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Welcome back to the babysitters who inspired me

The books that inspired a generation of girls are back as a Netflix series. Jennifer Lipman is celebrating

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For a while, when I was about 11, there was only one thing I wanted to be when I grew up, and that was a babysitter. But not just any babysitter; a member of The Baby-Sitters Club, the fictional tween business brought to life in a series of novels by American writer Ann M. Martin.

As anyone who read the books (36 by Martin, but hundreds of others by ghost writers, published between 1986 and 2000) will remember, the club members were cool, creative and entrepreneurial. They were also ahead of their time in many ways; a diverse cast of characters, from Japanese-American artist and junk food hoarder Claudia Kishi to Black dancer Jessi Ramsey and, latterly, Jewish Abby Stevenson, whose batmitzvah was among the life events marked in the series.

Reading them in Stanmore, thousands of miles away from the white picket fences of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, I fell in love with the distinct redbrick covers and with these girls. Specifically, I fell in love with the fact that there was room for any type in their gang. You could be shy and studious like Mary Anne (and still find a boyfriend in dreamboat Logan) or a tomboy like Kristy, or an environmental campaigner like California-transplant Dawn (or even, perhaps, a Jewish bookworm from London) — and you’d still fit in— while learning a few life lessons and solving some mysteries along the way.

The series taught me a lot, not least what lox was (thanks to New Yorker Stacey), but also about friendship, business and, of course, the serious business of childcare. When I started babysitting at 13, I’d like to think I brought some of their skills to the table.

Now a new generation will be introduced to the club, thanks to a Netflix series starring —among others — every Jewish ’90s girl’s icon, Alicia Silverstone. Cher Horowitz from Clueless will now morph into Elizabeth Thomas-Brewer, ringleader Kristy’s single-mum, all ready for a romance with Warren (played by Jewish actor Mark Feuerstein, who I mostly remember as a love interest of Donna’s on The West Wing). Elizabeth, a harried mother of three with a good-for-nothing ex-husband, isn’t exactly who I imagined Cher to become, but she isn’t a million miles away either, and Silverstone still sounds exactly the same.

The series’ showrunner is Rachel Shukert, who has previously written a memoir about growing up Jewish (and afraid of the Nazis) in Nebraska. Her previous TV credits include Glow (about female wrestlers) and Supergirl — both of which have been hits. Judging by the first episode, The Baby-Sitters Club is set to follow suit. It’s clearly a dream come true for Shukert to be working on this; earlier this year she spoke about how seminal the series was “in terms of being a girl who was ambitious and wanted to do something in the world”.

The half-hour episodes are simply lovely; the charismatic young cast styled so perfectly that each character comes across as distinct, just as they did in the original.

The show is now even more diverse — although there are no overtly Jewish characters in the initial episodes; Dawn is now Latina, with a gay father and Mary-Anne is now Black — but the central theme of friendship between different personalities remains. The tone reminds me of shows from my childhood, like Sabrina the Teenage Witch; the girls get into scrapes but ultimately problems are resolved and everyone does the right thing. Tweens and early teens will adore it.

There are some pleasing nods to modernity, too; these digital natives talk about advertising their services via targeted social media ads and have a Google Doc to coordinate availability for jobs. They still use a landline, but it’s a trendy one bought on Etsy, with lots of exposition about this to explain to a generation weaned on iPhones. And it’s more overtly feminist than the books; although they always did pass the Bechdel test with flying colours.

Nevertheless, the essence is the same; young girls on the cusp on womanhood, finding themselves, learning the ropes of teamwork and responsibility, while also nursing innocent crushes on cute boys.

Like many of those who read the books as a young girl, I’m now a mother myself. When Silverstone’s character complained about how difficult it is to find a reliable babysitter these days, I found myself nodding along.

In the 1990s, the series inspired copycat real-life clubs, along with a series of books by Leah Klein called The B.Y. Times, about an Orthodox Jewish version (presumably involving fewer Friday-night gigs).

Let’s hope today’s tweens — Jewish and non — are similarly inspired. I’ll certainly be ringing them up if they are.

 

The Baby-Sitters Club will premiere on Netflix on July 3

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