Author Ann M. Martin had no master plan when she decided to make one of the core members of "The Baby-Sitters Club" a Japanese American girl named Claudia.
Claudia Kishi happened to be everything the "model minority" stereotype wasn't. She got bad grades. She thrived in art and fashion. She wasn't struggling to belong. For those reasons and more, Asian American girls in the '80s and '90s idolized Claudia and felt seen in teen fiction. Some of those now grown fans concede the books fall short dealing with race, but a new Netflix adaptation is bringing Claudia (and her pals) into the modern age.
In addition the series that's available now, the streaming service on Friday is releasing "The Claudia Kishi Club" documentary. It's filmmaker Sue Ding's love letter to Claudia-philes.
"I want the vibe of the film to be you're at a 'Baby-Sitters Club' sleepover with your closest friends and you're reminiscing," Ding said.
In the short documentary, a handful of Asian American writers and illustrators effuse about how influential the character was for that time.
"For some, their parents were actively not supportive of them pursuing more artistic career choices," Ding said. "Even for those whose families were supportive, they didn't necessarily see people like themselves working in media as directors or painters."
Among those she interviewed was Naia Cucukov, one of "The Baby-Sitters Club" series producers. She remembers Claudia's "aura of cool" jumping off the page.
"As an Asian American kid growing up having only seen depictions of nerds, geishas, the villain, having that extra layer of someone who could be aspirational was incredible," Cucukov said.
Another documentary participant, Sarah Kuhn, whose fourth novel in her "Heroine Complex" sci-fi series came out Tuesday, called Claudia "this connective tissue between a lot of Asian girls."
"Just when you mention her name on Twitter, it summons an entire generation," Kuhn said. "It speaks to her lasting contribution."
With 180 million copies in print worldwide, "The Baby-Sitters Club" books were a juggernaut during their 1986-2000 run. They follow Claudia, Kristy, Mary Anne, Stacey and Dawn and their babysitting adventures in the fictional suburb of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. The books are often credited with showcasing teenage girls as entrepreneurs.
Martin, who wasn't available for interviews, was not trying to make a statement about Claudia's ethnicity, said David Levithan, an editorial director and publisher at Scholastic who's worked with Martin since 1992. She based the character on a Japanese American friend from elementary school. In present day, Levithan thinks authors writing a protagonist of a different ethnicity would have "to be doing it for a reason, to have a connection to it and make sure they got it right."
It may seem odd that a white female author created an Asian American icon, but the '80s weren't exactly conducive to Asian American writers.