Claudia Kishi is the coolest girl in the club



I was 17 when I moved to Oakland, Calif. to attend college. Since I needed to supplement my work-study income, I went to check out the career center job bulletin board, which was shingled with index cards and Xeroxed fliers fringed with phone numbers to call. By pure stroke of luck, I was hired by popular Bay Area newscaster Wendy Tokuda, who was delighted to find a Yonsei from Fresno to babysit her two young daughters, Mikka and Maggie.

Mikka, the older of the two, was shy, so it took some coaxing to get her to come out of her shell (Maggie on the other hand, was like a one-baby Broadway show extrovert) but it didn’t take long to find out what really mattered to her — she was capable of losing herself entirely in stories and loved to read. So did I. But when Mikka enthusiastically recommended a series of books she was super into called “The Baby-Sitters Club,” I had no idea what I was in for. I was about to meet my fictional doppelganger, Claudia Lynn Kishi.

Momona Tamada as Claudia Kishi. photo by Kailey Schwerman/Netflix © 2020

First published in 1986, Ann M. Martin’s “The Baby-Sitters Club” was a cultural phenomenon, selling 176 million copies, and by the end of its run (the last book was published in 2000) there were more than 100 titles, numerous spinoff books and specials. The books had even spawned both a TV show and a feature film.

The series is set in the fictional town of Stoneybrook, Conn., and follows the adventures of five entrepreneurial middle school students who start a babysitting business; club founder and president, Kristy Thomas; vice president, Claudia Kishi; secretary Mary Anne Spier; treasurer, Stacey McGill and Dawn Schaefer.

Claudia Kishi, the Ultimate Cool Girl
But it was Claudia Kishi who mattered, the reason that we were devoted to these books. Claudia was a fearless artist who wore wild outfits (and made her own earrings), was addicted to junk food (it took me decades to kick my candy habit) and as vice president of the club, was an unabashed alpha.

According to the books, “Claudia is a second-generation Japanese American. She is five feet, four inches tall. She has long silky, jet-black hair, dark eyes, and creamy skin. She has never had pimples.” Each book cover also had a dramatic painting of the characters in baby-sitting or best friend action, which we carefully pored over.

Discovering Claudia Kishi was glorious, and in some sense, completely freeing. Not only was she true to herself, unabashed in her fashion and self-expression, but she was seriously cool — the girl who everyone wanted to be, regardless of their ethnicity. It was uncanny. I had never seen myself reflected in the mainstream with such accuracy, from the funky bohemian clothes and the artist’s dream, right down to the babysitting gig.

Modern Times and Takes
A reboot of the blockbuster “Baby-Sitters Club” has just arrived on Netflix, and the new series deftly finds its sweet spot by balancing the contemporary (the girls use Instagram, Google Docs and Postmates and their language is reflective of tweens today) with the nostalgic. (We all remember from the books that Claudia is the only one with a phone, which is why the weekly meetings are held at her house, and I was delighted that the landline stays in the new series — albeit purchased vintage off of Etsy. Plus, Kristy’s mom is played by none other than actor Alicia Silverstone, aka Cher Horowitz from the classic teen movie “Clueless.”)

Most importantly, this charming series stays true to the girls’ unique personalities, their devoted friendships and their determination to run a successful business. Each episode (like the books) is told in a first-person perspective and features one of the main characters, who each have personal struggles that they are working through (Kristy’s mother is remarrying a man she doesn’t like, Mary Anne’s suffocatingly overprotective father, Stacey’s diabetes, Dawn’s cross-country adjustment and Claudia’s failing grades).

It is as if the classic kids books time-traveled forward to 2020 and matured into a combination of cute and woke.

