In 1986, Ann M. Martin invented juvenile literature’s most famous landline number: 555-3231.
Fictional parents who dialed that number on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, just before dinner, would reach the Baby-Sitters Club, a gaggle of reliable tween babysitters at competitive rates. As the member Jessi says, in “The Baby-Sitters Club #48: Jessi’s Wish,” the club is “the best idea ever.” The readers who bought more than 180 million copies of the Baby-Sitters Club books, super specials (“Aloha, Baby Sitters!”) and mystery spinoffs (“Claudia and the Recipe for Danger”) agreed.
The original series, which ran until 2000, recounted the adventures of four Connecticut eighth-graders (and then five and then seven and then more) who form a child care collective — entrepreneurs in training bras.
The books appeared monthly, alternating first-person narrators. Now, when most of its early readers have children of their own and would cheerfully kill for safe and competent child care, the club has returned, in 10 half-hour episodes. Netflix will release them all on July 3.
Babysitting, a job mostly performed by girls and women, is like most feminized forms of labor, underpaid and undervalued. Which may suggest why entertainment executives haven’t funded many adaptations of Martin’s hugely popular books — just one 13-episode season for HBO in 1990, a single film in 1995 that grossed less than $10 million. But even 20 years after the series ended, enthusiasts remain, many of them passionate.
“‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ was my ‘Star Wars,’” Lucia Aniello, the executive producer and director of the Netflix series, said.
She and the showrunner Rachel Shukert tasked themselves with creating a show that stayed true to the books, so as not to disappoint original fans, and modernized them, too, so as not to confuse new ones. (Mommy, what’s a VCR?) There’s still a landline — or “an olden times phone,” as Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace), the bossy one, explains in the first episode. It even has a cord.
“It’s iconic,” Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), the artsy one, says.
When I spoke to Shukert in early April, she began with a question: “Did you read the books growing up?” (A few. Tween me was mostly reading Agatha Christie and getting wrong ideas about Belgians.)
Shukert did. She and Aniello both described a reading practice that sounded a lot like addiction — bingeing multiple books over a day or two, haunting bookstores and libraries in search of new product.
“I was like a super fan,” Aniello said. “My main personality trait as a child was being obsessed with the Baby-Sitters Club. I’m absolutely a Kristy with a Stacey rising.” (That would be Stacey McGill, the sophisticated one.)
When her agent asked her to brainstorm properties she wanted to adapt, she immediately thought of the books. She and Shukert, who had met on the wrestling comedy “Glow,” discussed a series shortly after Shukert had given birth to a son. Despite the postpartum haze (“Like, the longest blackout of my life,” Shukert said), Shukert found that she remembered everything about the books — plots, sentences, outfits.
“They were seminal for me,” she said, “just in terms of being a girl who was ambitious and wanted to do something in the world.”
I had asked Martin why the books appealed so widely and intensely. The girls themselves appealed, she said, as did their friendship. “And also the fact that the girls were independent,” Martin said. “They were problem solvers. They were entrepreneurs. They had this business that they were running basically without adult help.”
Gently and unshowily, the books presented progressive values, from the can-do feminism of the club members to the structures of their home lives, which included single parents, divorced parents and blended families. There was racial diversity — Claudia is Japanese-American, Jessi, who appears later in the series, is black — and an effort to include children who were differently abled and those who experienced childhood illnesses. Within the familiar structure — the introduction, the description of the club, the swift deployment of conflict and resolution — Martin made room for conversations around sickness, divorce and death.
“The books were pretty inclusive,” Shukert said.
So the process of bringing the club to 2020 wasn’t so much about correcting retrograde attitudes as it was about lightly updating the world. The tone is still chewily wholesome — this is an oatmeal-raisin cookie of a show — and the set (a Vancouver suburb subbing in for the fictional Stoneybrook, Conn.) looks like it has been put through an Instagram filter designed by Norman Rockwell.
