I was raised by the Baby-Sitters Club. And if you were a girl growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, you probably were too.
The Baby-Sitters Club, Ann M. Martin’s book series about a group of middle-school girls who leverage their child care capabilities into their own small business, was foundational for a generation. From 1986 to 2000, Martin and a small army of ghostwriters wrote 213 volumes (131 in the main series and the other 82 in spinoffs), with 176 million copies printed.
Ostensibly the books were for kids ages 9 to 12, but I read them when I was much younger, and so did most of my friends. Young children are voracious consumers, and for much of the series run, the Baby-Sitters industrial complex was putting out one book every month. They were like comic books, only about children taking care of younger children instead of fighting supervillains. (They did occasionally solve mysteries, though; mostly in the Mysteries and Super Mysteries spinoff series.)
And now, a new generation is meeting the babysitters. On July 3, Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club premieres. It’s a triumph of a TV show, faithful to the books in characters and spirit and style, but updated for a new generation. The new babysitters have smartphones (but still use a retro landline for official club business), and a social media campaign (but they still hand out flyers to better access their target clientele of worried parents). But what’s best about Netflix’s version of The Baby-Sitters Club is that it breathes out the old-fashioned warmth and charm the books had at their very best.
That charm wasn’t necessary for a faithful adaptation; the Baby-Sitters Club books were often not at their very best, and generally were not particularly charming or particularly warm. They were churned out in a factory, and it showed.
But the books didn’t actually need to be warm and charming or objectively well-written to do their job. That’s not why they existed. That’s not why they were beloved by a generation. They existed to give their young readers a safe, secure, and unchanging space. And to do as much, they needed to be just a little bit terrible.
In early volumes, Kristy Thomas is as compelling and complex as Ramona Quimby. That complexity fades rapidly, and that’s okay.
The saga of the babysitters begins with 1986’s Kristy’s Great Idea, in which 12-year-old Kristy — the bossiest of the babysitters and hence their de facto leader — is inspired to begin the club after witnessing her mother struggle to find a sitter on short notice. Taking note of the number of hassled commuter parents in their small middle-class town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, Kristy recruits her best friends Mary Anne and Claudia, plus the cool new girl Stacey. The goal is to create a club so that busy parents only have to call one number to reach a whole passel of responsible, experienced babysitters. Before long, the girls have a business plan and a loyal clientele, and soon they’re raking in the money.
Kristy’s Great Idea is actually a good book, by which I mean that you can read it as an adult and enjoy yourself. Kristy, who builds her first small business at the age of 12 and is completely successful at it, is one of those brash and bold little girls that children’s literature is full of, a close cousin of both Ramona Quimby and Harriet the spy. And she’s a natural story engine: She’s so brimming with ambition and plans that you can’t help but like her, but she’s so abrasive and bossy to her friends that you can’t blame them when tension arises within the group that will need to be sorted out.
It’s immensely pleasurable to watch Kristy’s determination and drive push her into a bad situation, and then to watch her use that same determination and drive — and the power of friendship! — to make her way out of it.
And the interpersonal tensions between the girls are, at these early stages, beautifully drawn. Kristy and Mary Anne are both plainly still kids, and while they’re responsible enough to take care of smaller children, by and large they dress and behave like kids. Claudia and Stacey, meanwhile, are aspiring toward teendom. They’ve developed new fascinations with clothes and makeup and boys. Kristy and Mary Anne feel left behind and rejected; Claudia and Stacey feel awkward and uncomfortable about hanging out with girls less cool than they are. They all care about each other and enjoy each other’s company regardless. It’s the kind of friend group fracture that emerges all the time around age 12, and reading along as the babysitters navigate it is wildly compelling.
But there’s a steep downhill drop in quality after that first book, perhaps because Martin began releasing new volumes with increasing speed. And after the first 35 novels, when Martin took a step back and the ghostwriters arrived, the quality of the books rapidly deteriorated. They lost their specificity of voice and the distinctive energy that drove Kristy’s Great Idea forward.
