• On Not Rejecting Girlhood: A Conversation with Megan Milks and Marisa Crawford

    A child of the 1990s, I was a voracious reader of The Baby-Sitters Club book series by Ann M. Martin, which detailed the friendships of a group of young babysitters in Connecticut. I wasn’t alone.

    The Baby-Sitters Club — known affectionately as BSC — was a phenomenon, selling 176 million copies from 1986–2000 and spawning spin-off book series, TV shows, movies, dolls, and computer games. Today, unlike many 1990s YA book series that can only be purchased in small lots on eBay, the BSC has persisted, with freshly designed reprintings, a new Netflix series, and Megan Milks and Marisa Crawford’s brainchild: an anthology, We Are the Baby-Sitters Club (Chicago Review Press, 2021).

    Teasing out just what made the series so formative, We Are the BSC takes a tender and inspired look at the girls from Stoneybrook (the fictional town the series is set in), with work from Gabrielle Moss, Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba, Yumi Sakugawa, and Jamie Broadnax, among others. The anthology also incisively — and lovingly — examines some of the ways in which the series succeeded and failed when it came to topics like race, disability, and queerness. I spoke with Milks and Crawford about We Are the BSC, as well as their solo writing projects — which also take seriously and reimagine 1990s girlhood culture — via Google Docs in late June and early July of 2021.

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    KATE DURBIN: Fans of the BSC know that the first book, the one that started everything, is “Kristy’s Great Idea.” In this book, Kristy comes up with the concept for the Baby-Sitters Club. How did “Megan and Marisa’s Great Idea” come into existence? How did you come together to work on this book?

    MEGAN MILKS: It was Marisa’s Great Idea: one day she sent me an email outlining her vision for an anthology of critical and creative writing about The Baby-Sitters Club and asking if I wanted to collaborate. Like Mary Anne and Claudia before me, I replied immediately and said, obviously, yes.

    We’ve both written a lot about 1990s girl culture and have been fans of each other’s work for a while, so teaming up for this project seemed right. And the timing was perfect — literally five days after Marisa sent over that email, the Netflix adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club was announced. We had hoped to time the book for the 35th anniversary of the series, which began in 1986, and kind of amazingly we succeeded, though we haven’t emphasized that angle much since the series seems more alive than ever.

    MARISA CRAWFORD: The Netflix series felt like an exciting extension of all the other fan responses and adaptations of the books that we’ve been seeing over the past ten-plus years, which were the impetus for the anthology idea. I was so inspired by the variety of artists and writers and podcasters and filmmakers whose BSC-centered work has made me geek out over the past decade or so, like Kim Hutt Mayhew’s blog “What Claudia Wore,” and visual artwork by Yumi Sakugawa and Siohbán Gallagher, and of course the BSC Graphix books. It felt exciting and important seeing all these people who also grew up with the BSC series as now adult creators who were taking the books seriously and responding to them in all these different ways. A whole book dedicated to the cultural impact these books had on all of us felt to us like something that should exist in the world, and the 35th anniversary felt like the perfect opportunity to put it together.

    I know the book answers this question in a myriad of ways, from unpacking the quality of care Ann M. Martin put into her characters in a time when a lot of teen series were tossed out without a lot of thought, to the emphasis in the book on friendship rather than romance. If you were to pinpoint some of the reasons the series resonated so much with young people in the 1990s, and why it still resonates today, what would you say?

    MC: I agree that it’s all of those things — the quality of the writing and the way Ann M. Martin (and her team of talented ghostwriters) conveyed the details of the characters, their days, their babysitting jobs, and most of all their feelings with such subtlety and care — it was relatable to me as a child, and as an adult it’s unforgettable because it shaped my understanding of the world at such a young, impressionable age. The focus on friendship, and the idea that these young female friends could be doing things together rather than just being passively seen, does feel especially important, and that we followed them on a zillion different journeys over the course of so many books. The BSC members are all such active, dynamic characters, and they all do so much: play sports, dance in ballets, solve mysteries, go on cruise ships, go on dates, experience loss, and of course babysit and run a business. I think reading these books as a kid made life feel filled with a lot of possibility.

