Asian Reporter, V30, #09 (August 3, 2020), pages 7 & 11.
Asian-American girls saw pivotal icon in
By Terry Tang
The Associated Press
Author Ann M. Martin had no master plan when she decided to
make one of the core members of The Baby-Sitters Club a
Japanese-American girl named Claudia.
Claudia Kishi happened to be everything the "model-minority"
stereotype wasn’t. She got bad grades. She thrived in art and
fashion. She wasn’t struggling to belong. For those reasons and
more, Asian-American girls in the ’80s and ’90s idolized Claudia
and felt seen in teen fiction. Some of those now grown fans
concede the books fall short dealing with race, but a new
Netflix adaptation is bringing Claudia (and her pals) into the
In addition to the series that’s available now, the streaming
service has released The Claudia Kishi Club, a short
documentary. It’s filmmaker Sue Ding’s love letter to Claudia-philes.
"I want the vibe of the film to be you’re at a
Baby-Sitters Club sleepover with your closest friends and
you’re reminiscing," Ding said.
In the 17-minute documentary, a handful of Asian-American
writers and illustrators effuse about how influential the
character was for that time.
"For some, their parents were actively not supportive of them
pursuing more artistic career choices," Ding said. "Even for
those whose families were supportive, they didn’t necessarily
see people like themselves working in media as directors or
Among those she interviewed was Naia Cucukov, one of The
Baby-Sitters Club series producers. She remembers Claudia’s
"aura of cool" jumping off the page.
"As an Asian-American kid growing up having only seen
depictions of nerds, geisha, the villain, having that extra
layer of someone who could be aspirational was incredible,"
Another documentary participant, Sarah Kuhn, whose fourth
novel in her Heroine Complex sci-fi series came out last
month, called Claudia "this connective tissue between a lot of
"Just when you mention her name on Twitter, it summons an
entire generation," Kuhn said. "It speaks to her lasting
With 180 million copies in print worldwide, The
Baby-Sitters Club books were a juggernaut during their
1986-2000 run. They follow Claudia, Kristy, Mary Anne, Stacey,
and Dawn and their babysitting adventures in the fictional
suburb of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. The books are often credited
with showcasing teenage girls as entrepreneurs.
Martin, who wasn’t available for interviews, was not trying
to make a statement about Claudia’s ethnicity, said David
Levithan, an editorial director and publisher at Scholastic
who’s worked with Martin since 1992. She based the character on
a Japanese-American friend from elementary school. In present
day, Levithan thinks authors writing a protagonist of a
different ethnicity would have "to be doing it for a reason, to
have a connection to it, and make sure they got it right."
It may seem odd that a white female author created an
Asian-American icon, but the ’80s weren’t exactly conducive to
Sarah Park Dahlen, an associate professor of library and
information science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul,
Minnesota, and a "BSC" fan, said Claudia is only one of two
Asian-American characters she can cite from her own childhood
A combination of little encouragement from Asian-American
parents and the publishing industry contributed to that, Dahlen
believes. After decades of pushing for more diverse voices in
children’s books, school libraries started receiving federal
funding in the ’60s and ’70s to help expand reading choices. But
then came a "conservative backlash" against multiculturalism,
which led to skittish publishers and dried-up funds, Dahlen
"It was a combination of those things that caused this desert
of diverse books in the 1980s and a little bit through the 1990s
as well," she said.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, founder of the Asian American Writers’
Workshop, recalls the difficulties of getting her first young
adult novel, Finding My Voice, sold in the early ’90s
even with the support of popular author Judy Blume. One
publisher rejected the book, about a Korean-American teen in an
all-white town, because "‘We had a book about Cambodia last
year,’" Lee said.
Today, there are a lot more Asian Americans populating young
adult fiction. But Lee, who also teaches at Columbia University,
said various studies indicate publishers doing the buying "don’t
seem like they’re getting much more diverse."
Kuhn, the Heroine Complex author, is optimistic that
female editors of color rising in the ranks will change that.
They are more likely to think broader.
"The story of rejection a lot of marginalized authors get is
someone saying ‘I just couldn’t connect to it,’" Kuhn said.
"What always blows my mind about that is all of us have spent
our entire lives connecting with characters who do not look like
With the increased national dialogue surrounding white
privilege, adult Asian-American "BSC" readers acknowledge the
books are lacking in some areas. Claudia talks little about
being Asian in an upscale, white community and probably wouldn’t
know the term "micro aggression."
The TV version fleshes out some elements like a poignant
scene where Claudia, played by Momona Tamada, learns her
grandmother was an internment camp survivor. In a nod to the
character’s newfound cultural awareness, Cucukov had Tamada wear
a t-shirt from "Angry Asian Man" blogger and activist Phil Yu —
who also appears in the documentary. Designed by artist Irene
Koh, it says "Stay Angry."
"Claudia is going to go through that journey and is going to
learn about activism," Cucukov said. "God willing, if we get a
season two, we’ve got much more growth for Claudia."
Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of The Associated
Press Race and Ethnicity team.