Plot developments stopped mattering from one book to another. Under Martin’s auspices the girls aged from 12 to 13 and moved forward from the seventh to the eighth grade, but as ghostwriters took over, the members of the Baby-Sitters Club became stuck in time and stopped progressing. However many summertime beach vacations they would serve as mother’s helpers on, when school came back in the fall, they would always find themselves starting eighth grade all over again. (Except Claudia, who got moved back a year to seventh grade in volume 101, 1996’s Claudia Kishi, Middle School Dropout.)
But these quality considerations don’t matter so much when you’re a small child plowing your way through the series, not when you have the pleasures of formula to look forward to. Children love repetition, and the Baby-Sitters Club books repeat exquisitely.
The Baby-Sitters Club books were built on formula. That’s what made them fun to read.
The formula of each Baby-Sitters Club book is simple. And all 131 volumes of the central series repeated it exactly.
In chapter one, we meet our narrator for the book. (Each book is narrated by a different babysitter in the first person.) She describes her own appearance and personality, and then she lays out her central conflict for the book: Perhaps Stacey is too interested in boys and is losing track of what really matters, or Claudia is having a hard time focusing on her schoolwork when she’s so much more invested in her art and her babysitting.
In chapter two, the narrator attends a Baby-Sitters Club meeting in Claudia’s bedroom, because Claudia has her own telephone line and also is prone to stashing junk food in secret hiding places. There the narrator looks around at her friends, and one by one she describes their clothing, their two central personality traits, and where they fit in the club’s interpersonal network.
Always this section will include a lengthy description of Claudia’s truly astonishing wardrobe, because Claudia’s defining personality trait is that she is artistic and loves clothes. Her outfit descriptions are always the most playful and creative passages of each book, which is probably why they have become the most enduring legacy of the series and there are multiple blogs and Instagrams devoted to Claudia’s sense of fashion. Personally, I will never forget the time she decided to dress up as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus to go to school because she had a big science test coming up and she thought dressing as Ms. Frizzle would inspire her.
I am reading Kristy’s Great Idea to prep for the new Netflix Baby-Sitter’s Club and can we all take a second to appreciate the very first Claudia Kishi outfit? Truly a legend pic.twitter.com/1k8scCEsOp— Constance Grady (@constancegrady) June 28, 2020
From there, the book proceeds through a few episodic babysitting jobs, while the current narrator handles her own interpersonal and/or family issues. By the end of the book, the whole thing will have been resolved, with the help and unfailing support of the Baby-Sitters Club.
For a child reader, this repeated formula is the next best thing to hearing your favorite song on a loop until you’re so tired of it that it’s physically painful to hear it again. There’s a sense of deep comfort, an almost voluptuous feeling of security, that comes in knowing exactly what will happen from one book to the next. It’s pleasurable in the same way that having old episodes of Friends on in the background is pleasurable. You’re hanging out with your friends, watching them do exactly the same thing they always do. How wonderful.
And you also have the pleasure of self-identification. Each babysitter has approximately two personality traits, which is exactly as many as you need to figure out which one you identify with most, like a proto-Sex and the City sorting: Kristy is bossy and tomboyish, while Stacey is a trendy New Yorker and also diabetic. I myself (bookish and shy) figured myself for a Mary Anne as soon as I cracked open my first book. But when Martin promoted 11-year-old Mallory Pike, who is also bookish and shy, into the ranks of the club, I had a minor existential crisis. Which one was I? As an adult, I can see that both Mary Anne and Mallory are the weakest characters in the series, but, ah, I was young.
The Baby-Sitters Club taught a generation of kids how to be human beings. There are pluses and minuses to that.
One of the reasons The Baby-Sitters Club is so precious to so many people is that we read the book series when we were very young children, and it became our guide to developing into fully socialized human beings. The Baby-Sitters Club taught us to dream big, to work hard, to fulfill our responsibilities, and to support our friends. And it taught us less wholesome things, too.
I learned about femininity from The Baby-Sitters Club. Specifically, I learned one of the rules of femininity of the ’90s: You had to be beautiful, but it was not cool to be someone who cared about beauty. You had to look perfect, but you should never ever put in any work to get there.
