DEAR CLAUDIA

In a pile of pastel paperbacks, I stumbled upon Claudia Lynn Kishi. She was Japanese-American with dark hair and eyes and a colorful, haphazard sense of style. She hated math, owned a phone, and fell in love with boys. Her sister Janine was the ideal older child, determined and book smart, the kind of girl who would accuse others of being too loud. After reading a lot of Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Eleanor Estes— whose books featured wholesome families in simpler times– Claudia seemed real. She was so real that I once poured over a map of Connecticut, carefully looking for Stoneybrook.

I read The Baby-Sitters Club series in earnest, devouring the books in the car, in the peacefulness of my room, and at the dinner table. My parents never questioned why I desperately needed to go to the library or thumbed through a book while eating a warm bowl of ramen. School holidays usually meant road trips to visit our family in Philadelphia and The BSC came with me, read by flashlight on I-95. On one excursion to Christiana Mall in Delaware, everyone patiently waited as I browsed a bookstore— what a wonder, a store full of magazines, books, bookmarks, and little gifts– and discovered Super Specials, editions I couldn’t find at the library. In Claudia I found bits of myself: a girl who liked art and fashion, a girl who looked different from the other kids at school, a girl with a cool exterior and mixed butterflies in her stomach.

Though Claudia ran with the cool kids, I related to her anxieties of being constantly compared to her sister. Claudia lived in a multi-generational home with her grandmother Mimi and her parents. Their experiences or cultural traditions are not prominently featured in the stories beyond Mimi’s “special tea”. Mimi spoke a little English but understood everything; second-generation kids like myself recognized Mimi’s intuition in our parents, grandparents, or extended family. While Mr. and Mrs. Kishi celebrated Janine’s academics, Mimi encouraged Claudia’s creativity. While Claudia’s talent for hiding candy and junk food in her room was legendary, savory dinners like rice with tonkatsu or udon with vegetable tempura weren’t mentioned. Maybe if The BSC was written today, we’d learn more intimate details about the Kishi household in the way Jenny Han places Korean food and traditions in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Eventually I grew out of The Baby-Sitters Club and began reading young adult novels like Summer Sisters by Judy Blume and fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings. In high school I discovered Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Sylvia Plath, and Zora Neale Hurston through wonderful English teachers. But I kept The BSC on the shelf at home. I couldn’t bear donating them, in a sense, getting rid of Claudia– she meant too much to me. I didn’t understand the depth of her importance until my twenties when I met other women who read and idolized The Baby-Sitters Club. Some of these friends were made at college but most of them came from the #OOTD (Outfit of the Day) community when personal style blogs took off in 2010. We all had our favorites. Nicole, a classmate at VCU Brandcenter, now a copywriter in San Diego, shared, “I thought Claudia was so cool, confident, and fun. She was her own person. She wasn’t afraid to be different or try new things.” Kelsey, creator of Snappy Casual, was keen on Mary Anne. “She’s the most like me in looks and personality,” Kelsey said. “Brown eyes, no pierced ears. She is calm and organized, and she has nice handwriting. Her style is neat, preppy, casual.”

Asian-American women seemed to especially adore Claudia because she was an Asian girl in a wildly successful series. NBC examined Claudia’s character in the 2016 article, Looking Back on Claudia Kishi. In 2019 Bustle shared, How Claudia Kishi Inspired a Generation of Asian-American Writers. JoAnn, a former #OOTD blogger, now a research analytics manager in New York City, spent most of her childhood in a small town in Georgia. JoAnn met other Asian kids in school but few who were Filipino like herself. “It was hard for me to totally grasp a sense of shared identity like my mom has with her close friends. Now that I am older, it is important to me to connect to other Asian women. It took me awhile (and moving to a bigger city) to find my own friends who are definitely important to have.” Finding Claudia in The Baby-Sitters Club was joyful. JoAnn said, “I really liked Claudia for her art. She was bad at math, defied her parents, repeated a grade, but was extremely popular. We need more nuance like this in stories about Asian girls!” Her sphere of influence endures over thirty years later. Sue Ding, a documentary filmmaker, explores Claudia’s magnetism in The Claudia Kishi Club and interviews Asian women about their affection for a Twizzler-smuggling eighth grade girl. In July 2020, Netflix is set to debut The Baby-Sitters Club.

Back in 1990, our sweet librarian celebrated National Book Week by asking all students to dress up as their favorite fictional characters. After school, I raced to my room to examine the closet and dresser drawers, pulling them halfway to fully open, scanning everything at once. I would wear a colorful Cosby Show-worthy sweater, some leggings, mismatched socks and sneakers, and dangly clip-on earrings; my friend Courtney promised to pilfer a bunch from her mom’s collection. She would be Stacey and I would be the best dressed Claudia Kishi lookalike that the school would ever see.

On Book Character Day, I began my morning routine by casually brushing my teeth, being extra-polite to my mother, and pretending that I always dressed like one of those hip kids pushing a new book on Reading Rainbow. Mom took one look at me and told me to change my clothes. “It’s for Book Week,” I explained. “No, no,” she chided. “You cannot wear that to school.”

Fuming, I changed into a “normal” shirt and jeans and sulked all the way to the familiar red brick building. In the classroom, everyone asked me why I wasn’t dressed like Claudia, and I sunk down low in my seat, wishing I was small enough to hide in the nook of the desk with its brown-bag-bound textbooks. It would be a terribly long day.

As the bell rang, Court, outfitted in an oversized tee, tied in a jaunty knot below the waist, and plain black leggings, approached. She smiled kindly and brought me several pairs of earrings to choose from, which I gratefully accepted. She said, “You’re still Claudia to me.”

NOTE // While looking up sources and talking to friends, I recalled the book Keep Out Claudia. Claudia encounters racism for the first time and Jessi Ramsey, the lone Black member of The BSC, helps her navigate forward. I am planning to write another post about Claudia and Jessi because conversations about race in America are still necessary. In the book, Claudia is thirteen and Jessi is eleven. Today they would be forty-seven and forty-five.