How Claudia Kishi Inspired a Generation of Asian American Writers


Gale Galligan had to do a double take the first time she met Claudia Kishi in the pages of The babysitters club series. Claudia – a Japanese American teenage girl known to be the most artistic and craziest dresser of the fictional group of teenagers whose lives are told in the books – instantly captivated Galligan, a multiracial Thai American. In all of her years of reading, she had never met an Asian American character, let alone one so artistic and ambitious. “I had to go back the first time I realized, ‘Wait a second, she’s not white! ”Recalled Galligan, who is now the illustrator behind the graphic novel adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s popular young adult series.

When The babysitters club debuted in 1986, there were few Asian American characters depicted in mainstream fiction, with the rare exception of those depicted in landmark works like that of Amy Tan The Joy of Luck Club. When Asian Americans appeared in books, more often than not they were portrayed as dehumanizing stereotypes or one-dimensional sidekicks in white authored books. Claudia, however, was different.

For Hollywood producer Naia Cucukov, art lover Claudia Kishi was “a beacon” who helped redefine what young Asian girls could be and look like in popular culture. “[She] breaks the mold of what we’ve never seen in the media as Asian women, ”Cucukov, who is the executive producer of Netflix’s upcoming reboot of The babysitters club, Bustle said. Today, Claudia remains a beloved touchstone for Asian Americans and many young readers of color who grew up with her, and her influence is still felt among those like Maurene Goo who write stories. pounds today.

“As an adult who writes YA now and still talks about writing various YAs, I appreciate so much that Claudia Kishi existed for me,” says Goo, whose romantic comedy novels all feature Korean American girls at the center. She praised Martin for giving her a role model – and a role model that overturns the stereotype of the calm, bookish Asian American teenager.

With Claudia as a point of reference, Goo says she felt confident creating her own characters that break stereotypes.

When readers are first introduced to all babysitters in “Kristy’s Great Idea”, the first book in the series, Claudia greets narrator Kristy in a mishmash outfit of “lavender plaid overalls, a cotton blouse. white lace, a black fedora and red high top sneakers with no socks. It’s an outfit that makes Kristy feel “extremely jaded” by comparison. And unlike Kristy, Claudia also started wearing bras and makeup and began to obsess over the boys in their class.

With Claudia as a point of reference, Goo says she felt confident creating her own characters that break stereotypes. “I knew it wouldn’t be crazy to write an American girl of Korean descent who was bad in school, who doesn’t care,” she says, referring to the protagonist of her 2018 book, This way you make me feel. “It never even occurred to me to think, ‘Oh, is that an American character of Korean descent? She gave Martin credit for conceiving someone like Claudia, who also challenged her parents and struggled with academics. “The fact that Claudia was not the Asian child of the ‘model minority’ and that she was cool and popular?” It was mind-blowing, ”Goo says.

Claudia also made a strong impression on Sue Ding, a documentary filmmaker who is currently working on The Claudia Kishi Club, an upcoming film about the iconic character. “Claudia was truly the first character I ever met who not only looked like me, but was also creative and cool, and – more than anything – a normal teenager,” Ding told Bustle. Most of the non-white characters Ding read as a teenager were those defined by their oppression or otherness. “They didn’t really have to deal with the day-to-day problems. They didn’t have personalities beyond stereotypes of their race or ethnicity, ”says Ding. That’s why Claudia – who attends school dances with boys and hides junk food in hollowed-out books to escape her disapproving parents – seemed such an anomaly.

And while Claudia isn’t defined by her ethnicity, her origins aren’t downright ignored either. YA author Sarah Kuhn – who associated with Claudia as a Japanese American who grew up in suburban Oregon – pointed out that Claudia’s ethnicity actually informs many storylines. of the character. “You can’t just trade him in for a white character,” says Kuhn, who is best known for her Asian character. Heroin complex series. For Kuhn, Claudia’s Japanese-American upbringing seems to be an integral part of her characterization and not just an afterthought. In his view, Martin specifically explores Claudia’s identity and tackles racism in some of the final books in the series. “Keep outside, Claudia!” For example, I saw a woman named Mrs. Lowell refuse to let Claudia and her black comrade, Jessi, babysit.

Jean Ho, a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up admiring Claudia, also enjoyed Martin’s portrayal of Claudia’s family, an aspect she found particularly realistic.

“One of the most striking things I remember about her was that she had a very close relationship with her grandmother, and her grandmother actually lived with her family,” says Ho. house we have always had [extended] family members living with us temporarily, ”she explains. “I have the impression that this is a very typical experience of Asian Americans or immigrants, having a multigenerational life situation. “

“A lot of the characters, including Claudia, were riffs on people in Martin’s life, whether it was from her childhood, or in her current life, or children she knew,” says Levithan.

So how did Martin, a white woman from New Jersey, imagine such a nuanced and realistic character? Although Martin was not available for an interview for this story, David Levithan – editor-in-chief at Scholastic – offered a preview of Claudia’s creation. Levithan, who edited the original Babysitters Club series from 1993 until its conclusion in 2000, now edits The babysitters club graphic novels published by Graphix, a scholastic imprint.

“A lot of the characters, including Claudia, were riffs on people in Martin’s life, whether it was from her childhood, or in her current life, or children she knew,” says Levithan. Cucukov, who met and consulted with Martin for the Netflix series, couldn’t confirm whether anyone in the author’s life inspired Claudia in particular, but she praised Martin for dedicating time and care to his writing. “She did her homework. She did the research. She talked to people. Much of what it contains comes from people she knew or situations that she knew the children were facing,” explains Cucukov. This effort is part of the reason Claudia resonated with so many readers.

“I think a lot of us found Claudia on our own, and that’s kind of why she was so important to us,” Ding explains.

But Claudia’s radicalism may not have been immediately apparent to Asian Americans like Ding who grew up in a cohesive community and read The babysitters club in isolation. Although Ding immediately caught the artistic teenager’s attention, it wasn’t until she read Yumi Sakugawa’s tribute to the character, a 2013 comic book titled “Claudia Kishi: My Asian American Female Model,” that she began to understand how Claudia could have shaped her.

“I think a lot of us found Claudia on our own, and that’s kind of why she was so important to us,” Ding explains. “But now because of the internet… there’s this whole generation of people talking about her as inspiration and creating their own really amazing work. “

In a way, Claudia illustrates how pop culture of the ’80s and’ 90s had gone in terms of Asian American representation, and how far it still has to go. This is a subject that is close to Ding, who began working on his documentary as a way to call for more inclusiveness and diversity in the media, in terms of both the representation of the creators and the representation. on the screen. According to Ding, there are real-life implications when people don’t see themselves reflected in the entertainment they consume. “It’s not just that we don’t feel good when we don’t see ourselves represented,” she says, “it’s that it really affects what we think is possible for ourselves.”

Kuhn agreed that the lack of representation of Asian Americans in books also shaped how she viewed her outlook in writing. “The things I loved to read – science fiction, fantasy comics, and love books – weren’t really [genres] where I’ve seen Asian American girls concentrate, ”says Kuhn. “So I don’t think I knew I could tell stories about girls who looked like me. But Claudia provided creators like Kuhn and comic book artist Galligan with a sense of validation and belonging that still inspires them today.

“Growing up knowing she was a person on the page who could be me meant the world,” says Galligan. Claudia’s existence assured Galligan that “no matter what you do you can make creative choices, you can be yourself and you will always find people who accept it and believe in you”.

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