(Warning: contains spoilers)
Netflix recently released a 10-episode series called The Baby-Sitters Club, based on the book series Ann M. Martin began penning in the mid-1980s. As a fan of the books, I was intrigued when I learned this series was in production. After watching the first season in its entirety, I am nothing but pleased.
So... I’ve been a BSC fan for a while. Thirty years, in fact. By the time the summer of 1990 rolled around, I had read at least half of the books and was well on my way to reading all 38 of them. I frequented the local library, checking out any BSC book that was available, and consumed them one after another. Order? I didn’t care about chronological order! So Stacey moved back to Stoneybrook, then left it... it didn't matter.
Eventually, my parents grew... curious... about my latest interest. After several months of me reading these books (and, likely, nothing but these books) they asked if they, too, might read one of them, to see what they were all about. I happily handed over the one I’d just finished, Mallory and the Mystery Diary. Alas, this turned out to be a poor choice. How was I (a naïve nine-year-old) to know that certain parents might view a see-ants as something potentially sinister? Oh... séance... that’s how you pronounced that? C'mon, all I knew was that Mallory and her friends had attempted to contact a departed soul, had failed at the task, and had moved on. My parents, having only read this one book, were suddenly left wondering if the entire series wasn’t about a group of girls with equal interest in both baby-sitting and the occult.
Luckily, I was able to convince them that this was the only BSC book to feature a see-ants, and the other 37 books were all about baby-sitting, weddings, beach trips, beauty pageants, secret passages, and trouble with twins. To their credit – and my relief – they believed me. My parents were, to put it nicely, conservative, and if the books had been anything like this new Netflix series, I fear they would have forbidden my watching it. Which is to say, the Netflix series is progressive, avant garde, and exactly what our world needs right now. So I like to think even little nine-year-old me would have found a way to watch it anyway.
The Baby-Sitters Club began in 1986 with five books written by Ann M. Martin. As more were released, the series began to soar in popularity. Eventually there would be over 200 titles, including the regular series, Super Specials, mysteries, and more. This number doesn’t even include the multiple spin-offs, including Baby-Sitters Little Sister and the California Diaries. Of course, Martin didn’t write them all, even though all the covers bore her name. She had some help. The regular series ended with a fizzle (and a literal fire – R.I.P., Ghost of Jared Mulray), and a short pseudo-spin-off called Baby-Sitters Club: Friends Forever commenced for a short while. The only thing people seem to remember about that series is that in it, the girls finally got to graduate from the 8th grade.
Over the years, attempts were made at successfully bringing the series into other types of media. There was a short-lived TV series in 1990 and a low-grossing feature film in 1995. In 2006, Scholastic began publishing graphic novels based on the early BSC books. Raina Telgemeier illustrated the first four books, then passed the torch to Gale Galligan, who has produced three more (with a fourth coming in September). The graphic novels have mostly been faithful to the original series, with a few exceptions, such as bringing Mallory Pike into the BSC much sooner.
Netflix’s new series seems to take a cue from the graphic novels, at least as far as method is concerned. In the beginning, both the graphic novel series and the Netflix series appear to be trying to stay as close as possible to the original book series. However, they soon started carving their own paths. BSC purists may gasp and clutch their pearls (jelly bracelets, charm necklaces, whatever), but the changes are actually quite refreshing, especially as they pertain to making the show relevant and appealing to GenZ/Zoomers.
Below are a few differences between the new Netflix series and the original books...
*The baby-sitters now have cell phones!
*Stacey’s diabetes treatment is so much better. She wears a glucose monitor/insulin pump instead of having to poke herself. And she can have sugar now!
*The girls’ parents play bigger roles. For example, when Kristy visits Dawn’s house for the first time, Kristy's mom brings her over and stays to converse with Dawn’s mom. This is a far cry from the 1980s protocols, when Kristy might have casually mentioned she was going to a new friend's house after school... but then again, as long as she was home in time for dinner, who cared?
*Diversity is everywhere in the series, and the beauty of it is, they don’t really call attention to it. In the books, it was a big deal that Jessi’s family was Black. Aside from the girls in the BSC being cool with Jessi, it seemed half of Stoneybrook consisted of racists, most of whom took a long while to warm up to Jessi’s family. Moreover, in nearly every book, during the dreaded “introduction” chapter (usually chapter 2), the author would remind us of Jessi’s skin color. Every girl had a thing: Kristy is bossy/likes sports, Claudia likes art and is bad at school, Stacey’s sophisticated, Dawn’s a California girl, Mary Anne’s shy but has a boyfriend, and – oh yes, turn that page! – Mallory is White and Jessi is Black! But don’t worry, they’re best friends despite this maaaajor difference.
