The Baby-Sitters Club first came into the world in 1986. Developed by Ann M. Martin, the series brought the fictional, suburban town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut to life by shining a light on four young girls and their local babysitting service. Starting off with the original four members, Kristy Thomas, Mary-Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi, and Stacey McGill before expanding to include other members like Dawn Schaffer, Jessi Davis Ramsey, Mallory Pike, and Abby Stevenson, the book series spanned 213 books, spin-offs, graphic novels, and multiple adaptations and expansion. At its core, the story of The Baby-Sitters Club showed the importance of friendship and supporting one another, but it also showed the realistic ways in which girlhood and growing up was complicated without being condescending or superficial to the young people reading the books. As a response, it led to millions of young people reading the books and having a story where the characters and their circumstances were similar to something they were experiencing in real life but maybe didn’t see anywhere else.
In the new Netflix adaptation of the series, Momona Tamada gets the honor of playing Claudia Kishi, one of everyone’s childhood favorites. Immediately when she’s introduced in the books, we find out she’s one of the best-dressed (or, “gratest” if we want to reference her passages in the book) characters to maybe ever exist and her creative spirit led to multiple readers wanting to be the Claudia of their individual friend groups. For Momona, she discovered the books in novel studies at school and from the first book, she fell in love. Especially because it was the first time she saw Asian representation in a book.
“I own probably over like 50 [of the] books and I’m still trying to track down more and reading as many as I can,” she says when we talk on the phone. “One thing I loved about the books is how everybody can connect to one or two of the characters and see themselves and their personalities in the characters.” When asked, she sees herself as Claudia adding quickly that she might also be a mix of Stacey and Dawn.
One of the exciting things about watching the show is getting to see this series that so many have grown up and loved since the 80s and heavily influenced the 90s (through the books and the previous tv show and movie) be reinvented for another generation. As much as the series honors the similarities within adolescence across decades, it also acknowledges how the world has changed for young people and what mainstream coming-of-age stories sometimes excluded or hovered over until more recently.
One thing I loved about the books is how everybody can connect to one or two of the characters and see themselves and their personalities in the characters.
“I think it’s incredible. I mean, I can’t even put into words how grateful I am to be able to portray such an iconic and beloved role,” Momona says with so much gratitude pouring out of her voice. “I’m just super excited for younger generations to look up to the Babysitters Club and see so many different representations on screen. [For] myself reading the books I kinda saw myself because she was an Asian-American and I’m Asian-Canadian/Japanese-Canadian.” She reiterates the gratefulness she feels about getting to be a part of the project.
She mentions moments later when I ask how it feels to be discussing and reflecting on the show right now after keeping it a secret for long that it still feels like a dream but that the closer it gets to the release date, the more real it gets. “I think if we were at, for example, premieres and like events, then it would feel a little bit different,” she admits, “But yeah, I can’t even put into words how excited I am for the new reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club.”
In terms of what she hopes the impact will be, Momona says, “I hope that this will influence diversity and inclusivity in the world, including now and for younger generations and beyond.” Ann M. Martin has always noted that one of the most important things when writing Baby-Sitters Club was inclusion and making sure that every young person reading the books felt represented in some way.
One of the things Momona mentions, as we talk about the similarities between the cast and their characters, is that they get to take the author’s sentiment a step further. “I mean, they brought in different diversities to the characters so that’s definitely something that’s changed, but definitely in a positive way,” she explains. Not only is this shown with the inclusion of more people of color besides Claudia in the main cast, but also in the fact that the show makes space for young characters to also be gay and trans while showing the girls refusing to other them and in one case with a young trans girl being babysat, advocating for her care and gender identity when the adults in the room don’t.
“It’s so crazy to be on the other side of the camera and being able to see like what I read and the books that I read and seeing how all of us interpreted our characters and brought the books to life,” she mentions about getting to see the project from both working on it and being a fan of the books. As a 10-episode season, almost every episode focuses on one of the books, making sure to take the core message of each story while adapting it to make it more relevant. “Reading the books, I think they came out like before I was born, so obviously they were a little bit dated if that makes sense,” Momona responds when I ask her about bringing what is technically a timeless concept that’s also quintessential 90’s culture into 2020. “So kind of adding a modern twist and modern adaptation to it, we were being made to feel more presentable at this time,” she shares.
I hope [The Baby-Sitters Club] will influence diversity and inclusivity in the world, including now and for younger generations and beyond.
