Sweet Valley High 

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and videogames whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

For the past month, I have rarely been more than a few feet away from a Sweet Valley High book. They were in my purse and scattered around my house, ready to grab whenever I had a spare moment to burn through a few pages in preparation for this piece. That led me to a realization: Sweet Valley High books are magnets for twenty- and thirtysomething women. All it takes is a glimpse of one of those pastel-colored covers and circle-framed painted portraits to induce squeals of “Oh my gawwwwd!” and “Where did you get that??” from women who, like me, spent a good portion of their adolescence following the exploits of the all-American Wakefield twins—compassionate smarty-pants do-gooder Elizabeth and reckless, self-centered party girl Jessica—and their many classmates. When I took a copy of Lost At Sea out of my bag during Lollapalooza, a girl behind me practically snatched it out of my hand, asking if she and her friends could take pictures with it. You can practically smell the “guilty pleasure” pheromones wafting from the yellowed pages, triggering long-forgotten phrases like “matching golden lavaliere necklaces,” “lime-green Triumph,” and “1Bruce1.” These books are regression incarnate. 

Sweet Valley High and its many offshoot series (including Sweet Valley Kids, Twins, Junior High, and University, plus several sub-series with designations like “Super Thrillers” and “Magna Editions”) were ubiquitous during the ’80s and ’90s—an entire 10-foot shelf of my local library was stocked with hundreds of entries—but they’ve mostly faded away since they ceased publication around the turn of the millennium. So these women’s excitement is somewhat understandable: SVH falls right into the nostalgia butter zone, thriving during the adolescences of a nostalgia-obsessed generation and existing mostly in obscurity today. The original incarnation of SVH, that is; current Sweet Valley developments like the upcoming Diablo Cody-helmed movie adaptation and the recently released “adult” sequel Sweet Valley Confidential have brought Jessica and Elizabeth back into the pop-culture consciousness somewhat, but the books themselves remain kitschy artifacts of the ’80s and ’90s.

Unlike a lot of nostalgia items, though, Sweet Valley High is exceedingly easy to come by for those looking for a trip down memory lane: Roughly 250 million copies of more than 150 titles were sold worldwide during the series’ heyday, which means there are now thousands of people unloading those suckers via Craigslist, eBay, and various garage sales across the land, often in lots containing dozens of titles. The Sweet Valley High books carry a lot of nostalgic value, but clearly their actual value is substantially less. No one is re-reading those books in 2011. Except me, apparently.

I procured a lot of 40 or so Sweet Valley High books off eBay for $25, and when I opened that box, the memories came flooding back. Dear Sister! A Night To Remember! The New Jessica! The books seemed smaller and more faded than I remembered, but there they were, the same titles I would check out from the library in stacks of 10 and read under my desk in fifth grade. It was a solid assortment, comprising books 1 through 7, a smattering of titles in the Nos. 20-50 range, plus three super editions. I have to admit, it was exciting seeing them again. (My childhood copies of Sweet Valley High had long since been sacrificed to the church garage sale, ironically right around the time I actually started high school.) Could they possibly hold the same tantalizing, vaguely illicit appeal they held for my pre-teen self?

Spoiler alert: No. But first: What was that appeal? I’d estimate that the average Sweet Valley High reader was in the 10- to 13-year-old range, a solidly YA audience. And that makes sense: No high-schoolers would recognize themselves in the denizens of Sweet Valley High—created by mastermind Francine Pascal, but actually written by a team of ghostwriters under the pseudonym Kate William. But to late-elementary or middle-schoolers, SVH represented the glamorous, grown-up, exciting world they could only hope awaited them in the coming years. 

Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are beautiful, popular, beautiful, exciting, and beautiful. Did I mention beautiful? The SVH books never pass up an opportunity to remind readers that the golden-haired, aqua-eyed, 5-foot-6, and “perfect size 6” (or size 4, in the reprint editions) twins are staggeringly, impossibly lovely. Their California lifestyle is filled with beach parties, fancy convertibles, romantic dates, salacious gossip, and seemingly weekly school dances and social functions. And the boys! Todd Wilkins, Bruce Patman, Ken Matthews, Jeffrey French: Each more model-handsome and athletically inclined than the last. (Except poor Winston Egbert, SVH’s resident class clown and possessor of the best fictional geek name ever.) To young girls—and probably some boys, too, whatever, no judgments—SVH was the best sort of fantasy: the kind we ourselves might possibly, just maybe, be able to live out one day. It wasn’t the impossible fantasy of dragons, princes, and magic, but rather of beauty, boys, and popularity—which, let’s face it, are among the top concerns of most pre-teen girls. Unlike, say, a Judy Blume character, Elizabeth and Jessica weren’t relatable; they were aspirational. 

