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It was the era of Waldenbooks, Crown Books, Bookland, and the early start of Borders. It was the era of You Can’t Do That On Television and Clarissa explaining it all. Grunge bands ruled the airwaves, the OJ Simpson car chase was the biggest thing live news had ever seen, and the first web browser went online.
While all this was happening, four girls in Stoneybrook, Connecticut, were plotting how to take their little babysitting business, run from Claudia Kishi’s bedroom, and turn it into a global empire.
The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC), founded by a rag tag team of four 7th-grade girls — Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey — would take on everything from babies to dogs, snowstorms to shipwrecks, divorce, death, and any and everything in between.
Over time, the BSC grew to ten members and the series to 213 books, which have sold more than 176 million copies worldwide. What began as a humble idea in the late 1980s and early 1990s exploded into a phenomenon like none other.
The Baby-Sitters Club entered the world in 1986. In the decades since, it has spun off into side-series, graphic novel series, a standalone film, a TV series, board games, as well as contemporary audiobooks and a Netflix series.
Why is it readers love this series so much? What gives the Baby-Sitters Club series staying power unlike any other for young readers? Why does this fandom thrive, and how does it remain a welcoming, inclusive community?
David Levithan, an award-winning young adult author, as well as publisher and editorial director at Scholastic, began his career at the peak of Baby-Sitters Club popularity.
“I started off as an intern here when I was 19 and, by shear luck, was assigned to, among other people, Bethany Buck, who was then the editor of The Baby-Sitter’s Club. I had never heard of The Baby-Sitter’s Club. […] I found many of my friends had younger siblings who were devoted, devoted fans and I, therefore, had the coolest job in the universe, according to them,” he said.
By the time Levitan joined Scholastic, there were already more than 50 books in the series, and there was no end in sight.
“I started with it already being a hit to a degree that it really was almost unprecedented. And I think that it was just sort of astonishing to see. Usually a series ran for 10 or 12 books, if it was lucky, with the exception of something like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, most series had a nice life and then they ended.”
But The Baby-Sitters Club was just getting started.
“And there were all the spin offs and there were such devoted fans that it really was a question of how many stories can we tell?”
Before we get too far down that road, let’s go back to book one.
The Baby-Sitters Club begins with Kristy’s Great Idea. Kristy’s single mother, who usually relies on Kristy, her older brother, and a rotation of sitters, is desperate to find someone to watch Kristy’s younger siblings. When she’s unable to find a sitter one day, Kristy has an idea: what if people seeking a babysitter could call one number at a specific time and date each week and reach a number of potential sitters at once?
She presents the idea to best friend and neighbor Mary Anne, who loves it, then they bring in Claudia Kishi, who suggests inviting Stacey McGill. And thus, the Babysitters Club is born.
The series was initially planned to be just four books, but Scholastic quickly recognized they had a hit on their hands and ordered more. As the shelves of Baby-Sitters Club books filled up, the club itself was also growing. By the end of the series, the BSC boasted ten members. Clearly, something very special was happening.
“The whole premise, the whole idea of the Baby-Sitter’s Club was so ahead of its time, in a way. Because it’s these young women coming into their own, but they’re entrepreneurs and they’re strong and they’re finding work for themselves. And it’s a we can do it attitude. So it was pretty cool at that time of being 11, 11, 12, to be exposed to that positive role model,” said Schulyer Fisk, who played Kristy in the 1995 The Baby-Sitters Club film.
“I really loved that Kristy was the leader. I loved that she was a tomboy and she was strong and she was really a go getter. During the movie, we have a summer camp,” explains Fisk. “And she’s leading the kids with a bullhorn and telling people where to go and organizing it. And it’s a lot of work and she just, she has no fear. And I thought that that was really cool. And she was friends with the guys, which I liked. I just thought she was a cool girl and I thought her confidence was really something special.”
It’s empowering to see confident, can-do, go-getter girls and women in books and on screen at any stage of life, but the BSC reached its audience at a particularly important time.
“Because that age, middle school age is so hard. And kids can be so mean and so tough and even your closest friends can be horrible to you. So to be able to tap into someone with an inner strength like that was really, it was beneficial for my own personal life,” said Fisk.
And it’s not just the characters’ outward behavior that was inspiring. The girls had rich personal lives, and they were diverse in a way that was rare to see at the time.
Kristy came from a family of divorce that saw a remarriage and blended family; Mary Anne was raised by a protective single father after her mother’s death; Stacey had diabetes and was nervous to tell her new friends about it; Dawn moved from California with her mother after her parents divorced.
And more, Stoneybrook featured characters like Claudia Kishi, a Japanese American girl who was a superbly fashionable artist living with a high-achieving sister, a beloved grandmother, and married parents.
For award-winning comic artist and author Yumi Sakugawa, Claudia offered an opportunity to see herself on the page.
“I love Claudia Kishi not just because she is Asian-American and Japanese-American, like me. The other thing that resonated so much with me is that she is an artist like me.
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,” said Sakugawa.
Eugene Myers, an award-winning YA science fiction author, agrees.
“Claudia, I think…She didn’t stand out just because she was Asian, but she stood out because she was very different. She made a point of having her own style, and the thing I maybe remember about her more than her being Asian is she was an artist. She was also on the cover of some of the books. How many Asians were on the covers of children’s books? Like, ever?”
Even today, that’s much less common than it should be. That Claudia was visible at all was a big deal, but it’s how she showed up that really made an impact.
“She was not ashamed of being her own person because I think that, as somebody growing up, who, as an Asian living among mostly other white people, you try to fit in,” said Myers. “You’re already drawing attention because you look different from everyone else, but she was owning it, and being different for other reasons, so that’s not necessarily the first thing someone would even necessarily notice, is “Oh, she’s Asian.” It was like, “Oh, no, she’s got this really cool outfit.” Or, “Look at her earrings.””
Stoneybrook — and the Baby-Sitters Club — was also home to dancer Jessi Ramsey and her family, who were among the few Black people in town. Remarkably, the books addressed the racism and hostility the Ramseys experienced head-on.
Amma Marfo, an…
Read More:The Legacy of The Baby-Sitters Club