Preparing for the role of Claudia and figuring out how she was going to create her version of the character, Momona ended up going back to the previous Baby-Sitters Club source material to study how the previous versions of Claudia were portrayed. She credits the movie, for example, for giving her a better look at the character, “But, I think we all just studied our characters from the books.” It’s also a testament to the costume designers, hair and makeup team, and character design because not only does the character’s energies immediately shine at first glance, Momona explains that it’s easy for the character to “just come to you” when on set getting and looking the part.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Claudia Kishi without also talking about her older sister Janine. The technology-obsessed, bluntly honest, and introverted foil to Claudia is played by Aya Furukawa who delivers Aubrey Plaza-level comedic timing with her deadpan quips and gestures. While on-screen the two get to spend a lot of their time going head to head, Momona shares that they got along really well off-screen. “She definitely took a sisterly-like role over me,” she says adding that creating that bickering dynamic we see on the show had some difficulty in that regard. “But, I think because the script was written so well and we had so many good creators on the show, I was able to kind of take their notes and create this dynamic.”
Even though the two girls’ natural mode is going head to head because they’re so fundamentally different, they also get to have one of the show’s best heart to heart moments in the episode “Claudia and Mean Janine.” “When I got the script, I think it had everybody in tears and it was very emotional. So, I really wanted to be prepared for that week,” Momona explains about the standout episode which shows Claudia and Janine coping differently when their grandma Mimi suffers a stroke. “I definitely did lots of studying and thought about how the character would feel in that time and if I had any other experiences like that that maybe I faced that I could put into her emotions as well.”
The two girls realize that their relation to Mimi, the way that Mimi understands them, and the way they understand her are very different. For Claudia, Mimi is the only one in her family that she feels like understands her, but Janine similarly has a strong connection to Mimi that Claudia doesn’t share until the two talks about it.
“I think something that’s really important in that episode is learning about history and learning about our family and about the people we love because there’s so much that maybe we haven’t learned or explored about them,” she says about the episode’s takeaway.
Claudia’s storyline in the episode also includes her having to understand the intention behind her art–something she’s initially hesitant about as a creative free spirit. There’s a moment when she’s told that if she chooses to continue making art, she should ask, “Why this?”, “Why now?”, and “What images does she need the world to see?” Which first feels discouraging until she realizes the significance of learning about and understanding her family.
“Realizing the beauty in your own art and creating the images, like your own images, that you love for different reasons that other people will appreciate them for and finding your own voice,” Momona reflects when I ask her if those questions have shown up in her own personal creative journey. “And just doing what you love without thinking about what other people think of you first.”
That’s not the only thing she’s learned from getting to work on this show. When I ask her about working behind the scenes, she’s excited to give praise to the improvising on the show, especially from Marc Evan Jackson who plays Richard Spier, the dad of Mary-Anne (Malia Baker). “He’s hilarious and the multiple scenes we did with him, he would throw in different comedic moments that would just make us laugh, but we tried to hold it together as much as we could,” she shares.
I think something that’s really important in [Claudia and Mean Janine] is learning about history and learning about our family and about the people we love because there’s so much that maybe we haven’t learned or explored about them.
Along with Marc, the main adults of the show include Alicia Silverstone as Elizabeth Thomas, Kristy’s (Sophie Grace) mom, and Mark Feuerstein as Watson Brewer. Momona’s parents are played by Diana Bangs and Kevan Ohtsji with her Mimi being played by Takayo Fischer. “One thing I learned from them is how they treat people off and on-set,” she shares. “All of the parents are actors I’ve looked up to for so long and I love watching on-screen. So, [I appreciate] how they put their own personal twist on the script and how they change it up every time and are always presenting something new.”
In terms of season two, there’s no information yet. When I ask her if there’s anything she’d love to see from a potential second season, Momona lets me know that any word about season two would have to be directed towards Netflix since they’re ultimately the ones who get to decide. With specific storylines, she has faith in the writers for how they’d dream up the season as well. For her own hopes though, she wants to see the girl’s friendships grow and to get to work with the girls again. “Afterall, they are my best friends and I had such a good time filming season one,” she says.
Until then (I say, hopeful of a season two), Momona gets to channel her creativity in other ways. One of those ways is through dance which she’s learned multiple forms of already including ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, lyrical, modern, and opera. “My teachers have taught me to be determined and to always work hard and to not give up is definitely something I’ve learned and that I’ve put into the film industry as well.”
Besides the Babysitters Club, Momona can also be seen in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before movie trilogy which has already released it’s first two movies with the final movie Always and Forever, Lara Jean being rumored to drop early 2021. Playing young Lara Jean, Momona can’t say much about how the movie adaptation concludes and honors the beloved books by Jenny Han, but she does have some appreciation to share, “I can say that it will be just as incredible as the first [and the] sequel and also, I’m super excited to have another movie with Asian American representation on screen.”
She has some upcoming projects coming up that she’s super excited about, but as we wrap up, I ask her about if she has a dream role to which she says, “I would love to venture out into other genres of acting. I always like to keep myself entertained.”
You can stay up to date on all things Momona Tamada by following her Instagram account.
Season one of The Baby-Sitter Club is available now on Netflix.
(photo cred: Netflix)