They were also kind of scintillating. I remembered SVH as very grown-up and almost illicit to my 10-year-old sensibilities. (Dear Sister in particular stood out as exceptionally, erm, titillating in my memory.) Revisiting them as an adult, this seems downright laughable; there are some intense make-out sessions—which are often portrayed as the height of scandalous promiscuity—but it never really goes beyond that, at least in any of the books I read. But of course that would seem grown-up and sexy to a kid who had never been kissed and barely understood what sex was. Combine that with the series’ frequent forays into alcohol/drug/family/relationship scandal and the occasional ridiculous, fantastical plotline—Jessica gets shipwrecked! Regina is held hostage! Dana falls in love with a prince!—and SVH was basically a baby soap opera, with the same addictive properties: a glamorous setting, a sprawling cast of characters, and little regard for realism.  

In stepping out of the realm of rose-colored recollection and into the yellowed-paged present, however, Sweet Valley High loses most of its magic. I dove into the first book, Double Love, with relish, but within a few pages, it became clear that this project was going to be a slog. The books are ridiculously slight, small enough to fit in my hand, and usually less than 150 pages—a couple hours’ worth of reading, at most—but the prose and dialogue are so static and bland that it began to seem like a chore moving from one sentence to the next. These books’ M.O. is “tell, don’t show,” with the point of view switching erratically from character to character so as to leave no question about what every single person is thinking and feeling in that particular moment. Witness this representative passage, from Double Love:

Todd watched with a sense of loss as Elizabeth walked away. He’d had a precious moment when everything might have been set right, and he let it slip away. 

Somebody was talking to him. It was Jessica Wakefield.

“Earth to Todd Wilkins,” she was saying with a slight trace of irritation. He was such a hunk, and just about the nicest guy at Sweet Valley High, but sometimes he could be so dense!

Considering all the sincere emoting that goes down within the pages of SVH, some purple prose would be expected, even welcome, but this prose is the palest shade of mauve, just one twinge of color away from blending completely into the beige pages surrounding it. 

But these are essentially kids’ books; getting hung up on the writing is missing the point, which is to spend as much time as possible with Jessica, Elizabeth, and their various cohorts. Here’s the problem with that: They are terrible people. Remember how I said the Wakefield twins were aspirational figures? That’s true, but looking at them now, they only seem aspirational for young girls who want to be self-centered, manipulative, and vain (Jessica fans) or wishy-washy ninnies incapable of defining themselves outside of a romantic relationship (Elizabeth fans). 

Before re-reading these books, I had vague memories of Jessica being the “bad” twin and Elizabeth the “good,” and the books certainly play this up: Jessica is constantly getting into scrapes and sacrificing others—her sister in particular—to achieve her own ends, while Elizabeth is hardworking, kind, and endlessly forgiving. (She also has near-death experiences seemingly every 10 books or so. In three of the 10 books I read, Elizabeth is in some sort of terrible accident, forcing Jessica to reconsider her evil ways before slipping back into them two books later.) But Jessica’s rottenness is always placed in the context of “liveliness”: She’s a selfish cretin who throws her own twin sister under the bus at every turn, but gosh, she sure is fun to be around! For example, in Double Love, she knowingly goes after the boy Elizabeth has a crush on; then, when she gets caught with another guy, this one a “bad boy,” at the scene of a bar fight at a seedy roadhouse, she lets the cop believe she’s her twin, sullying Elizabeth’s reputation at school and driving away said crush. (Yes, at SVH, getting caught at a bar is cause for ostracization, not celebration. Seriously, these kids suck.)  

But Elizabeth always, always forgives Jessica. When I was young, she was the one I related to: She was a good student, she wanted to be a journalist, and she kept her room clean. Elizabeth never did anything wrong—except in Dear Sister, where she gets amnesia after getting in a motorcycle accident, turning her into a trollop who almost falls into bed with pretty-boy Bruce Patman before a well-timed head-bump reminds her who she is again. I am not making this up. But occasional detours into alternate personalities aside, Elizabeth is the steady-as-she-goes, dependable, likeable hero of the series. 

Except she isn’t. Going through SVH again, I was struck by just how much I disliked Elizabeth: She’s spineless, bland, and emotionally retarded, always leaping to the most asinine conclusion so she has an excuse to wallow. (And her “journalism” aspirations seem to end at her “Eyes And Ears” gossip column for the school paper, which focuses mainly on who’s dating whom.) In The New Jessica, Jessica has a “twin identity crisis,” prompting her to dye her hair black and start wearing “European” clothes, which consist of a lot of jumpsuits and big belts. Elizabeth proceeds to flip right the fuck out, not only because she feels she’s “losing” Jessica, but also because her latest boyfriend, Jeffrey French, makes some comments how he likes being able to tell the twins apart, which she interprets to mean he’s in love with Jessica, for no reason other than that this book needed a little extra dose of half-assed conflict. Oh, Elizabeth also freaks out because, in a go-nowhere subplot, she loses her journal; this plot resolves when one of her fellow newspaper students remembers she accidentally moved the notebook to a supply closet, and returns it. Seriously, that’s all that happens, yet judging by the amount of sturm und drang Elizabeth experiences, it was her own personal 9/11. 

