If you were a girl anywhere in the Western world born between 1980 and 2000 — or if you even know anyone who matches that description — then you know The Baby-Sitters Club.
The book series by Ann M. Martin, about a group of friends in the fictional town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut who use their care-taking skills and entrepreneurial spirit to run a babysitting business, was wildly popular. More than 100 million copies were sold worldwide, inspiring several spin-off series (Baby-Sitters Little Sister, the Super Specials, and The Baby-Sitters Club Mysteries).
Now, following the series’ adaptation into graphic novels, a 1995 movie, and a season-long TV show, The Baby-Sitters Club is getting a renaissance. On Tuesday, all 131 novels will be available in audiobook form on Audible.ca. The first five books — which, as diehards know, introduce the points of view of the five main characters, Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, Stacey and Dawn — are narrated by actress Elle Fanning.
And earlier this year, Netflix announced that it’s working on a new, 10-episode live-action series based on The Baby-Sitters Club, with a creative team that includes alums from “Broad City” and “GLOW.”
Since the series began in 1986, Martin’s been asked many, many times why The BSC is so popular — and she’s had a lot of time to think about her answer.
“Babysitting aside, they’re about pretty timeless things,” she told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview. “Family, friendship. And this amazing group of girls who have their own lives, almost apart from the adults.”
She didn’t specifically set out to write for pre-teen girls when she started the series, Martin said — she was simply writing in a voice that felt easy for her to access.
“Most of the characters that I write about have been between the ages of, say, 10 and 14. I don’t know why it feels more natural, but it just does,” she said. “I like writing about more complicated characters, and 13-year-old girls can be very complicated.
“They’re navigating a lot of changes in their lives and some of it was touched on in The Baby-Sitters Club. School stuff, bullying, first crushes, boyfriends, fights among friends. I find that a pretty rich mine of material to delve into.”
“I like writing about more complicated characters, and 13-year-old girls can be very complicated.”
And even though her main characters were all girls, “I didn’t feel that I was writing just for girls,” she said. “Certainly most of the letters that I received were from girls, but there were always a few from boys.”
In fact, she now hears from many grown men who tell her they enjoyed the series as kids, but that they read the books in secret due to their perceived “girliness.”
“I feel bad that they felt that they couldn’t talk about it when they were growing up,” she said. “I know it’s not my fault — it says much more about the times.”
At the time she was writing the novels, the landscape of books focused on girls and aimed at pre-teens was significantly less varied than it is now. There was lots of great YA, but The Baby-Sitters Club filled a particular niche: many readers were a few years younger than the target demographic for Sweet Valley High, and may not have been comfortable yet with Judy Blume’s frankness about sexuality. But The BSC shared the accessible nature of those books, unlike some kids’ books, which can be skew didactic or boring.
That balance was deliberate, Martin said. “I didn’t like books when I was growing up that were pedantic. I wanted them to be fun. When I was writing these stories, I wanted to create characters that were smart and funny — I like funny — and who were different enough from one another so that readers could find at least one that they could identify with.”
And the characters’ independence — what the New Yorker later called the books’ “feminist legacy” — was important, too. “I really liked that it was a group of girls who had their own business,” she said. “Adults were not a large part of the picture, of the landscape of their lives. They were there, they knew they could depend on their parents, but they were pretty independent. And I liked showcasing independent girls.”
And while Stoneybrook was a largely white space, one of the main characters, Claudia Kishi, was rare in her time for being an Asian character who was granted depth, complexity and interests that fell far outside of stereotypes. Claudia (who got her surname from a childhood friend of Martin’s) was an artist who loved fashion and junk food. She was also dyslexic. And though she occasionally faced racism, Claudia wasn’t defined by her race.
“I don’t remember specifically sitting down and thinking, ‘Okay, one of the characters needs to be Asian and I don’t want her to be stereotypically Asian’” Martin said of Claudia’s cult icon status. “On the other hand, I didn’t want any of the characters to be stereotypes.
“I did realize eventually that Claudia held a lot of meaning to readers who were Asian who didn’t have characters who looked like them to read about in other books. And that was very important to me.”
One of the questions she gets most often is about where the characters might be now. “I don’t know if many of the answers will surprise you,” she said. She imagines Kristy in charge of some kind of big organization. Jessi is a dancer, Stacey works in fashion, Claudia is an artist living in Manhattan. Dawn is in California working on environmental causes, Mary Anne became a teacher and stayed in Stoneybrook, as did Mallory, who’s a writer of some kind.
Thinking about the characters’ futures can be fun — but “I have more fun thinking about them as they were in the series.”