Adapting any book to screen can be a complicated task, but when it is a book series that consists of more than 200 stories, the process seems that much more arduous. And that is exactly what Rachel Shukert, showrunner of Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club,” was facing when she signed on to translate author Ann M. Martin’s classic coming-of-age franchise.
First published in 1986, “The Baby-Sitters Club” series of novels ranges from the original 131-book series about a group of teenage girls who started the titular baby-sitting club in their neighborhood to earn some extra money to subsequent spinoffs and special volumes that included almost 40 mystery titles, half a dozen in the single character “Portrait Collection” series, a turn-of-the-millennium “Friends Forever” subset, 15 “Super Special” aka super-sized novels, and a prequel. (Not to mention the graphic novels and “Little Sisters” spinoff that eventually followed.)
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But because Shukert feels “the first 10 books in ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ are the most canon,” she says, that is from where she took her cues for the 10-episode first season of her Netflix adaptation.
“The books are such a wonderful blueprint,” she says. “The first eight to 10 books, I would say, set up the world and the club, and their relationships get cemented, [as do] the bigger stories of what’s going on with their parents and how that affects them. It’s laying the architecture, so it felt like that was a good jumping off point.”
The show, like the first novel, “Kristy’s Great Idea,” begins with the forming of the titular club, led by young Kristy Thomas (played here by Sophie Grace). She quickly recruits a group of friends to help her, and they even purchase a “retro” landline just to have a designated number the neighborhood parents can call to book their services.
“Kristy’s the president of the club and very clearly starts off this series as the driving force on all of those stories,” Shukert says. “The season is so much about Kristy’s mom getting married and how Kristy feels about that and what it means to suddenly have a stepfather and a blended family after they’ve been on their own for so long, and Kristy’s unresolved feelings about her own father who basically abandoned the family and how she feels she’s going to fit into this new world in this rich neighborhood and big new house.”
Each book in Martin’s series features the name of one of the club members, centering that story on that particular girl. Shukert followed this pattern for the first batch of episodes, as well. The second episode, therefore, is based on the second book, “Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls,” with a focus on club vice president Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), who is finding her way with a new friend, a boy she likes and an art class but struggling in other areas in school. From there, the show explores stories about treasurer Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph), secretary Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker) and new girl in town Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez).
“We did think about the Netflix of it and how you can watch one [episode] right into the other, so the end of the previous episode ends the story into the next person,” Shukert says. “They’re each the protagonist of their own episodes, which is actually a really fun way to get to know these characters because you see someone through someone else’s eyes and you get to know them that way, and then you hear their internal monologue and hear what they think about their friends and family.”
The last two episodes of the season, Shukert reveals, is a “super special” style of storytelling with “alternate points of views.”
Meanwhile pivotal characters Mallory Pike, who starts out as just one of the kids for whom the club sits, and her friend Jessi Ramsey were brought into the club more than a dozen books in, but Shukert reveals she will bring them both into the fold this season.
“Mallory, initially, wants to be one of the big kids, but she’s not really a main character. So that’s how we introduced her,” Shukert says. “And then Jessi moves in even later. She’s a really important character, but she’s more of a Season 2 character.”
This is hardly the first time “The Baby-Sitters Club” has been adapted for screen. A one-season series was released in 1990 and run in syndication later that decade, while Melanie Mayron directed a feature film version in 1995. But with this new version there is an opportunity to bring the characters and premise into a completely different social and technological landscape.
Still, while the girls all have cell phones and dabble in the idea of social media marketing to spread the word about their new business, Shukert didn’t want to write a show about kids obsessed with devices and screens. The idea of a group of girls setting specific meeting times during which parents could call to schedule sitters — not to mention the personal touches of them hand-delivering flyers for their new service — felt both nostalgic now and intrinsic to the books to Shukert.
“It’s fun to see people interact in person, more now than ever. I wanted to show a friendship that was very IRL,” she says.
“It’s a special occasion when the baby-sitters come because they’re going to play with them and do special projects. I wanted to capture that. Part of the appeal of having these girls come to baby-sit is they’re interactive and creative; they go to the park, they do art project, they read books. And they like to play with big kids. It’s nice to see kids doing other things. Being in front of a screen does not make the most dynamic television, even though that’s what we’re all doing.”
A fan of the books in her own childhood, what Shukert says really “cracked the story open” for her personally now was that she had a 4-month-old when she first began working on the show.
“So much of my time was occupied with finding childcare and figuring out who could watch him at odd times. When the nanny can’t come, what do you do?” she explains. “And I realized, just generationally, that the girls who had grown up reading these books and the girls who were by age were not the mothers looking for baby-sitters. So there was something lovely about that generational reimposition of ‘What is it like to be a mom now? Who do you trust with your kids? What nostalgia is there to go back to a simpler time where you could just call this nice girl in the neighborhood to watch your kid?'”
Because these characters have been “fully-realized” and “like friends” to so many kids growing up, Shukert notes, she only wanted to make small changes or enhancements for the streaming version. For example, “In the books Dawn is from Palo Alto,” she recalls, “but being from there now is something very different from being from there in the ’80s, so we made her from L.A.” And she did diversify the world, most notable in casting Gomez in the role of Dawn, who had been previously written and depicted as a blonde haired, blue-eyed surfer, but also includes broadening out the representation of families in the show.
“They baby-sit for kids who have two moms, Dawn’s dad is gay, we have a lot of different sexualities — and it’s just presented very matter-of-fact,” Shukert says.
But overall, she wanted to keep the spirit true to the books.
“The girls are at different maturity levels. Kristy is not into boys, but Claudia and Stacy are totally into boys, Mary Anne is a shy girl who is coming into her own but she’s still timid. It’s less about foisting issues on them and more figuring out what relationships would look like,” she says.
“All the great shows that are about female friends — whether it’s ‘Golden Girls’ or ‘Sex and the City’ — who love each other and are there for each other throughout thick and thin, you always have the one that you outwardly identify with the most, but the truth is we are all all of them. We have elements of all five of them within us, and that’s why they hit the most: because they are one complex whole.”
“The Baby-Sitters Club” streams July 3 on Netflix.
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