Granted, high-school kids generally are emotionally immature and do freak out about stupid stuff all the time. That doesn’t mean I want to read about it, though. And considering how much seriously fucked-up stuff goes down in Sweet Valley, you’d think there’d be some sort of hierarchy of emotional distress. But nope, for Elizabeth, misplacing a journal for a couple of days in The New Jessica is roughly on par with her sister possibly being dead after getting shipwrecked in Lost At Sea

But that’s representative of Sweet Valley High on the whole: A bunch of shit happens, but nothing ever changes, so every single development is equally important. (Read: not important at all.) The series blows out the world of Sweet Valley into a mind-numbingly broad web, inflicting drama and trauma on an ever-growing cast of mostly interchangeable characters. 

Yes, there are some standouts. Snooty rich girl Lila Fowler is a fan favorite, though I didn’t get any books focusing on her. And Bruce Patman is a reliable cad, especially in the distressing third book, Playing With Fire, in which Jessica completely sacrifices her own personality to date SVH’s resident rich bastard. (“‘Nothing Bruce wants is ridiculous,’ Jessica countered. ‘You don’t understand how it is to be really in love with someone. I’m willing to make whatever sacrifices I can in order to please Bruce.’” Jessica’s eventual triumph over her self-destructive obsession with Bruce is actually a sort of progressive, though ham-handed, feminist statement for 1983, when the book was released.) 

But looking through the one-sentence synopses of each book is an exercise in “who cares?”: 

  • “Annie Whitman wants to join the cheerleading squad, but Jessica doesn’t want ‘easy’ Annie anywhere near the team as she feels Annie’s reputation will affect the squad.”
  • “Lynne Henry is extremely shy and has no friends. But she is a talented songwriter. She enters a competition to write a song for the Droids and wins.”
  • “Andy and Neil are best friends and are really close. Then Charlie Cashman, a racist bully, starts picking on Andy and making Andy’s life uncomfortable because he is black.” 

The apparent presence of a person of color living in the mayonnaise-on-whitebread town of Sweet Valley is perhaps the most exciting tidbit on offer here; even people who were die-hard SVH fans back in the day would probably have trouble remembering Annie Whitman and Lynne Henry today. Yet Sweet Valley High asked readers to invest just as much concern in them as the series’ twin stars. And perhaps they did; it’s easy to see how this series would engender a trees-over-forest shortsightedness, since the books were churned out at such a quick pace that readers anxious for the next installment could fool themselves into thinking that they really did care about Andy and Neil’s friendship. 

The “Kate William” ghostwriting factory churned out characters and plots on a monthly basis from 1983 until 1998. I stopped reading the books around 1994, but judging by the synopses, SVH got increasingly silly once I checked out, mixing things up with “Super Thrillers” (“Alice Wakefield wins a trip to a luxurious spa run by a former college classmate who desires Alice’s face.”) and more contemporary storylines. (“Olivia Davidson meets a guy in an Internet chat room.”) 

Serendipitously, the lot of books I got off eBay included Aftershock, the last proper SVH book ever published, from December 1998. (It was followed by the spin-off series Senior Year, which went for a couple of years before the franchise dissolved.) This was long after my time in Sweet Valley had passed, and it’s mildly interesting to see how the series bowed out: Gone are the photo-realistic painted covers, which were replaced by screenshots from the Sweet Valley High TV series. The ads in the back of the book include one for a new website and a sweepstakes to meet ’N Sync. And most notably, the writing level was upgraded from “amateur” to “serviceable.”

Aftershock serves to sort of wrap up Sweet Valley High, focusing on the days after an earthquake that nearly levels the town and kills a couple of tertiary characters. (Obviously, the ever-imperiled Elizabeth almost dies.) The tragedy offers the opportunity for the characters to reminisce about the 15 years’ worth of material that’s taken place in the last eight months or so of Sweet Valley time. It’s surely meant to be poignant, but reading it as an adult in 2011 is about as engaging as watching a stranger’s vacation slideshow. Once you’ve aged out from under Sweet Valley’s spell, there’s no going back, and all the face-stealing and earthquakes in the world won’t change that. 

If former Sweet Valley High fans didn’t inherently know this already, the recent Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later (actually written by Pascal herself this time) made it clear. In the incredibly unnecessary “adult” Sweet Valley novel, grown-up Elizabeth and Jessica are thoroughly unlikeable, the ostensibly sexy plot is spectacularly boring, and a remarkably misconceived epilogue gives unsolicited updates on a murderer’s row of forgettable minor characters. (“Bill Chase lost his right leg below the knee to a shark in Australia.”)

Confidential is a failure because there’s no room for maturity in the world of Sweet Valley High, on the part of the readers or the characters. These books are the literary equivalent of dressing up in Mom’s high heels as a kid: By the time you’re old enough to actually fit into them, they’re out of style and kind of pinch your toes, and you wonder why you ever liked the damn things to begin with. It’s a vision of young-adulthood for people who haven’t yet completed puberty. Once we grow old enough to actually relate to the Wakefields, we discover we’ve outgrown them.

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