The Baby-sitters Club. Kristy Thomas’s big idea in book one spawned a series with over 300 books and eight wonderfully relatable characters (yes, we should count Abbi). As a young kid I felt relatively safe in my primary school. That is until I realised that not everyone struggled to read quite like I did. Turned out, I had what my teacher called mild dyslexia. The letters moved around a lot and I couldn’t hold them still long enough to remember which sound they made or how they sat together to make a word. Was becoming saw was the least of my problems. Second grade Roze was worried she’d never catch up to the other kids who could read whole books by themselves. Practice they said. Use the orange sleeve they said. I did. But each sentence was agony, let alone finding enough strong will to get through a page. An entire second grade reader was horrifying.
Enter, The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin. Mrs Jacob’s read our third grade class a chapter. She had several of the series to loan and she’d picked Maryanne Saves the Day to introduce to our class. I’d never tried so hard at anything before that. My very first chapter book was MaryAnne Misses Logan. I thought I was really lucky to get one of the books that had an introduction to the girls and their back stories (I would later discover they had these in every single book, always chapter two). Today, I can read 200 pages on a good day. It took a few years but by the time I was in high school, I could breeze through a book like nobody’s business. I own about 90% of the books. They’ll have to be buried with me, I had to hunt them down over the year but I’ve got the regular ones, the Mysteries, Super Mysteries, Super Specials, Collector’s Editions, the reboot version, Shannon’s Story, Logan’s Story – well, you get the idea. I did draw the line at Karen Brewer. She was incredibly annoying.
So you can imagine, that avid reader and collector of these that I am, I was going into the Netflix reboot with high expectations and grave doubts. Surprisingly, the show captures (just about perfectly the innocence and growth of the books. The characters are true to their source material personalities yet they’ve adapted to the times. Claudia isn’t just a walking piece of art, she’s got a spunky personality (played brilliantly by Momona Tamada). Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker is perfectly cast) resident shy girl with courage when required is now mixed race and her father Richard, (Marc Evan Jackson) isn’t a despot for the sake of it, he’s just afraid of doing it wrong. One of the best things about the books was their ability to introduce young readers to difficult situations via relatable characters. The series creators have taken this and cranked it up.
Fictional Stoneybrook is no longer the largely Caucasian small town where African-American residents weren’t the norm, bi-racial couples didn’t exist, homosexual and transexual people were not mentioned. The first season (because yes, there will be a second) spans the first 10 books and a super special (camp!). In the book world, the girls establish their own business, deal with Mimi’s stroke, take a stand for themselves, make a new friend in Dawn a young blonde beachy girl from California and learn to navigate Stacey’s diabetes and Kristy’s familial changes. The show deals with all of these but set in 2020. The kids they sit for aren’t all as clear cut as in the book, much like today, there are kids from single parent families, families with two mums, kids who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Dawn (another revelation played by Xochitl Gomez) is still from California but she has Hispanic background and some of her family practice witchcraft (loved this storyline). She’s still carefree but she’s relatable to the target audience.
The main cast is rounded out by Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace), her mum, Elizabeth (Alicia Silverstone) and Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph). Each play their parts to a T; Kristy is bossy and knows what she wants, Stacey is practical, boy crazy and sophisticated. Alicia Silverstone is perfectly cast in a role that I can’t picture anyone else playing. The show has so much heart. It addresses some really sensitive topics without preaching or galvanising. The stories we know and love have moved into the 21st century with us. Watching the episodes play out, I remembered what it’s like to be a young girl, somewhere between a child and teenager. From getting your first period to struggling with your identity and believing you can achieve the dreams you dream.
The show celebrates the optimism and lessons from the books through a contemporary, sometimes surprisingly, harsh lens. At the end of each book, the message for young (mostly female) readers was that girls have agency. Girls have power. The show expresses this in a funny, balanced and comforting way. One for all the age groups, watch it with family and friends.
PS watch the cast announce the second season here, channeling their inner Brady’s.