If the Netflix show gestures toward an idealized past, it also acknowledges the confusions of the present. (Well, not the immediate present. It’s all pre-Covid-19.) In the first episode, Alicia Silverstone, playing Kristy’s mom, Liz, clicks haplessly through babysitting apps.
“When I was a kid my mother would just call some girl in the neighborhood on the landline and she would answer because that was part of the social contract,” she fumes.
Shukert adapted that mild tirade from her own unhappy experiences chasing down sitters. “If you told me that there was this landline number that I could call at a set time, three days a week, and if I did that, I would automatically get this nice girl to come and watch my kid for two hours so that I could like run errands or get a haircut, I would be like, ‘Amazing!’” she said. Casting Silverstone — “the ideal girl from when I was growing up,” Shukert said — shows that child care troubles can happen to even the blondest and the most glamorous of us.
While retaining the themes of the original series — friendship, family, school and boys, pretty much in that order — Shukert and Aniello worked to expand the world and its characters. Dawn Schafer, the environmentally conscious one, a canonically blond and blue-eyed California girl, is now a Latina character, played by Xochitl Gomez. Her divorced father lives with another man.
“We weren’t thinking, ‘Oh, we want to represent every experience out there,” Aniello said. “We were just trying to go a little bit more relevant.”
Martin, who consulted on the series and vetted scripts, wouldn’t mind if the new show represented everyone. “I wanted any kid who was reading the books or seeing the series now to be able to see himself or herself reflected in the characters,” she said.
The younger cast members certainly did. In mid-April I sat down, via Google Hangouts, with five of them: Tamada; Grace; Gomez; Shay Rudolph, who plays Stacey; and Malia Baker, who plays Mary Anne Spier, the serious one. They were all terrifically poised — except when a dog or a mother interrupted — and unfailingly polite.
The months on set had bonded them. “We will support each other through everything and we’re basically family at this point,” Grace said, with big Kristy energy. Some had read the books before the series began, some hadn’t. All of them identified with the characters, usually more than one.
“I’m 100 percent a Claudia,” Tamada said. “But also a mix of Stacey and Dawn.”
The actresses described the club members as role models. But these are role models who are flawed and fallible. They lie, squabble, hoard candy, blow their braided tops. Then with the help of their friends and the tuning of their own moral compasses, they learn from their mistakes, which makes them both aspirational and relatable.
“Kids today can watch it and be like, ‘Wow, I go through things really similar to that,’” Rudolph said. Baker agreed: “It’s not about an apocalypse or something — there’s not zombies walking around.”
There is, however, an offscreen coronavirus pandemic that has already impinged on the utopian Baby-Sitters world. Covid-19 pushed the show’s release from May to July. (A brief Netflix statement cited “delays related to Covid circumstances.”) Martin recalled receiving several Facebook requests from moms asking that the series be released immediately.
“Because they are desperate,” she said. “So that was funny.”
Even delayed, the show will probably arrive when in many states babysitting, for all but the wealthiest and those workers deemed most essential, remains unattainable. “I crave babysitters with every fiber of my being right now,” Shukert, who lives in Los Angeles, said.
But the show, dreamed up after the 2016 election, was always designed as a comfort watch, even before quite so many of us needed comforting. “It’s a show about people who are just trying to be better, and kids who are maybe leading the way,” Aniello said.
Silverstone, who said that she very rarely uses sitters, described watching the show with her 9-year-old son, Bear. “I just thought it was really wholesome and lovely,” she said. Her son told her that he thought it would be bigger than “Batman.” (“He’s never seen ‘Batman’” she said.)
During the Google Hangout, Gomez predicted that “The Baby-Sitters Club” would console viewers. “The show will remind us of better and simpler times when life was more predictable,” she said.
I didn’t know if she meant the 1980s or just a few months ago, before the virus spread. Either way, “The Baby-Sitters Club,” with its decency and cheerful common sense, can care for us all.