Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Over 30 years ago, The Baby-Sitters Club made space for girls from all backgrounds

Illustration for article titled Over 30 years ago, The Baby-Sitters Club made space for girls from all backgrounds
Illustration: Libby McGuire

It began in 1985 with Ginny’s Babysitting Job, a popular novel offered by Scholastic Corporation’s Arrow Book Club. Jean Feiwel, an editor at the publishing giant, noted the story’s popularity and quickly identified a robust interest in babysitting narratives in young adult readers. “The book was not really featured in the book club leaflet—it was buried on page four, but was a top seller,” Feiwel told Publisher’s Weekly in 2010. “I realized that what must have been attracting readers was the notion of babysitting.” Spotting a viable entry point for the company to participate in the trend, Feiwel tapped Ann M. Martin, a fellow Scholastic editor who had just transitioned into full-time writing, presenting her with the name The Baby-Sitters Club and not much else. “It was up to me to create the characters and figure out what a ‘babysitting club’ might be,” Martin told The A.V. Club. “It was going to be a four-book series. Nobody at the publishing company—not Jean, not I—thought that it would take off the way it did.”


And take off, it did: The first novel, 1986’s Kristy’s Great Idea, sold out its initial run, then sold an additional 120,000 copies. Scholastic monitored the success of the following three novels and proceeded to order an additional two books. As the stories continued to dominate the market, the publisher granted the series a once-a-month publishing schedule. The should-be quartet of stories eventually evolved into 213 books (which sold around 180 million copies), becoming the crown jewel of libraries and in-school Scholastic book fairs across the nation.

Many young readers were drawn to the collective of cool, self-motivated girls. The premise itself was alluring—to a middle-school-aged crowd, landing a babysitting gig was a mark of maturity and independence—but a lot of the appeal also stemmed from the books filling an early void in entertainment. From 1986 to 2000, when the BSC novels were originally published, there were not many examples of an inclusive group of strong-willed girls starring in a narrative that placed them squarely in charge. Martin’s fictional world of Stoneybrook, Connecticut became the home of a group of young women who were ahead of their time—a detail that does not escape Martin, even if that was never an expressed goal:

Looking back, I do [feel the series was ahead of its time]. I don’t think I had set out to write a book about girl power necessarily, but I was thinking about the things that appealed to me when I was reading books. I didn’t like books that hit you over the head with a message. I didn’t like reading about the goody girl. I wanted to read about kids who were independent, who could work well together despite—or maybe because of—their differences, who had adults in their lives that they could lean on, but didn’t necessarily depend on.

There are few adults now who possess the business acumen that 13-year-old Kristy Thomas, the Baby-Sitters Club’s co-founder and president, displayed back in 1986. A sharp thinker with a can-do spirit and an inability to accept defeat, Thomas was the young ’90s reader’s primer to Parks And Recreation’s Leslie Knope. At Thomas’ side was secretary Mary-Anne Spier, the reserved organizational whiz who was emblematic of Martin herself, and Claudia Kishi. Choosing to nurture her remarkable artistic ability over academics and harboring benevolent addictions to junk food and Nancy Drew novels, the Japanese American eighth-grader shirked the model minority tropes that are still rampant today and was, instead, a fully realized, empathetic character of color. Jessi Ramsey, an 11-year-old junior officer and aspiring dancer, made her first appearance in the series’ 14th book, Hello, Mallory, published in 1988. Ramsey was one of the few Black characters in mainstream YA literature at the time, which allowed the series to explore race and prejudice (albeit briefly, with book number 56, 1992’s Keep Out, Claudia!) in the town of Stoneybrook. If Black BSC fans are vocal about the power of visible characters from marginalized communities, part of that could stem from the palpable effect of seeing real-life experiences reflected through this character.

Aside from their neighborhood adventures, the girls of the BSC offered an early taste of what the entertainment landscape could look like if it gave girls and women the opportunity to exist as three-dimensional beings. To be clear, Martin’s goal never involved stripping these girls of typical adolescent experiences; they had enough crushes, fights, and moments of immaturity to spare. Her vision simply gave them the space to also serve as community leaders, navigate complex relationships, and live independently. It also bucked the popular assumption that groups of girls are incapable of evading pettiness. Not only did they get along, but they also thrived in a way that was dependent on them working well together, a feat that they handled nearly masterfully in between a slew of caretaking jobs and the occasional haunted house.

Nineteen years since the series’ last book (and since a brief HBO series in 1990 and a 1995 film), The Baby-Sitters Club is making a return. On August 13, the series became available on audio for the first time, as 131 titles come to Audible, with the first five installments voiced by Elle Fanning. A brand-new television series is also being adapted for Netflix and has already cast Alicia Silverstone and Mark Feuerstein to play Kristy’s parents. More than an opportunity to introduce the series to a new generation, the resurgence is a welcome reminder for old fans of the bar that was set two decades ago. “A lot of the adults who are the passionate former fans have kids of their own, and they’re now introducing their kids to the series,” Martin said. “So there’s this coming together of the two generations, and it just seemed like the right time to be doing all of this.”


The timing does seem ideal. While more and more stories that champion layered, powerful images of girls and women are being put into the world, the entertainment landscape is still largely white. If this resurgence of BSC culture commits to (or even improves upon) Martin’s vision of an eclectic, diverse group of friends, it has the opportunity to satisfy a serious void, much like it did 30 years ago.