In 1986, Ann M. Martin began what would eventually become a juggernaut: the first book in a slated four-book series known as “The Baby-Sitters Club,” Kristy’s Great Idea. More than a generation later, the books bring up not only a sense of nostalgia for today’s twenty–fortysomethings, but the books are reaching the next generation of young readers. Between their two adaptations into the graphic novel format—one from Raina Telgemeier and one from Gale Galligan—as well as their release on audio from Audible, the traditional formats aren’t the only way the girls from Stoneybrook are staying alive. Netflix will also stream a new, live-action adaptation featuring a star-studded cast.
But what is is about this particular series that allows it to thrive in the places where other such series burned off or disappeared all together? Is there something about The Baby-Sitters Club that is truly unique? How does this series endure beyond pure nostalgia and remain relevant to today’s young readers?
These were the questions at heart in this episode of Annotated.
There’s more to the story, of course, as well as so much more to dig into. The guests who spoke with me for the podcast had incredible insights and perspectives, and it felt only right to offer up more space for such a beloved franchise.
What resonates with readers today is the same thing that resonated with readers during the height of the Baby-Sitters Club (BSC) popularity. At a time when finding a wide range of characters in terms of race, religion, and family structure proved challenging, Martin rose to the occasion.
Author and artist Yumi Sakugawa describes Martin’s ability to create a series of archetypes as one of the series enduring strengths, “[J]ust by the very basic setup of the book and the fact that every book is told in a first person perspective from one of the characters, I think you just get such an intimate perspective of every character and their personalities. Then you get the same format of understanding one character from their first person perspective, and then getting to know the other characters one by one. I feel like automatically you’re probably going to find one or two characters you really resonate with, that you can really relate to, because there is such a diversity of experiences in all of the characters. So for example, somebody with divorced parents, somebody who lost a mom, somebody who is very shy, somebody who has diabetes, somebody who’s not understood by their parents.”
Sakagawa, who created the zine Claudia Kishi: My Asian-American Female Role Model of the 90s, found Claudia’s representation in the series as not just an Asian American, but also as an artist, a powerful mirror for her own experiences. She grew up as a young second generation Asian American girl in the suburbs.
“Growing up, there were hardly any Asian American characters, Asian American girl characters, and so to find one Asian American character who was Japanese American, a girl, a creative person, that was just like finding a unicorn. I felt like I probably came across her when I was 8 or 9 years old, and so to have this cool 13-year-old girl who was artsy, and considered cool, and popular, and well-loved, and well-respected by her peers, I think that was just this narrative for me that I just didn’t find anywhere else, that was specific for a girl like me,” she said. “I’m so thankful for Claudia Kishi existing in my childhood because I think it really did give me permission to be weird, and creative, and experimental in both my fashion and my art practice.”
Amma Marfo, an independent higher education professional, writer, and editor, notes that Jessi was one of the first times she saw a young black girl like herself. “I think there are a lot of things to be said about finding somebody that looks like you in a book. And at that point, there really weren’t that many, especially talking about some of the other reading that I’d been doing. It was really, really white and I lived in an area that was really, really white. When a black character that was introduced, I want to say you first hear about Jessi in book 14, it was the same circumstances [as mine]. She was somebody who has right around school going age, took ballet. I was also taking ballet. Who had a younger sibling that was premature, same. So there were a lot of parallels that came from pretty deep within the literature and how the character was introduced.”
As refreshing and invaluable seeing someone like Jessi was, because she was a rarity, it became too easy fo Jessi to become the character that those in Amma’s life defaulted her to. She herself identified more strongly with other girls in the Club.
“I think of the original four, I was probably closest to Claudia. And then as other people started coming in and out, there were parts of me that really liked Dawn. There are parts that felt a lot like a Mallory, which we’ll talk a little bit more about. Once Jessi came along, there were some similarities there as well.”
She continued, “But I also think, especially now, that there’s a difference between identifying yourself as a character and somebody else identifying you as a character. And for me, anytime I was identified as a Jessi, it felt purely cosmetic, purely appearance ridden just like you’re the black character and there’s black character, ergo that’s you. It felt like more quickly arrived at, less nuanced, idea of who are you most like. It’s like, well I see you look like this person and therefore that’s who you are. And that was really different from how I came to identify as that character.”