    MM: The BSC books were better written and thematically richer than many similar books and series that were being produced at that time. As Gabrielle Moss explains in her essay for We Are the Baby-Sitters Club, the original series was conceived to capitalize on the popularity of recent books about babysitters, while adding friendship into the mix. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the friendship focus that has resonated the most, while the babysitting plots offered avenues for exploring key themes related to independence, responsibility, and entrepreneurship — and also for introducing a large cast of memorable recurring characters.

    In addition to essays, the book also includes illustrations, such as Yumi Sakugawa’s “Claudia Kishi: My Asian-American Female Role Model of the 90s.” Yumi’s comics are always beautiful, and this one deals with a theme that pops up throughout We Are the BSC, which is how great Claudia Kishi is. Sakugawa writes: “As a Japanese-American girl who grew up in the 1990s, I still remember that during that decade it was a rare occurrence to see Asian-American female faces in TV shows, movies, cartoons, books, and as toy figures…Thankfully, during my 1990s childhood I had one Asian-American girl to look up to who was talented in art, fashion forward, crazy unique, extremely confident, and just like me, a second-generation Japanese American.” Can you talk a bit about how a love of Claudia spills across the book?

    MM: It may be impossible to quantify how great Claudia Kishi is! She’s an icon and an inspiration to so many of us, especially to Asian American readers for whom she was among the first characters they saw themselves reflected in — as Yumi and Sue Ding, director of the documentary The Claudia Kishi Club, address so well in their pieces for the anthology.

    One of our challenges in building the anthology was to create an evenness in attention across the core BSC members, and I’m not sure we succeeded. There’s very little Dawn in the book, for example — and so much Claudia! I’ll let Marisa take it from here, as her essay deals a lot with Claudia as an aspirational character.

    MC: I would also shout-out Mallory as a character who unfortunately didn’t get as much attention as she could have in our book — but I’ll point readers to Gaby Moss’s essay about how we are all Mallorys as further reading. But back to Claudia! I guess it only makes sense that, as creative people, we and so many of our contributors felt drawn to Claudia. I think most BSC readers lived for the descriptions of how Claudia effortlessly paired a braided belt with papier-mâché fruit earrings and a neon green fedora, etc., but I think she was also the first time a lot of us saw a model for how to be confident in ourselves as artists. Like Megan said, this was all the more important for Asian American readers like Yumi and Sue who rarely saw non-stereotypical Asian American characters in media. As Kristen Felicetti writes in her piece in the book about Claudia and interracial adoption, “I wanted to be her but, crucially, everyone wanted to be her, both Asian-American readers and non-Asian American readers alike.”

    I’d love to hear more about the incorporation of visual elements in the book. I like how the quiz makes the book interactive.

    MC: Buzz Slutzky’s “Guess the Baby-Sitter’s Hair” quiz is so fun and wonderful!

    The world of the BSC feels very visual to me — there were the book covers of course and the iconic block text, but there were also the incredibly detailed descriptions of the characters’ outfits, and then the books were made into a movie and an HBO show (and now, years later, a Netflix series). I had a BSC board game as a child; there were dolls, sleeping bags, and so on. So I suppose including visual art felt like a more truly dimensional dive into the BSC world.

    Speaking of the visual, Kelly Blewett’s essay explores the role of handwriting in the BSC books, the ways young readers emulated the characters’ writing. I distinctly remember trying to write like Stacey — whose handwriting Blewett calls “girl-generated script” — in my journal, little hearts dotting my i’s. Kim Hutt Mayhew explores a similar concept in her essay on the fashion in the series, which even includes “How to Dress Like Dawn” or “How to Dress Like Claudia” blurbs for the reader. It’s common when meeting other fans of the books to say “I was a Stacey” or “I was a Jessi,” which goes to show how much young readers identified intensely with these characters. Blewett quotes Janice Radways, who notes that children develop a sense of self “within and through culture.” You both include essays in the book that delve into your own formative relationships with these characters — who did you identify with the most and why?

