Skip to main content

When a Scholastic editor named Jean Feiwel first pitched the idea of some middle-grade novels about a group of tween babysitters, it was originally envisioned as a four-book run. After all, it was a bit of a punt, based on the surprise success of an unassuming title called Ginny’s Babysitting Job.

That was in the early 1980s. By the time the series – which became The Baby-Sitters Club, penned in large part by children’s author Ann M. Martin – finished its run in 2000, ran to 213 books, and sold an astonishing 176 million copies. There was a computer game, a movie, and a short-lived television series, which came with a soundtrack on cassette.

Open this photo in gallery:


Ask almost any Millennial woman, and she’ll attest to the cultural ubiquity of these novels, well-thumbed fixtures of school libraries and canonical texts in their nascent literary development. They were the thing you read when you were done with “kids’” books like Nancy Drew, but you weren’t quite ready for, say, Judy Blume. Whether the lives of four girls living in comfortable suburban Connecticut had anything in common with your own was almost irrelevant: Kristy, Claudia, Stacy and Mary Anne felt like your friends, and their world, with its low-stakes drama (which feels like the biggest thing ever to happen to anyone when you’re 12, of course) and the comforting rhythms of guaranteed resolutions, was a safe harbour at what can be a tricky age.

Nearly 40 years later, there’s still something about The Baby-Sitters Club that’s resonating with young readers. In fact, two BSC titles have recently made the Globe and Mail juvenile bestseller list: Karen’s Birthday and Mary Anne’s Bad Luck Mystery.

What makes these new books different from the chapter books of the ‘80s and ’90s, however, is that these are part of the “Graphix” series, graphic novels that continue the story for a new generation.

Kidsbooks, which have two locations in Vancouver, can hardly keep up with the demand.

“We always have pre-orders for the new book [in the series]. We order a lot to ensure we don’t sell out and stack them high in big displays in the stores,” say booksellers Kelly McKinnon and Alix Jackson. “When kids see the new book they want them. They are engaged with the stories and the characters, and they must read the latest.”

In fact, the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels are amongst their top-selling titles for the year. According to McKinnon and Jackson, part of this is driven by a clever release strategy: Multiple titles come out a year, so there’s plenty to read before kids inevitably age out of them. (These are targeted at readers between eight and 12.) There’s also the juggernaut popularity of graphic novels for kids over the last ten years, where it’s common for a graphic novel adaptation to out-sell the original series it was based on.

Open this photo in gallery:


Sales are not, however, driven by nostalgic parents trying to pass on the magic of their own youth to their offspring. “The kids are driving the purchase,” say McKinnon and Jackson.

Katy Farina, a Los Angeles-based comic artist and illustrator, is the creative mind behind seven (so far!) “Baby-Sitter’s Little Sister” books, a spinoff graphic novel series about Karen’s seven-year-old stepsister aimed at a slightly younger set of readers.

For her, it’s a project that’s a childhood dream come to life.

“I was born the year the Baby-Sitters Club started coming out, so I have always been reading these books,” says Farina, who says she was inspired by the titular club to start her own neighbourhood organizations. “We had a club for babysitting (no takers), a club for Jonathan Taylor Thomas who had just voiced Simba in The Lion King, a club for cat fans, a club for unicorn fans …”

Farina, alongside a pool of other artists who work on these graphic novel adaptations, got the gig after trying out for it. “I just about fell to the ground when I heard the news,” she says.

Her reaction speaks both to the life-changing scale of this opportunity, but also just how deeply connected she is to this series, and the kids who read them.

“I remember feeling a little helpless at seven years old, and I remember not knowing how to be a good big sister. I think back a lot about me and my friends from that time – what made us happy, what made us sad, what made us excited about playtime,” says Farina. “I like to think of Karen and her friends as saying and doing things I wished I knew how to do as a young person.”

She was, she adds, a “reluctant” reader, which makes any feedback from librarians or parents – many of whom tell her how these books have helped a kid get into reading for the first time – particularly meaningful.

Freelance illustrator and cartoonist Cynthia Yuan Cheng is another BSC adapter, although unlike Farina, they were just a bit too young to read the series the first time round. In fact, their debut graphic novel was Mary Anne’s Bad Luck Mystery, a BSC title that’s hovered around the top of the juvenile chart since its release earlier this year.

To prep for this gig – which they got the day after their birthday, several years after they first showed their senior portfolio to the series’ editor – Cheng says they referenced the earlier graphic novels, and went to virtual events for some of the books. “In the video call chats, there’s a never-ending stream of messages from readers chiming in about their favourite BSC characters and books, and their excitement is so heartwarming,” they say.

For adapters like Cheng and Farina, their role is less to invent an entirely new plot, and more to subtly tweak these stories for a new generation. At the same time, they have genuine creative freedom, and both say they’ve found the Scholastic team receptive to suggestions they’d proffered.

In Cheng’s case, for example, they wanted to update some of Mary Anne’s driving motivations to feel more 2023 than 1993.

“I had felt that the conflict and the solution in the original novel was centred around boys, particularly Mary Anne’s boyfriend, Logan,” explains Cheng. “But that felt a bit dated, and I know that the BSC girls are strong and can stand up for themselves, particularly Mary Anne who has gone through such a meaningful character arc to be more self-assured.”

Neither Farina nor Cheng worked directly with the series’ original writer, Ann M. Martin, although they indirectly received feedback on their work from her.

As for why they think these stories still hold such an enduring appeal?

The Baby-Sitters Club girls have such a strong friendship, and paired with their individual unique personalities, sense of responsibility, and care for others, they make for such great role models for young readers. A classic friendship story never gets old,” opines Cheng.

For Farina, it comes down to the universality of these stories.

“We can all relate to someone making mean comments about how we look, what we can do, or who we are. We can relate to seeing our friends happy, and wanting to comfort them when they’re sad. We can relate to having fights with our favourite people, and with the difficulty of making up,” she says. “Seeing these characters find triumph and joy in their world is a guiding light, especially when we can imagine ourselves as the friends Kristy and Karen have.”