In addition to having the opportunity to see someone who looked like her and shared characteristics she had, what Amma found inspiration from in the girls was their entrepreneurial spirit. At a time when—and since!—where romance loomed as one of the big central themes of a book for young readers, what lies at the heart of the BSC is that the girls come together to build a business.
Kristy’s mother, who was single, was in desperate need of a babysitter. While Kristy and her older brother took turns once a week, her mother didn’t want them to lose out on free time after school. It was here when Kristy sees a need and pitches it to best friend Mary Anne, then Claudia: what if there was one number where parents needing a babysitter could call and reach a group of potential sitters? In an era before smart phones, social media, and even the internet, the idea filled a much-needed gap in Stoneybrook’s community.
“In terms of other books that were coming out around that time for our age of readers, typically there was a one off where someone decided to start a business. It ended up going poorly in ways they couldn’t have expected, or they had to shut it down because there were things they didn’t know. Tied up in that was the idea that maybe kids shouldn’t do that thing,” said Amma. “So the idea that there was a group of girls who did it together and did it together for such a long time, and for the most part it did what it was supposed to do? I feel like that deviated from other versions of that narrative where they were telling kids you have to wait, or you don’t have everything you need, or it’s harder than you think. So having that example of being able to do it and do it really well for a 131 books plus the mystery super specials and spinoffs, that was valuable.”
David Levithan, publisher and editorial director for Scholastic, as well as award-winning and bestselling author, began his career in publishing working on the BSC series. He agrees that so much of the series power comes from not only the characters Martin created, but also her and the writing team’s commitment to sharing realistic, honest stories that didn’t shy away from the sometimes tough things young people experience.
“What was brilliant about it and what Ann sort of harnessed so well was she used a cast of characters as a way of really addressing a lot of serious issues and talking about the reality that a lot of the kids were facing in a way that they immediately accepted because it was coming through the lens of these characters they really cared about,” he said. “The series was about friendship, it was about engaging in your community, it was about being honest in talking about the things that were happening to you.”
“The interesting moments were, I think, coming up with the stories and talking about how to engage in things. We would plot it out year by year, almost, and we would just sit down with the editors, and we would say, okay, so where are we going with this? And obviously, some of it would be very character related. Oh, this character’s parents are getting married. Oh, this character is going to be held back in seventh grade again. But a lot of the times it was like, oh, we really haven’t talked about racism. Oh, let’s talk about learning disabilities.”
Working with a team for the series brought opportunities to discuss not just the big issues worth addressing, but also how to make them honest, authentic, and relatable to young readers—in a way that didn’t feel like an after school special.
“Let’s talk about these things that we want to talk about. That was always really exciting. And some of the most interesting moments were really to just talking about how to get it right for an 8–12-year-old. You had to find that special way of getting it across, but with it obviously not being too heavy handed. But at the same time, giving the kids and the readers enough information that they could actually understand something about the subject. So that was really fun.”
Shannon Supple, Curator of Rare Books for Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Books Collection, oversees the Ann M. Martin papers, which currently consist of over 21 linear feet of materials. She says that the deep work Martin and her team put into developing these stories—and doing so through the lens of care, love, and honesty for its readers—shines even in the notes and marginalia.
“The collection includes research materials that she compiled in addressing some of the difficult and complex issues that come up in The Baby-Sitters Club, like how young women and girls can be affected by death, and divorce, and bullying. You can see that she would actually go into scholarly journals. She would go into newspaper articles, and read up on that particular area so she would be able to create depth and speak from a place of knowledge around some of these hard issues.”
Supple notes that the Ann M. Martin papers showcase her process from the start of an idea through the drafting process. Even more than the clear research done to address the issues within the stories, though, are the thoughtful ways in which Ann chose to write. The stories didn’t come issue first or character first. Rather, the goal was reader first.
