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Dear reader: I’m delighted to report that Malia Baker and Momona Tamada, the two Canadian stars of the Netflix series The Baby-Sitters Club are just as charming and delightful as their on-screen counterparts, Mary Anne Spier and Claudia Kishi. No wonder my 11-year-old daughter is a fan; even her 9-year-old brother grins through the parts he inadvertently ends up watching.
When Baker and Tamada heard about my daughter’s love for the show and her eager anticipation for the second season – which begins on Netflix this week – their faces broke out into the sweetest of smiles that radiated even through the awkwardness of a Zoom interview session monitored by off-camera handlers.
“Awww,” both of them cooed, as I held up my daughter’s handwritten questions. “Tell her we said hi,” Tamada added with a grin. Baker was dressed in a red outfit, her curly hair pulled into a casual half-updo, while Tamada rocked a tie-dye T-shirt and pops of hot-pink eyeshadow. They managed to look both trendy and approachable at once – a neat feat also achieved by the show, which is aimed primarily at middle-school girls.
It turns out that both Baker and Tamada were quite familiar with the original Baby-Sitters Club book series before they even thought about auditioning. Written by Ann M. Martin and published by Scholastic between 1986 and 2000, the original series introduced readers to a group of four entrepreneurial girls who start a babysitting business: club founder and president Kristy Thomas, artsy vice-president Claudia Kishi, shy and polite secretary Mary Anne Spier and stylish, outgoing treasurer Stacey McGill. The series was a hit, selling more than 180 million copies.
Martin has spoken about her deliberate choice to empower the girls to make their own decisions. They design their company logo, advertise in the local newspaper, and create “kid kits” – activity packages to entertain their young wards with. They hold regular meetings at Claudia’s home, since she has a landline for clients to call.
It was a fascinating world for Tamada and Baker, both Vancouver-based, to discover while filming the show.
“It’s so funny because some of my friends from elementary school are reaching out to me, like, ‘Remember when we used to read them at lunch?” said Tamada, 15. She first started reading the series when assigned one of the books as a novel study at school. “But I kept reading because they were actually very, very interesting,” she said.
Baker, 14, grew up with the books around her house, a legacy from her mother’s childhood.
“She always referred to herself as ‘being a Dawn,’ and I was always so confused,” said Baker, who notes the books later became a favourite, particularly after getting the chance to play one of the iconic BSC characters.
“For me, Mary Anne is the one person I related to the most … because she’s so shy. And she was that introverted friend, but she was also such a key component in The Baby-Sitter’s Club. So now, playing her as a bi-racial character is even more special … I think it’s really magical in a lot of ways, having the diversity on the screen.”
Over the years, The Baby-Sitters Club (or the BSC, as fans call it) was appreciated for its feminist legacy, and offering up role models that were both aspirational and realistic. The Netflix adaptation has been lauded for retaining the wholesomeness of the original books, while translating the BSC universe to the current era.
The original series was progressive in its own way. Claudia, a Japanese-American girl who was the epitome of cool, was a main character from the very start. Later on, the club grew to include ballet dancer Jessi Ramsay, a preteen from one of the few Black families in town, and addressed topics such as racism with sensitivity. However, the worldview was still decidedly white and suburban, as was the norm back then.
Created by writer-producer Rachel Shukert, the Netflix series still pays homage to the books’ late-eighties/early nineties vibes (viewers’ parents will get a kick out of spotting Clueless actress Alicia Silverstone playing Kristy’s mom), but updates the storylines: in Episode 4 of the first season, the over-sheltered Mary Anne finds herself advocating for a transgender child, Bailey (Kai Shappley). Meanwhile, in Episode 6, Claudia learns about her grandmother Mimi’s history as a survivor of a Japanese internment camp when Mimi is hospitalized after a stroke. (The narrative in the books referred to Mimi’s stroke, but did not offer a backstory.)
“Even with all the changes we are making, they still emulate the original books, which is so cool,” said Tamada, who (unlike the character she plays) speaks Japanese fluently. “The topic of internment camps, to be able to weave that in the story, is seriously so special – because a lot of these things aren’t things that are usually discussed in a children’s show. But I think it’s time that we change that and that we’re able to really tell these stories … because they are real things that happened.”
Baker chimed in: “This is a relatable show that young kids can watch and say, ‘Hey, this is also happening in my world.’ There is a sense of comfort. Released in 2020 and coinciding with the pandemic, “there was a need for a security blanket for people to fall back on, and I think The Baby-Sitters Club was that for a lot of people,” she said.
Both Baker and Tamada were charmingly effusive when I asked them about a favourite moment while filming – a question my daughter had come up with. Both said they were excited about seeing the landline phone in Claudia’s room for the first time – a visual sign that they were truly about to enter the BSC universe.
“That one was the most surreal moment for me because I was fangirling over this object,” Baker said with a laugh.
“You would read the scripts and would imagine what it would look like in your head,” Tamada said. “But when you’re there in person … just walking in Claudia’s room the first time, I was like, ‘This is insane. This is not happening!’ But it was ten times better than how I was imagining it.”
Viewers eagerly anticipating the second season can breathe a sigh of relief that the series continues to be just as wholesome and inclusive, even as the characters grow and change.
“We look so different, in my opinion,” Baker said, as Tamada chuckles in the other Zoom window. “I hadn’t seen these girls in two years. So it was like, ‘We are going to go through puberty together while we are on Netflix.’ It was a big thing, and it was really fun to be able to experience with everyone.”
“There are a lot of moments that you may not be expecting – no spoilers! That’s all I’m gonna say,” Tamada said. “But there are a lot of sweet moments between all the girls individually, and the group. Now that we are so familiar with our characters, we are really able to have fun. I feel the chemistry really came to life this season.”