If you are a child of the 80’s or 90’s and of the female persuasion, you for sure know what Sweet Valley High is and how it exploded onto the scene. You couldn’t get yourself away from a garage sale without buying a box-load of books about the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth. Oddly, these famous twins were created by Francine Pascal (she/her), but note that “Pascal had a ‘heavy hand’ in the creation of the first SVH book, Double Love, but she never had any interest in writing the books herself. . . . Instead, Pascal oversaw a team of ghostwriters who worked on her character bible and the detailed outlines she created for each story” (EW). So, the creator of Sweet Valley High never wrote a Sweet Valley High book. Book #1, Double Love, was written by Kate Williams (about whom I can find nothing).
Why was the Sweet Valley High series so successful? Most folks point out that the Wakefield twins’ lives are full of drama. First, they’re arguing over boys, but before you know it they’re surviving a coma after a wild motorcycle crash, or making it through Death Valley despite dumping out all their food to fill their packs with the gold they discovered. Plus, the series expanded to capture new audiences of all ages: forward and backward to cover elementary school, college, and ten years after college. Do I want to read the adult books? Yes. Have I? No — the reviews are terrible.
But the real hook is one that happened long before people read the Twilight series and decided if they were Team Edward or Team Jacob. No, we were Team Elizabeth or Team Jessica. Let me back up. We meet Jessica and Elizabeth in Double Love. They are sixteen, identical (this is important), conventionally-beautiful, white blond girls with blue eyes living in Sweet Valley, some random place in sunny California. Their dad is a successful lawyer, their mom is a successful interior decorator, and their older brother, Steven, never teases them too much because he’s so loving and supportive. The twins share a red Fiat Spider convertible, and basically everything is perfect.
Elizabeth is an introvert who loves to journal and dreams of being a writer. She has a couple of close friends and is good at school, where her trusted advisor on the school newspaper sees real potential in her. Jessica would rather die than be unpopular. She’s always in a club or sorority, dating, being a little wild, doing things on a whim, and she’s one lying, devious teen. In Double Love, it’s hard to be Team Jessica. She steals the convertible despite being grounded for an auto accident, she’s caught in a bar brawl and lets everyone think she’s Elizabeth to avoid ruining her own reputation, and she’s keen on dating Todd Wilkins, the star basketball player whom Elizabeth is secretly crushing on — hard.
Elizabeth can’t make Todd like her, but readers know he does like her. When he calls, Jessica answers the phone to lie that Elizabeth isn’t home and then compliments Todd’s basketball skills. Eventually, Jessica’s shitty behavior at the bar, which she pins on Elizabeth, makes Todd doubt Elizabeth really is the nice, studious Wakefield he wants to date. If you’re not Team Elizabeth at this point, are you even a person??
I recently re-read Double Love and was in for a few surprises. If you compare YA written today to Double Love, published in 1983 during a YA explosion, today’s YA is pretty tame. Okay, at least all the YA I’ve read; you’re welcome to argue with me. For instance, a boy named Rick has dropped out of high school and has become an alcoholic. This is the person Jessica turns to (actually, he says she’s hot and to get into his car, which she does, despite Rick obviously being wasted) to make herself feel better when Todd rejects her. This is how she ends up in a bar where a fight breaks out and the police intervene.
In another instance, Jessica is mad that Todd only gave her a kiss on the cheek after a school dance. He’s her date, dammit! What’s an angry, popular girl to do!? She goes inside and tells Elizabeth that Todd tried to force himself on her. Jessica is crying and wailing about how awful it was, and thus the author prolongs the moment when Elizabeth and Todd realize they’re wrong about each other due to lies Jessica invents.
Readers also get a subplot with the older brother, Steven. At the start of Double Love he’s away at college, but now he’s coming home on the weekends too often, and sometimes skipping school to stay in Sweet Valley. He’s very much “MIND YOUR BUSINESS!!” when anyone speaks to him, before we discover that he may be dating a local girl who is a drug addict and sleeps around. Yeah, 80’s young adult books were pretty intense from what I remember, and with Pascals’ guidance, the Sweet Valley High books don’t dance around the rumors about sex and drugs that really happens in the high school hallways.
Oh, and Mr. Wakefield is probably sleeping with a new lawyer on his team and Mrs. Wakefield is oblivious.
So, how did anyone become Team Jessica? And why did we read the next eleventy-million books? Double Love ends with a problem: something is up with Elizabeth’s bestie, Enid. *cue dramatic music* But as we’re hooked into book after book, we become tired. Elizabeth stands up for herself in Double Love, but there are plenty of additions in which she’s such a pushover, so much the passenger of her own life as Jessica drives her into terrible situations (or taking the blame for one), that you just don’t like Elizabeth anymore. How much toxic nonsense can one blond put up with? It turns out, 181 books’ worth — and that’s just high school. And when Elizabeth’s whiny nonsense becomes too much, Jessica’s daring, adventurous spirit shines through . . . and the manipulation is toned down in those books. We have to like someone. Are you popular and fun? Lively and willing to try? That’s quite the contrast to Elizabeth’s safety-first, overthinking, maybe-we-shouldn’t attitude in some of the books.
What a great foray into the past! I only kept six Sweet Valley books, and I’m looking forward to reading them.