“Her synopses include how she expects the story to invoke feeling in the reader at particular points. In the synopsis, she’ll say her goal is for the readers to have positive feelings toward a particular character or group. So, she’s not necessarily even at that stage building a character or the plot, she’s saying, ‘My goal through chapter two is that the reader will feel connected and like these particular characters or this particular circumstance.’ I think that’s really interesting and a different approach to how I would think one would write. Part of Ann Martin’s craft is in building that feel and that connection between readers and the characters, and not just plotting, and that sort of character development on its own. She’s looking at what does it evoke and what does it do for the readers, which I think has a lot of meaning.”
Also noteworthy for Supple—and for readers and fans more broadly—is that The Baby-Sitters Club easily passes the Bechdel Test.
The Baby-Sitters Club has a ferocious and devoted fanbase. Offered via postal mail, The BSC Fan Club launched in spring/summer 1988 and allowed readers to take part in a subscription service wherein they received newsletters, fan club cards, memorabilia, and more. It allowed young readers to connect more deeply with the series.
But when the internet’s popularity rose alongside tools to make website creation easy in the early ’00s, so came now-legendary fansites devoted to all things BSC.
“The classic all time great Baby-Sitters Club fan based creation is the blog What Claudia Wore, which is basically, it is what it says. It goes through each book and talks about what Claudia wore that week. There’s a series of stuff that’s called, BSC Snark that was real live journal culture,” recalls Jack Shepard, one of the cohosts of the legendary podcast The Baby-Sitters Club Club. In the early aughts, the ability to connect with other fans of the series, made revisiting and reconnecting with the books—as well as with other fans of the books—much more possible.
“There were these cool artifacts from a different internet, that was probably 2005 onward, where people kind of in a way that is similar to what we were trying to do with the podcast, revisited these books as adults. And picked out what was fun about it and what was silly about it.”
As the internet grew up, so did the possibilities for the fandom. Enter, Jack and co-host Tanner Greenring’s podcast, among the countless blogs, Facebook groups, and other tools of connecting with the series and fandom.
“People who grew up with these books when they were coming out, there was no internet to talk about them with people. And so as with probably a lot of nostalgic things of the time, once blogs start happening and social media, you have this community that grows up 20 years after the fact and with these books that are 131 main books. So there’s just so much material and so much stuff to talk about. Certainly we’ve experienced it from the incredible community we have from our podcast, that it is so much fun to literally, 20 or 30 years later, share experiences of these things.”
Sheperd grew up with the books, but he kept his passion for all things BSC quiet. He hadn’t found his crew of friends yet, and the BSC gave him an opportunity to find literary friendship—as well as a means of connecting with his cousin. “[W]hen I moved to the U.S. from England, I think I was probably 7 or 8 years old. My best and only friend was my cousin and so I spent a lot of time hanging out at her house, and she just had this entire library of BSC books and Sweet Valley High. And so I just ended up sitting in her room and reading the books.”
Unlike many other fandoms, though, what separates the BSC from others is their open acceptance of all—regardless of how many books have been read, how deeply connected to any particular sitter a reader is, or any other marker of “deeper” passion for the books.
Amma, after talking about her own passion for The Baby-Sitters Club Club podcast, notes that perhaps this inclusivity in the fandom has to do with the parallel history of when readers discovered the series, as well as where and how they could connect with the series as technology itself advanced.
“I wonder if some of it is associated with who we were when that source material came out and how it existed. So the idea of it feeling really communal and like it’s something that people again can engage with for the most part civilly. That’s who we were when we first got to it. And I think in some ways it brings us back, and I think about the fandom of things like this in comparison with even other fan based things that I engage with (wherein sometimes there’s always a need to maybe not offer a correction, but add a point or make sure that I get heard—it’s a little bit less communal and more individualistic, and at its worst, a little bit more combative). But that’s not who we were when we read the BSC books. I think that being able to engage with it again in that wholesome way might be indicative of maybe some things that are missing other places, or that other fandoms maybe don’t necessarily encourage or have core to their being.”
Perhaps, too, it has to do with the biggest overarching theme and connective tissue of the book itself: friendship. At the end of the day in each of the books, regardless of what’s happened or who has felt angry with who, the members of the Baby-Sitters Club reconnect with one another and why it is they care for each other.