    MM: I was such a Kristy! But also not. Yes, I played softball but I was more of a bookworm than a tomboy. When it comes to her defining features — bossiness and immaturity, the winning combo — I shared both. And like a lot of fellow Kristys, as a child I was loathe to admit I saw myself in her. (In her essay on roleplaying as the BSC characters with dolls, Kristen Arnett describes making Kristy the most abject — yep!) That has changed over time, and now she is my very favorite.

    But I also identified with Mary Anne — whose oversensitivity and shyness made her just as embarrassing as Kristy was to relate to. Jeanne Thornton’s comic about coming into a Mary Anne identity as an adult reader of the series is so tender! In some ways, returning to these characters as grownups can help us have more compassion and affection for our younger selves.

    MC: I love that — totally. I honestly was a bit of a Mary Anne hater as a child, but rereading the books now I see myself a lot in her and wonder if that’s why I disliked her so much; I didn’t want to admit that I too was/am a sensitive crybaby. Claudia was definitely aspirational for me; I wanted to embody her cool confidence and artistic vision, which mostly translated into me wearing giant earrings to elementary school every day. I identified most with Stacey ultimately because on paper she and I were dealing with a lot of the same struggles: divorce and fighting parents; childhood illness; moving from New York to Connecticut. I sensed a lot of anxiety and weariness in Stacey’s character, but I also noted that she was outgoing, popular, and dotted her i’s with hearts (I did that too, Kate!). The combination of these things makes her such a rich character.

    We Are the BSC also explores the ways in which the series fell short when it comes to race, queerness, adoption, autism, etc. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of critique in the book? Did it evolve as the project evolved?

    MC: As children, we often don’t have the agency to critique the books we read (or any of the media we take in), so instead we just internalize the messages, which can be so dangerous and damaging. Of course, the BSC series, while in many ways really progressive for its time, missed the mark on a lot of issues and it felt important to give voice to that, and to claim space for us and our contributors now, as adults looking back on the series, to critique it. In a way I think giving the series that kind of critique is a gift to our younger selves; it’s a way of taking our younger selves seriously and showing them attention and care. As far as how the role of critique evolved, we wanted to hear other peoples’ authentic perspectives when we solicited writers and put out a call for submissions, rather than prescribing what those critiques should be.

    MM: Yes, we knew we wanted our book to balance appreciation with critique and were intentional about approaching the content that way. The book was already coming together when the first season of the Netflix show came out, and it was interesting holding onto these various critiques of the original series while seeing many of them being addressed and to a certain extent corrected within the show — particularly the problem of racial and ethnic diversity (or lack thereof) in the books. At first we were worried: would the show make our book obsolete? It hasn’t, of course. In part because it’s the original series that has shaped so many of us, and also because the strength of our book is in the writing; whether celebratory or critical (usually both) our contributors are such outstanding writers and storytellers that they bring extraordinary richness, humor, depth, and surprise to their reflections on the series.

    Kristen Arnett’s essay starts the collection off in the second person, addressing the reader directly. And the title of the anthology “We Are the BSC” emphasizes that being a fan of the series is in a way being part of the club itself. One thing I was struck by reading these essays is how this community of BSC fans (mostly) didn’t know each other as children, because the internet did not exist then and also because we barely had any agency. Our “community” was mostly the characters in the book, who had a community with one another in their club.

    Marisa, in your essay you talk about how when you moved to Connecticut you thought you would join the actual BSC — and then of course the loneliness of realizing it was only in the books. Logan Hughes’ essay, which closes out the collection, discusses the fan fiction that has arisen as readers grew up and the internet evolved and fans could finally connect with one another. Hughes writes: “The difference between being a fan and fandom is other people. You can be a fan by yourself. Fandom requires community.” What aspects of community and fandom were most interesting or important to you in working on this collection — maybe ideas that came through the essays or your experience through working with all these fans on the book? And how do you see that fandom evolving today?

