As a child, Phil Yu voraciously read all The Baby-Sitters Club books he could get through the Scholastic Book orders at school. Of course, he wasn’t alone. An entire generation of Asian American kids growing up in the late 1980s and 90s loved the Middle Grade series, and especially the artsy and rebellious character Claudia Kishi.
While Claudia was a rare Asian protagonist in children’s literature at the time, the books—written by Ann M. Martin—didn’t really address race. “One day I was thinking about how she was this cool Asian American character, but the series didn’t really push the subject of race all that much, you know?” said Yu (who was once the webmaster and communications manager for NAATA) over a phone interview. So with the help of a little Photoshop magic, Yu altered the book covers so that they reflected racial microaggressions and posted images on his popular blog, Angry Asian Man.
Around the same time, filmmaker Sue Ding was also reflecting on the way that the fictional teenager inspired Asian American millennial creatives, and was taking notes on all the mentions she saw on social media. “I basically just made a list of everyone who had ever tweeted something nice about Claudia Kishi or had created work around Claudia,” explains Ding. “It was kind of like a list of every single Asian American author.”
At the top of her list of people to interview was Phil Yu, whose satirical covers caught her eye. “They’re not just tributes to Claudia as a fan. We’re also kind of interrogating race representation in those books and for Asian Americans,” Ding says.
Through Yu, she connected with Naia Cucukov, executive producer of an upcoming television series based on The Baby-Sitters Club. Two and a-half years after that meeting, both the updated The Baby-Sitters Club series and Ding’s short documentary The Claudia Kishi Club are both streaming on Netflix.
The documentary also features young adult authors Sarah Kuhn and C.B. Lee, graphic novelist Gail Galligan, and artist Yumi Sakugawa. Ding originally interviewed Baby-Sitters Club creator Ann M. Martin, but ultimately decided to focus her film more specifically around the contemporary Asian American creatives who felt that these careers were open to them, partly because of the example of the fictional Claudia Kishi.
Ding says of Claudia’s impact on young Asians, “I think even having a fictional middle school artist to look up to was really empowering and did empower people to feel like they could continue pursuing a creative path or that it was something that they could do.”
Little touches of the 1980s-90s childhoods can be seen in the film, such as the stop-motion animation that Ding created by hand, a departure from the other higher-tech projects she’s working on, such as an independently produced augmented reality oral history program called One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices to be installed at the Manzanar National Historic Site. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II also happens to be a part of a storyline for the 2020 Claudia Kishi, played by Mamona Tamada.
Looking back, she says, “It was a really nice way to embody the spirit of Claudia to have this very hands-on, DIY piece of it. It felt very right somehow.”