Schuyler Fisk is a singer and songwriter, who played the role of BSC founder and president Kristy Thomas in the original film. She and her fellow actresses in the film not only worked on building that theme of friendship into their roles, but also found themselves becoming friends while filming, and have remained friends since it released over 20 years ago.
“I think it’s just a special thing that Ann M. Martin created and that people connect with. I don’t think it tries too hard. When you boil it down, it’s about friendships and confidence and all these things that we all struggle with, not just when we’re young but our whole lives,” said Schuyler. “I really like the sisterhood that the girls have, the friendship. Sometimes girls struggle with girl-girl friendships because there’s a competition. Oh, is she prettier than me? Is she better than me? She’s smarter than me and better at sports. What I noticed so much about the girls who played these characters—us that were in the movie—is that our friendships throughout the last 20, however many years, has been very support, it’s very much in the same vein as Kristy and all the girls in the books. Because I don’t know, I don’t know if it was just based in that, somehow our friendship became this real strong female, lifting each other up thing. But I do think that’s important. especially just how everything is in the world, it’s good to have your girlfriends’ backs and not think of it as competition. And I love that about these characters.”
It’s hard not to see how the companionship, the camaraderie, and the support the girls had for one another translates into a fandom that thrives on positivity and connection.
The friendship and connection likewise allows the series to continue to thrive for the next generation of young readers. The addition of two graphic novel adaptations of the series are welcomed into the fold, as are the audiobooks, and the upcoming Netflix series. There’s not competition among the fandom about whether or not the new projects are necessary, nor do they evoke nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia. Long-time fans of the series instead see these additions as furthering the power of the series, connecting to their history—both that which is personal to them and that which allows those books to then thrive for the next generation.
Morgan Baden, author and former vice president of social media and internal communications at Scholastic, highlights this connection as it relates to the graphic novels. The Scholastic building, which finished a four-year-renovation recently, includes a mural in the basement painted by Raina Telgemeier of the Baby-Sitters Club girls. Telgemeier did the art for the original graphic novels.
“It’s a very Instagrammable wall. It’s funny to me because the original cover art is iconic, but it’s neat how Raina and now Gail [Galligan]’s is a different take on it, but they evoke the same feelings in me as the original art.” It’s not just the art, though. The same reasons that the fandom thrives—that friendship, connection, and coming together for a shared experience, may also explain why these new additions to the series aren’t seen as a threat or challenge.
“They sort of exist in their own spheres. There’s not a competition there, so I don’t think any fan looks at the new art and says, ‘Well, it’s better or worse than the old art,’ or, ‘The graphic novels are better or worse,’ or whatever. They just sort of exist as their own entities, and yet they’re obviously in the same universe and so there’s no competition there. It feels like it’s just another wraparound part of the big BSC universe. Everyone just welcomes whatever BSC content we can get,” Baden said.
What’s especially exciting about these new ventures is that the creators behind them grew up as fans of the series and now, with the capital and career power behind them, are able to expand the reach of the series—and with the blessing of Ann M. Martin.
Netflix announced in February 2019 that they acquired a live action adaptation of the book series. Naia Cucukov of Walden Media, one of the producers behind the series, wanted to get involved with the project because of her passion for the books, which began when she was young. In her role, she saw this as a prime time to bring the series back to the screen for a number of reasons. Like the ability of the social web to draw fans together, new means of watching content—while affording the opportunity to draw viewers apart—can also work as a means of bringing them together.
“The great thing about where we are as an industry now, with the advent of the streaming services is … It’s the good and the bad, really. There’s a lot of kind of fractured viewings, so there’s not as many people that are crowded around the television or going to the movie theater together as families. It’s a lot more single-screen, personal experience,” Naia said. “But the good part about something like that is it makes something like a show that is primarily for young girls and their mothers a very viable thing in the marketplace. And so it felt like with the kind of wave of nostalgia we were going through with the fact that there are so many creatives that at this point grew up loving the series and could really bring a fresh take, it was the perfect time.”
When rights to the series went back to Ann, fellow executive producer Lucy Kitada approached Naia about reaching out to Ann and seeing what she thought about bringing the series to a whole new generation.