    MM: I didn’t have friends who were serious readers as a child, and I was the biggest BSC fan I knew. This project has definitely been a way to redress that isolation from a fan community. But as Marisa mentioned above one of the driving motivations for the book was seeing all these BSC-related projects pop up — Sue Ding’s The Claudia Kishi Club, Yodassa’s storytelling piece about the BSC, and Siobhán Gallagher’s The Jaded Quitters Club comics, to name a few. We recognized that a community of BSC fans existed, who were also amazing artists and writers, and hoped that this anthology could bring some of these fans and creators together in one place.

    And the fandom continues to grow, in large part due to the Netflix series and the Graphix adaptations of the books, which are introducing the BSC to younger audiences. It will be exciting to watch younger readers and viewers “join the club” so to speak and to see the BSC-related art, writing, memes, etc. they’ll inevitably produce.

    I’d love to finish by talking about some of your solo projects.

    Marisa, your poetry books The Haunted House and Reversible explore 1990s girlhood, with a particular emphasis on the pop culture detritus of that time period (of which BSC books are a part). I love how almost ethnographic your books are, taking seriously the (literal) stuff of our childhoods. And Megan, in your essay “No Boys Allowed” you mention bringing your stack of BSC books with you everywhere you move, which makes so much sense given your writing comes out of a spirit of fandom, and often, the form your works take are inspired by and also re-invent or push the forms of the YA books of our youth (such as Choose Your Own Adventure books). So many of your projects directly explore pop culture during the 1990s and 2000s. There’s Tori Amos Bootleg Webring, which is about early internet Tori Amos tape trading and fandom. And then there is your forthcoming Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, which I can’t wait to read. According to the description it “reimagines nineties adolescence — mashing up girl group series, choose-your-own-adventures, and chronicles of anorexia — in a queer and trans coming-of-age tale like no other.” Can you talk about how these pop cultural touchstones have and continue to shape your writing practice? What brings you back to them again and again?

    MC: I keep thinking about Claudia’s room and how it’s always bursting with handmade jewelry and art supplies and hollow books filled with candy. It feels like a metaphor for girlhood and childhood and 1990s pop culture; like there is so much to be excavated from that time in our lives that I’m not sure I’ll ever be done writing or thinking about it, and as you said taking it seriously, since girls’ lives and experiences and the objects and ephemera they learn to surround themselves with are so often dismissed and devalued by larger patriarchal culture. This feels so connected to your work too, Kate, like in Hoarders how you are putting the detritus of capitalism and reality TV under an anthropological/poetic microscope to really see it in a new way. Actually, a member of my extended family is a hoarder, and so much of my childhood was defined in relation to the shame of that — in my family of origin, holding onto the past is bad; letting go of it is good. But I can’t let it go, and I don’t want to; I need to keep looking at it. Am I a hoarder? Is Claudia?

    MM: I love how you’re talking about Claudia’s room as an object-rich environment. I work a lot with the idea that books themselves are environments we live in — that is, that literature can be a setting as real as reality (which I came to through Kathy Acker but is a trope of a lot of postmodern fiction). I’m also very interested in fan fiction and related modes, especially the ways in which various writers have reoriented existing stories around themselves (a framework I was introduced to through one of my favorite contemporary writers, Tom Cho).

    In Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, which is a coming-of-age novel, “coming of age” means moving through a progression of narrative environments: the books I read as a child/teen, and that I grew up with and through. One of those environments is The Baby-Sitters Club books. There is actually a parodic BSC group (crossed with Nancy Drew and Goosebumps) in my book called Girls Can Solve Anything.

    What brings me back to these genres is just love. They’ve certainly shaped me more than almost any book in the traditional “Western canon.” Since I started writing seriously in my twenties, I’ve tried to import devalued adolescent and “girly” genres into the vaunted field of experimental fiction, which has historically been male-dominated, in an attempt to revalue them and reorient experimental writing around my experience. Now that I’m older, more “masc,” and less invested in “experimental writing” as a label and community, I’m using similar strategies for different reasons — now it’s more about a reclaiming of girlhood through these narratives that I absorbed and shaped myself in relation to, even as I experienced a lot of gender anxiety and impostor feelings while doing so. Or if not reclaiming, then a refusal to reject girlhood despite moving away from girl identity as both my age and gender have changed.

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