In one scene in “The Baby-sitters Club” on Netflix, the characters are gathered at the house of Claudia Kishi, who is Japanese American. There’s a shot of a pile of shoes outside the front door of Claudia’s house. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, and the show’s executive producer Naia Cucukov fought to have it included.
“The first time I saw that shot, I just burst out into tears. I know to some people it's just a throwaway shot but it was so important, and it just made me feel so seen,” Cucukov told NBC Asian America, referring to the practice in most Asian and Asian American households of taking your shoes off at the door. It was a subtle way to show the viewers that the Kishis aren’t just any household, they are an Asian American household, she said.
The shoes are just one of many small details that were added to the new Netflix series to make the stories of Claudia, played by 13-year-old actress Momona Tamada, and her family more culturally specific than the books the series are based on.
“The Baby-Sitters Club" series, written by Ann M. Martin, was published from 1986 to 2000 and sold over 180 million copies. It followed a group of entrepreneurial middle-schoolers who start a child care business in their small town of Stonybrook, Connecticut. And for many Asian Americans, Claudia Kishi, vice president of the club, was the stand-out character.
In the popular culture of that time, Asian Americans were relegated to supporting roles as nerds and the comic relief. Claudia stood out because she did not fit into the model minority stereotype — she was an artist, a fashionista and an outspoken rebel. And she showed many young people, like Cucukov, that they didn’t have to be doctors or lawyers; they could be artists.
“That's part of the reason why Claudia was always so important to me,” Cucukov said. “I always knew I wanted to do something creative.”
Though Claudia was an inspiration to many, the books rarely discussed race — aside from one instance when a family refused to let Claudia babysit for them because she’s Asian, in book number 56: “Keep Out, Claudia!”
“It's shoehorned in there a little bit,” said Sue Ding, the director of the Netflix documentary “The Claudia Kishi Club,” which drops July 10.
For the new “Baby-Sitters Club,” Cucukov said they wanted to make Claudia’s Japanese heritage more overt. It’s in the details such as no shoes in the house, and the family sitting down to dinner using chopsticks and bowls.
And it’s also in one storyline, when Claudia’s grandmother Mimi gets a stroke and is taken to the hospital. When she wakes up, she is distressed. It is Claudia’s older sister, Janine, who explains that Mimi is reliving her memories of being in the Manzanar Japanese American prison camp in California, where she had to sleep in horse stalls. “I didn’t know it happened to Mimi,” Claudia says in episode six, which was written by Jade Chang.
“She doesn’t talk about it unless you ask. I asked her once,” Janine responds.
Mimi’s stroke was in the books but her backstory was invented for the show. “Anytime you do a TV show and you cast real actors, you're going to deepen those experiences,” said Cucukov. “Takayo Fischer, our actress who plays Mimi, actually was interned as a child. We knew that there were still ancestors that had gone through that experience. So it's really important to us that we all represent that correctly.”
In the books, there’s a rivalry of sorts between Claudia and her more studious sister, who is portrayed as a nerd with no friends. Cucukov said the show was careful to not rely on stereotypes and the idea that Asian families "are just about grades.”
Janine is still the booksmart older sister, but she’s also given some ethnic specificity; she can speak Japanese.
That registered with Ding. “I love the books and the show,” she said. “And I’m here for more Janine content. I think the thing that's funny about many Claudia fans is that most of us were definitely part Janine.”
That’s not to say the books are retrograde. Far from it. Ding actually interviewed Martin for her documentary but the footage was ultimately not included in the final film.
“She wanted the series to be more inclusive and more diverse than a lot of the other stuff that she was seeing,” said Ding. “You see that. In the main club there's one Asian character and one Black character. And the kids they babysit, they go into issues of class, of ability.” (Cucukov was also interviewed in “The Claudia Kishi Club” but she said she had nothing to do with Netflix’s interest in the film.)
These “little tweaks” in adaptation, as Cucukov calls it, are to uphold the spirit of the text and to include issues that the BSC might face today — in one episode, Mary Anne (played by Malia Baker) babysits a trans girl. In another, Claudia and Dawn (Xochitl Gomez) hold a protest at their summer camp against income inequality. These girls would not be out of place among the TikTok teens protesting the current presidency.
“I think they've done a great way of making it text and not subtext, of making [race] a more meaningful part of her story,” said Ding. “And it's not that suddenly Claudia is the oppressed minority—she still has a personality and a life beyond being Japanese.”
Cucukov is “hopeful” that “The Baby-Sitters Club” will be picked up for season two. But she made a point to say that there’s still room for more Asian American characters in entertainment, both in front and behind the camera. “We obviously have a ways to go. I remember being on set one day and one of the crew guys was like, ‘Oh hey, are you Momona’s mom?’” she said.
But the opportunity to bring “The Baby-Sitters Club” to the small screen has been a dream-come-true for Cucukov. “To me, Claudia’s always going to be imbued with so much more meaning,” she said. “My hope is that kids today, who are seeing much more positive representations, are able to pick and choose who they want to emulate. I hope she is just another super cool character.”