“At Walden, we are always looking for these kind of co-viewing moments. There are so few and far between now, but there’s some things that are special about characters that you loved as a child and really helped shape your own personal identity, and being able to share that with your kids, to me that’s a really special thing. And with the advent of Scholastic putting out the graphic novel series, reintroducing and recreating the characters for kids today, it just felt like the perfect time because kids are reintroduced to The Baby-Sitters Club.”
The series has Ann’s full blessing, and will retain all of the crucial components of the books that made readers fall in love in the 1980s and 1990s while also giving new viewers the opportunities to connect for themselves.
“Ann did such a great job at the onset of the series in creating characters and situations that already kind of pushed the envelope for back in the day. She was dealing with divorce. She was dealing with diversity and racism. She was dealing with chronic illness and kids on the spectrum. And this was in the ’90s, which was completely unheard of at the time. We already had a great blueprint, and now it’s just moving that forward for the modern age.” The series will deal with some of the challenges and realities today’s kids experience, she added. “It’s dealing with issues that kids today are dealing with, taking things like the worst parents that step further, talking about same-sex couples, talking about just the things that are just a given in our modern world that I think back then weren’t at all in the popular conversation. At the same time, we are trying to make a more kind of inclusive landscape for our girls. Stoneybrook is going to feel a little bit more like modern times. I think that it’s going to feel like a very diverse, really fully fleshed out place, and then that’s going to include some of our girls as well.”
Given that Kristy’s great idea hinged upon the fact that there were no easy ways for parents to locate babysitters, how will that translate into a series set in today’s landscape of smart phones, social media, and websites like care.com?
Naia can’t talk to all of the answers she and the team have for this conundrum, but they aren’t afraid to bring modern technology into the story and make it real. “It is a different time. It’s like, ‘Why do they have to use the landline now?’ And we have an answer for that. We also have all of the girls having very different experiences and relationships with technology. Someone like Stacey was cyber-bullied at her last school, and that’s part of the reason why she’s moved to Stoneybrook. Someone like a Claudia, who’s got a sister who’s a tech genius, probably is a little bit more of a Luddite and just really doesn’t like modern technology. And that’s a whole wave of kids today as well, the ones that are going back to flip phones and stuff. So, we’re playing with all of those things, at the same time, trying to keep it as timeless as possible because at the end of the day, your friendships with your girlfriends, your relationships with your parents, your first crushes, all of those things are so universal and have been issues for young girls and will continue to be issues for young girls for all time. So we’re just trying to keep it as kind of universal as possible while still being very kind of smart about how we tip towards maternity.”
Naia and her partners took their cues from the series itself, inviting a diverse and inclusive writers room to be part of the creative process (she herself is half Asian American and found great connection with Claudia in her youth). The BSC girls served as their blueprint beyond the fictional world, reminding them to celebrate and affirm female power in the workplace and beyond.
The series has Ann’s full blessing and, Naia adds, “The girls will always and forever, to borrow a phrase from The Baby-Sitters Club, be encased in amber at the age of 13. They’re not going past that in our series.”
No discussion of the Baby-Sitters Club’s enduring legacy and fandom would be complete without considering where the girls would be now, had they themselves left that amber encasing.
“Ann started writing The Baby-Sitters Club with the babysitters in seventh grade, the year that I was in seventh grade,” said David. “So that whenever people would ask me, why did they keep repeating eighth grade over and over again, I’d be ‘like because if we aged them, they’d be my age right now.’ So, right now, they’d be 46. That’s not very exciting. Going on 47. So, that was always very funny that here were these characters that were not aging, but I was their alternate universe counterpart that I escaped seventh grade in 1985, they did not.”
But what if they did escape?
Yumi believes Claudia would have an illustrious career in art—maybe even fashion—traveling the world.