The Netflix series has no time or patience for that over-the-top “this person’s different, but we love them anyway” nonsense. Here, Mary Anne is played by a mixed-race actress and Mary Anne’s ethnicity has thus far not been mentioned. Dawn and her mom are Latina. Jessi (who doesn’t appear until the end of the first season) is Black, yes, but nobody bats an eye when she’s introduced, already firmly established as Mallory Pike’s best friend. (I do hope that if this series gets a second season, there’s an episode that addresses racism, because to pretend like Jessi never experiences it, even in this new-and-woke Stoneybrook, would be jarringly unbelievable, sorry to say.)
The diversity doesn’t end with race, though. In the episode Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls, we’re introduced to Charlotte Johanssen’s two mothers. In Mary Anne Saves The Day, we learn Dawn’s dad is gay – and Dawn is upfront about this, seeming to see her parents’ recent divorce as an inevitable step in allowing both adults to become their authentic selves. Later in the episode, Mary Anne babysits for a little girl named Bailey, who we soon learn (in a very tactful, even subtle way) was assigned male at birth, but is now happiest when wearing princess dresses. Mary Anne never seems fazed by this, and at one point schools some older people who carelessly use the wrong pronouns when referring to Bailey.
Each of these character introductions is handled smoothly and nonchalantly. Transgender babysittees and gay clients? Not even a small deal to these GenZ/Zoomers. This is Stoneybrook of the 21st Century. Gone are the days of people losing their minds when someone who's different comes to town.
*The Netflix series doesn’t erase the social issues presented in the books; in some instances, it even emphasizes the already-established ones. Kristy still fights against her mother’s engagement to Watson Brewer, all while trying to reconcile the fact that her father never calls or writes anymore. But whereas in the books her sadness is mostly only hinted at, in Dawn and the Impossible Three, Kristy punches a bag of chips in anger, lamenting the fact that everyone else seems to have a dad who cares – everyone but her.
*Remember the Brewers’ next door neighbor, Mrs. Porter, whom Karen Brewer always insisted was a witch by the name of Morbidda Destiny? Now a fleshed-out character, it turns out Mrs. Porter is Dawn’s great aunt (which makes sense, because Dawn’s mom’s maiden name was always Porter!), and Mrs. Porter doesn’t mind being called a witch, though she prefers the term “spiritual healer.”
*Claudia’s sister Janine has been transformed from a stodgy genius into a tech geek who speaks in an dry, but eloquent, deadpan. Sure, she’s still a genius, but she’s now anything but boring (except, of course, to Claudia. Ah, sisters.) In fact, now? Janine is kind of awesome.
*The series carries some strong feminist vibes. Kristy is particularly vocal when it comes to disparities between the way men and women are treated. Claudia decides not to go to art camp, where her crush Trevor Sandbourne will be, and instead decides to join her friends at Camp Moosehead (an updated Camp Mohawk – where everything’s co-ed, now, but all the counselors seem to have gone AWOL.) Boys are present, but they’re not especially important. (Unless, of course, your name happens to be Stacey. But even she'll stand up for herself and put no-good lifeguards in their proper place.)
Those are just a few of the differences between the books and the Netflix series that I noticed upon my first watch-through. Rarely do any of these changes seem particularly jarring -- even to someone like me, who read a good portion of the books as a tween, re-read nearly all of them as an adult, and still occasionally picks them up for fun and/or laughs. There are enough similarities to the original series (along with a few sly nods/Easter eggs) to keep original fans satisfied, but also just the right amount of improvements and changes to allow a whole new generation to feel like The Baby-Sitters Club was meant for them.
So... yeah. My séance-wary parents may have had reservations about letting me have full access to the books, but I strongly encourage parents to let and/or nudge their preteens to take a look at this series. Because Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club is exactly the kind of media I think the world needs right now. A show where over half the main characters are POC. A show where trans children are treated respectfully. A show where gay parents are as normal as straight ones. And a show where a group of girls are able to start, run, and kick ass at a successful business. Girl Power indeed!