That message was embedded in a fair amount of pop culture of the ’90s. The 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You pointedly showed us Julia Stiles’s Kat washing her face in a contrast to her sister Bianca’s primping and preening, with the implication being that cool girls didn’t obsess over their grooming like Bianca did. They washed their faces and called it a day. But you can only really get away with that attitude if you look like young Julia Stiles did in 10 Things I Hate About You, and in real life, that’s a look that takes some grooming.
Volume 50 of The Baby-Sitters Club, which came out in 1992, is called Dawn’s Big Date. It features Dawn, who joined the Baby-Sitters Club in book 5 (personality traits: from California, hippie), giving herself a makeover so that she can attract a boy she likes. She also revamps her personality so that she’ll seem more cool, acting dumb in math class because she thinks cool kids don’t do well in school. The other babysitters are appalled and outraged at her behavior, and in the end, it turns out that Dawn didn’t need to do any of the things she did because the boy liked her just the way she was. So Dawn ditches her makeup and curlers and reverts back to her old smart and responsible hippie self.
The ostensible message of the story is that you should always be true to yourself, you should never sell yourself short for a boy, and if he’s worth your time he’ll like you just the way you are. But when I read it as a 7- or 8-year-old girl, I remember feeling a vicious contempt for Dawn, a contempt so ferocious it slanted toward hatred. How dare she not know the rules of the story in which she was living? How dare she want something so much that she tried to bend the fabric of reality around it, when everyone knows girls shouldn’t express a desire for anything? How dare she put any work at all into her appearance, especially when — as the cover art for Dawn’s Big Date clearly showed me — she already looked perfect?
I thought it was good and right that Dawn should be punished for her sins through the disapproval of her friends. I found it cathartic. And I knew, although I could never have put it into words at the time, that what she was being punished for wasn’t rejecting her true self. It was that she had let everyone see her put in the work toward building the self she wanted.
The Baby-Sitters Club continued for so long you had time to get sick of it. That’s kind of beautiful.
The Baby-Sitters Club is the first cultural work to which I can remember having an aesthetic reaction. By this I mean that the first book to ever prompt in me the thought, “Huh, I don’t think this is very good, and I’m pretty sure the fault lies in it and not with me,” was a Baby-Sitters Club book.
Which volume it was, exactly, is lost to the mists of time, but it must certainly have been in the upper reaches of the central series, around the ’80s or ’90s. I stuck with The Baby-Sitters Club regardless into the 100s out of a sense of duty and a completist ethic, but around volume 109 (1997’s Mary Anne to the Rescue — it was one of the one’s about Mary Anne’s boyfriend Logan, and I could never take Logan books), I was overcome with a sense of despair.
I could not, I absolutely would not, keep reading, no matter how long Martin wanted to extend the series. I could not bear to do it. I had listened to the song so many times in a row that just hearing it caused me pain.
Today, more than 20 years later, I think there’s something a bit beautiful about getting to reach that point in a series, the point where you stop reading not because there’s nothing left to read but because you have satiated yourself. Because The Baby-Sitters Club was that rare creature: a series that went on so long that you could outgrow it in real time. It is foundational, and part of what makes it so foundational is that you can depend on it enough to feel secure when you leave it.
Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club is by and large better crafted than the books were. It doesn’t feel as though it’s being churned out by an assembly line on that bruising one-book-a-month pace. It feels as though it’s been crafted by a team who cares about quality.
It also feels like a show aimed at both nostalgic millennials and their young children. And because it is a show that young children are going to watch, it is also undoubtedly going to be a show from which younger viewers pick up confused and mangled lessons that no one quite realizes the show is teaching them.
The test of whether the TV show will be as enduring and foundational as its source material is not just whether or not it is well-crafted television. It’s whether or not it will grow into such an institution that the children who watch it now will be able to walk away from it when they’re finished with it, secure in the knowledge that it will always be there, as stable and unchanging as that chapter two formula.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Claudia was dyslexic. She was not.