“If [Claudia] was invited to the most recent Met Gala where the theme was ‘camp’, I think she would have done something really interesting and cool. Like maybe she would have worn a dress with real junk food hanging off of her ensemble, like a Twizzler necklace, and candy bars on hooks hanging from her head-to-toe dress, and she gets to like give candy to people around her. I think she would be very vocal about being an Asian American woman in the arts, because she grew up in Stoneybrook, Connecticut, where there were like no other Asian people. As an adult, she would be very aware of the fact that she herself didn’t have a diverse community, that had a lot of problematic views on race,” Yumi said. “I see her as this young adult Yoko Ono, making art, being a fashion icon, and doing a lot of cool, weird, experimental stuff, where she’s so cool, she doesn’t even live in Brooklyn. She’s probably living, she’s probably globetrotting in different art residencies around the world. Also, she’s probably giving back to arts education, and offering scholarships for young Asian American woman artists, to further dispel the stereotype that Asian Americans are not creative people who would be interested in the arts.”
Naia believes that, with the Netflix series, two of the characters who were wildly ahead of their time in the series will enjoy new-found fan followings in a way they might not have otherwise.
“One of the most interesting statistics I heard through our time spent with Scholastic was that Dawn was one of the least favorite characters back in the day. And I think a little bit of that was it wasn’t cool to be so environmentally conscious. It wasn’t cool to be so woke. It was kind of like, “Okay. While I roll, she’s off doing her save-the-world thing.” It came across as preachy when we were kids, but now she is time and time again referenced as one of this generation’s favorite characters. And I think a lot of that is because kids today are so much more aware of what’s going on in the world. They are so much more woke. And having a character who possesses all of those things is really important. So I think Dawn was also very ahead of her time.”
As for where Dawn is now, Naia suggests she’s a Gwyneth Paltrow type who “has an alpaca farm somewhere in California, she churns her own butter, and she tries to live off the land. She, at one point, tried being a freegan, but that just is a little too much effort. And so she’s back to veganism.”
The other character ahead of her time?
“Kristy was such a girl boss,” said Naia. “She knew exactly what she wanted. She knew how to get it. She could be sometimes seen as bossy or shrill or any of those phrases that I think today we welcome and we realize are positive things and that, just kind of years of the patriarchy kind of trying to pull us down and insulting us. It wasn’t a great thing to be a Kristy at points because you knew that meant that you were a little much. And I think it’s celebrated to be a little much because the strong women in history are constantly called a little much. So I think now, thinking of her in the future, she’s a badass senator, CEO, something like that. She’s still running a softball team on the side.”
Schuyler agrees, noting that Kristy was a role model for her while playing the character and she’s identified with her since. “She’s a leader and she’s really strong and she doesn’t take crap. And I think that was really cool and it was definitely empowering to play someone like that, who had such a sense of self at such a young age.”
That’s what Dawn says in book nine, The Ghost at Dawn’s House, and it rang true before, as well as ringing true through the rest of the books, their spin-offs, and the other media created and being created that honors this series.
“One of the fun moments I had in one of my few weeks on the job at Smith was a girl who was about 8 or 9 years old, maybe a little older, maybe 10, walked into the library with her mom and sort of asked shyly if we had some special information about The Baby-Sitters Club,” said Shannon. “She was kind of looking down at her feet, but her mom was encouraging her to ask the questions that she wanted. It was so fun, because her mom clearly had known her interests and brought her to the right place to learn more about what we had.”
“I was just delighted, because she was so excited to see things like outlines and book covers. I thought, “Is this 10, 9 year old going to be interested in these materials?” But it was special for her, and it was special to see Ann’s handwriting and sort the work of developing a book that has a lot of meaning to her. I thought that was so much fun. That was a girl who was 9 just a few years ago, so it’s interesting to see the continued interest in kids in addition to fans who are now adults, who are interested in coming in.”
Certainly, nostalgia is part of why The Baby-Sitters Club endures. But it’s so much more. It’s a sense of community. It’s a sense of friendship. And it’s a sense of being able to escape into a world that offers all of the realities of the world around us, but offered through the eyes of eighth graders doing the best that they can with the tools at their disposal.
They rally together. They work together.
And at the end of the day, that’s what makes the world go around. It’s what makes stories like these—with characters who become your best friends—live on for generations and generations.
Thank you to all of the incredible guests for the podcast and for this piece. Links to their work is available throughout. Smith College’s special collections, including the Ann M. Martin papers, are open to the public.