"We are all, aspirationally, Claudias," a woman declared at a party recently. A bunch of us — all writers in our 30s — were deep into a heated conversation about which members of the Baby-Sitters Club we identify with most. I confessed that I have always thought of myself as a Mary Anne with a Dixie cup of Kristy thrown in. "You're a Mary Anne with a Kristy moon," someone said, offering an astrological assessment. "A Mary Anne with Kristy rising."
For many girls coming of age in the '80s and '90s, The Baby-Sitters Club, the best-selling middle-grade series, was a PG precursor to Sex and the City: a story of female friendship in all its complexity, it featured a cast of highly appealing characters in whom almost anyone could locate some aspect of herself. There was Kristy (president and founder), a bossy tomboy and a child of divorce. Mary Anne (secretary), the shy only daughter of an overprotective widower, and the first to have a boyfriend. Stacey (treasurer), a stylish and sophisticated New York City native. And Claudia (VP), artistic, cool, with strict parents, a genius older sister, and her own telephone line. Eventually the club expanded to include alternate and junior officers as well.
The series originated 30 years ago, but the characters remain fresh in our minds. The books still resonate. Maybe because they recall a simpler moment in life — memories of the babysitters intertwined with memories of our earlier selves. But perhaps it's also because the characters had some essential qualities that transcended adolescence. When we talk about The Baby-Sitters Club now, we don't talk about which characters we were. We talk about which characters we are.
In a recent phone interview from her home in upstate New York, author Ann M. Martin said she had relatability in mind from the start. Prior to The Baby-Sitters Club, she had written a handful of children's books and worked as a teacher and editor. In 1986, when she began writing about middle schoolers who run a babysitting business in fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut, she wanted them to have "different kinds of families, different ethnic backgrounds, different interests and personalities." Martin knew those differences were part of what kept readers coming back. "Either they found something to relate to in each of the girls, or they strongly related to one."
She decided to thicken the plot by giving one of them a secret. Her first idea: Stacey could have a father in jail for embezzlement. When Martin's editor deemed that over the top, she settled on Stacey having diabetes instead.
Scholastic originally hired Martin to write four books — one from the point of view of each babysitter. But the series was an unexpected hit. In the end, The Baby-Sitters Club went on for fourteen years and became one of the best-selling middle-grade series of all time, with 213 titles published in nineteen languages, four spin-off series, and 176 million copies sold. Eventually, a small team of writers was hired to help Martin keep pace, but she continued to outline and edit every book.
There was an official fan club, a newsletter, a show on HBO, a feature film, and merchandise that included dolls, day planners, calendars, posters, trading cards, T-shirts, jewelry, board games, fanny packs, and, of course, Kid Kits, a version of the boxes of toys and crafts each babysitter brought along on the job.
Martin became a reluctant celebrity. She is naturally shy. (She based Mary Anne on herself.) Three years into writing the series, she still babysat on occasion, for a neighbor down the hall. Suddenly, a thousand people might show up at one of her book signings. Kids wanted to know everything about her. She received a thousand letters a month on average. The only other Scholastic author who got as many was Goosebumps writer R.L. Stine. David Levithan, editorial director of Scholastic and a longtime editor of The Baby-Sitters Club , said it wasn't just the volume of Martin's letters that set them apart, but the highly personal tone.