away in the YA/Middle Reader vineyards of the 1970s and 80s, authoring YA Romances (3 titles in the Sunfire series), social-problem books (including Don’t Hurt Laurie!) and supernatural thriller/revenge/wish-fulfillment stories (The Girl With Silver Eyes).
The Plot: This one has a lot of things going on at once. It’s a humorous, mild adventure about babysitting bratty kids. It then swerves into social-problem territory, with a major subplot about child abuse. And finally, it turns into a thriller, in which the teenaged heroine and her charges are kidnapped, and she must outwit their assailants and escape.
13-year-old Darcy Stevens is a seasoned babysitter by the time she interviews with “Dr/Mrs” Foster, a wealthy local psychiatrist, to fill in sitting for her three children when the family housekeeper has dental work done. Even during the interview, Darcy is perceptive enough to guess what she will be getting into with Shana (age 2), Melissa (4) and Jeremy (6), as the kids silently taunt her behind their mother’s back. But it’s only for a few days, and she’ll be paid twice her usual rate, with the promise of a bonus, so it’s too good a deal to turn down. As she relates to her BFF Irene:
“I’ve taken care of one bratty kid, remember Freddie Cyphers? And I’ve taken care of two reasonably good kids at a time, the Martino girls. But I’ve never tried it with three brats at once.”
Strange things start to happen as soon as her older brother picks her up from the interview, and Darcy notices a beat-up old car seems to be following them home. The next day, out with Irene, she sees the car again and memorizes the license plate number (boy-crazy Irene hopes that they have secret admirers). Although they immediately run into a (young and hunky) rookie patrol officer, they forget to report the car, because he’s looking for a classmate of the girls, a chromic runaway named Diana Hazen.
Officer Chris Roberts questions Darcy and Irene about Diana’s home life, and the girls tell him that all the kids know that her father beats her up, but the adults don’t notice or won’t believe her. Officer Chris seems to take the information seriously and takes down Darcy and Irene’s information so he can call if he has more questions.
Irene giggled. “Do you realize that a man has finally asked for our phone numbers?”
Darcy’s first day on the job with the Foster kids isn’t a total disaster- Jeremy melts a plastic plate in the microwave making BLTs for lunch, then calls his uncle long-distance in Hawaii. Shana gets into her mother’s expensive makeup and makes a mess, and in the middle of all this a man appears at the door claiming to be from the gas company, but refuses to produce an ID. When Mrs. Murphy, the housekeeper, arrives home from her appointment, she shrugs it off: “You’ll have to be careful, or they’ll talk you into things.”
But Darcy figures she got off easy when she hears that Jeremy set the garage on fire on the last babysitter’s watch.
Darcy and Irene learn about that when they stumble across the missing Diana, hiding out in a makeshift camp in the local park. She tells them that the abuse from her father has gotten so bad that she’s secretly arranged with her older brother to move to California as soon as he finishes Army Basic Training; with three weeks to go, she just couldn’t wait for him to send her money for a bus ticket. Diana relates that her used to beat up her older sister, Ellen, as well until she got married as an escape- Ellen used to babysit the Fosters and confirms that they have always been terrors.
Diana swears Darcy and Irene to secrecy, and they give her the few dollars they have on them and promise to come back later with some food. Darcy “theoretically” talks over Diana’s situation with her older brother, but he’s not much help. Eventually Darcy and Irene scheme to hide Diana in the Stevens’s old tree house, supplying her with a sleeping bag and air mattress.
The Diana-plot is pretty much abandoned at this point, and Darcy is again occupied with the Foster kids, and a series of strange happenings at the mansion. The burglar alarm is tripped in the middle of the day, and the police show up to investigate, noting that it appears that someone tried to jimmy open the garage door. After calling Mr. Foster, who is assured that the police have the situation under control, Darcy decides to remain at the Fosters as scheduled. The kids, wound up from all of the excitement, go berserk reenacting the “crime” until Melissa skins her knee, requiring a Band-Aid.
While patching up Melissa, Darcy is relived to hear the garage door open and see Mrs. Murphy’s car pull up the driveway early. But the other two kids are being suspiciously quiet… and when she goes to round them up, she walks in mid-kidnapping.
Darcy does herself no favors when she immediately makes the kidnappers and blurts out their names- it’s Diana’s father and two of her brothers!
Now in it, the kidnappers throw Darcy into Mrs. Murphy’s stolen car along with the kids and drive them far out of town to a remote, abandoned farm house.
Shifting gears this final time, the book finally gains some traction, as Darcy and the kids wait to see if the Fosters will pay the ransom demand, and debate whether they should make an escape attempt.
Held in the second story of the house, guarded by a pair on mean-looking Doberman Pinschers, Darcy tries to keep the kids calm while closely observing their captors and surroundings. The kids, especially Jeremy, surprise her by being up to the task themselves. While Darcy quickly realizes that Dan, the younger Hazen brother, is the dimmest and most distractible of the bunch, Melissa and Shana work on winning over the guard dogs, secretly feeding them scraps from their fast-food meals. They discover a hidden door from the attic to the house’s cupola, and later Darcy and Jeremy go on a daring recon mission when Dan is distracted watching a cop show on TV.
However, they find the property too densely surrounded by fallen brush to get to the main road, so, thinking on their feet, they lay a false trail and, hoping that the cops will outwit the Hazens when they try to collect the ransom that night, plan to use the only weapon they can find: a large wasp nest hanging from the window outside the cupola.
Honestly? It’s a pretty good plan. Knocking the nest into a leftover plastic bag from their KFC dinner, Darcy takes the kids and hides in the cupola, where they watch the cops come down the main road, lights and sirens blazing… right past them.
When the Hazens go to make their getaway and discover the kids missing, Pa Hazen goes into a rage and kicks the dogs (which does not go well for him), while the brothers find the door to the cupola… but Darcy is ready for them. Getting the kids and herself out onto the roof, she releases the weaponized wasps into the cupola, closing the window behind her, just as the cops double back to rescue them (with the help of a ladder truck from the fire department because now the house is full of wasps).
The Hazens get arrested. The Fosters learn valuable lessons about delegating parenting to overtaxed hired help, although they keep Darcy on as a babysitter for the newly-chastened children. Diana, who had pretty much been forgotten by this point, gets to go live with her Aunt in California. Darcy is joyfully reunited with her parents, and oh boy, she can’t wait to tell Irene everything.
Meta! Department: It is repeatedly noted that one of the few possessions Diana took with her when she ran away was “a book about a girl who was abused by her mother”. Could it be Roberts’s Don’t Hurt Laurie! ?)
Sign It Was Written In 1985 Department: Darcy and Jeremy are able to make their daring escape because Dan is not only distracted by the TV, but also eating a Hershey’s Big Block.