The new series is rife with thrilling, young feminist moments. The girls question their perceived personality defects and others’ judgements before taking a stand, as they discover who they are. Daughters confront their mothers about independence. The witch next door is revealed to be so much more. Unequal socioeconomic treatment is challenged with a political strike. Nearly every episode addresses inclusivity and, helping others feel like they are welcomed and belong, whether the topic is disability, class, or racial or transgender identity. One of the happiest updates involves two main characters, Mary Anne and Dawn, who were both white in the original series, and are now mixed-race, Black and white, (Mary Anne is played by Malia Baker) and Latinx (Dawn is played by Xochitl Gomez).

And the Japanese Canadian Shin-Nisei actress, Momona Tamada, who portrays Claudia Kishi? She is the star and she completely embodies it, with a warmth and bubbliness and quirkiness that is impossible to resist.

Tamada’s Claudia shows us that she is still a kid on the verge of her turbulent adolescent years, and each episode allows us to see the characters testing themselves in the most heartbreaking, relatable ways. For those also enamored with Claudia Kishi and her legacy, be sure to also check out Sue Ding’s excellent documentary, “The Claudia Kishi Club,” also on Netflix, featuring Asian American women in creative careers who were inspired by Claudia growing up.

A Glimpse Into the Past
Many will agree that the season’s standout is episode six, “Claudia and Mean Janine,” written by Jade Chang and directed by Linda Mendoza (the show’s creator, and more than half of the episode’s directors and writers are women). Claudia’s family consists of her mother, father, her older sister Janine and grandmother, Mimi (wait, my beloved Bachan’s name was Mimi too). Her two main truths are that she is an artist and that Mimi is the only person in her family who understands her.

Whether Ann M. Martin was intentional in creating a foil for the spectacularly non-conforming Claudia by giving her sister Janine all of the attributes of the ‘whiz kid’ Asian American model minority stereotype is unclear, but Janine (played note perfect by actor Aya Furukawa) is an uptight, tattletale nerd who sports an unfortunate chawan haircut, owlish spectacles and a permanent scowl. The sisters, needless to say, are at terrific odds with one another, and the peacemaker between them is gentle, understanding Mimi (Takayo Fischer). This pattern of conflict and triage functions until Mimi has a debilitating stroke, the day before Claudia has a major art exhibition.

MEET THE COOL GIRL — (L To R) Momona Tamada as Claudia Kishi, Takayo Fischer as Mimi Yamamoto and Aya Furukawa as Janine Kishi in Episode 106 of “The Baby-Sitters Club.”
photo by Liane Hentscher/Netflix © 2020

For the first time in her life, Claudia’s enthusiasm can’t reach her grandmother, and when Mimi awakens from a coma, she is trapped in the past. Specifically, Mimi is a frightened child again, imprisoned with her family at the World War II Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp, bewildered by the horse stalls of the detention center and disgusted by the sight of peaches. In her post-stroke state, Mimi speaks broken bits of Japanese, which Claudia doesn’t understand. Hurt and frustrated, Claudia leaves the hospital, feeling that she’s lost the person who has always been there for her. But at the exhibition, things go disastrously when the judges question whether Claudia’s paintings have a point of view or deeper message, which shakes her to the core. Back in Mimi’s hospital room, Claudia still can’t connect with her grandmother, but to her surprise, Janine speaks to Mimi in Japanese and learns that her fragmented memories are about Manzanar. Out in the waiting room, Claudia admits to her sister that she knew about the camps but had no idea that Mimi was forced to live in one for three years. Janine tells Claudia that American citizens were labeled enemy aliens (which isn’t totally accurate; only Japanese nationals were given that label) and explains that she learned Japanese to communicate with her grandmother and found out about Mimi’s wartime trauma this way.

“I don’t understand, I don’t understand how someone could do that to a family,” says a shocked Claudia.

“I don’t understand why they still do,” Janine gravely replies, before giving Claudia a comforting hug.

By the end of the episode, Mimi is recovering at home and her relationship with Claudia has been re-established, with both granddaughters understanding a little more about Mimi’s past. “We have to understand where we’ve been to know where we’re going,” Claudia narrates as we watch her researching the World War II concentration camps and working on a tender drawing of her grandmother as a child, her family number affixed to a tag hanging on the front of her coat.

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