Like a lot of you, I read a lot as a kid. By the time I was in junior high school, I was devouring novels intended for adults, but before I hit the big leagues I cut my teeth on Sweet Valley High. The first Sweet Valley High novel, featuring the beautiful aqua-eyed Wakefield twins came out in 1983 (when I was eight) and I probably started reading the series a couple of years after that. Since then, creator Francine Pascal and her mighty team of ghostwriters have published 181 books, including the original series of 143 books and a selection of “super editions” (think of them like an Archie double digests) plus several spin-off series. It’s quite a canon.
For those of you who missed out on the magic of Sweet Valley, here’s the scoop: the books follow the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, identical twins with opposing personalities. Elizabeth is perfect: sweet and kind, a great friend to all. Jessica is selfish and shallow and would throw her own best friend under a bus if it meant getting a choice date to the junior prom. They interact with a huge cast of secondary characters, all who inhabit their perfect little Peyton Place of a suburban California town.
When I started reading Sweet Valley High I think I was aware that the writing wasn’t actually very good, but it sparked an internal love of trashy soap-style drama that I’ve never quite shaken. Since I did grow to like to read books with some substance I didn’t make it too far into the Sweet Valley world, stopping somewhere around book #50. I do remember certain things though: in book #40, for example, the beautiful but recently dumped (and formerly deaf) Regina Morrow tries cocaine at a party and immediately has a heart attack and dies. Dies! For some reason, more than the boyfriend troubles, abductions, cancer deaths and other drama that took place in Sweet Valley, this one stuck with me. As a result, I have never touched cocaine in my life and will walk out of a room if I see anyone else doing it. So, Sweet Valley has done some good in my life.
Last month Francine Pascal released a new book Sweet Valley Confidential: 10 Years Later, set in present time when the twins are in their mid-20s (apparently Sweet Valley does not take place in real time). I am willing to tell you that I actually paid for and read it (on Kindle, which cut down on the price and the shameful embarrassment). Since it’s been so long since I read the originals (and those I am not willing to pay for and re-read), I can’t really compare the writing too much, but Sweet Valley Confidential is basically a cross between modern chick lit and a full-on pulp romance, with ridiculous sex scenes and all. I won’t give too much of the plot away because I’m willing to bet there are some Sweet Valley fans around these parts, but while it was soapy and ridiculous and the writing was sloppily repetitive, I did enjoy it. Pascal delved a little bit into Jessica and Elizabeth’s internal thoughts, giving them a little depth, which was kind of nice.
Since I can’t speak as a superfan, I do recommend delving into some of the reviews on Amazon, which confirmed many of my suspicions about my fellow Sweet Valley readers. Some of these women are hardcore and found the new book extremely frustrating, pointing out the multitude of continuity errors that Pascal makes in her new book (which is unsurprising, considering how many Sweet Valley books there are and that Pascal didn’t write most of them herself). But one woman named Alissa makes this very astute point:
I just have to start by saying that those of us that read SVH when we were young mostly did because we liked to read. For me, it was a hobby that I kept and developed since. I am assuming my fellow SVH fans have also continued to read-and I do not mean novels like Twilight or Harlequin romance novels. This book essentially forces you back to an eighth grade reading level.
And this is a sentiment I can get behind. These books were a jumping off point for me, helping to open the door to a life of reading that I truly cherish. Sweet Valley Confidential shows that Pascal hasn’t grown the way that her tween fans have. Luckily for all of us though, Diablo Cody is tackling a cinematic version of the Wakefield files that is bound to be anything but dumbed-down. See you in the theaters in 2012!