Sweet Valley High #1: Double Love, created by Francine Pascal

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).

Jessica & Elizabeth Wakefield

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.

CW: sizeism

35 comments

  1. I was OBSESSED with these books and still have the bulk of them. I think I stopped reading at around book #35).
    I have read the adult books – don’t rush out for them (some bits made me cringe) but it was also like being with old friends!

    A year ago I did start re-reading Double Love – like you, i was struck by how much more there was compared to today’s YA but equally I noticed how politically incorrect they were (especially the girls talking about how they had to lose a few pounds!).

    Anyway, regardless of the flaws, this series will always have a special place in my reading history (and my current entertainment because of this – https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.com/2016/06/30/bags-being-jessica/ – and we had a long SVH discussion on this post!)

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    • I used to take a duffel bag to the library and just get all the books I could carry! They were on a prominent spinning wrack in my library because they were so popular. I read many of them (dare I say almost all of them??) and several of the Sweet Valley Twins (elementary school) books, too. I read the first college book and was so blown away by how awful and scary it was (to me, at the time), including Jessica dating some older man off campus, Liz and Todd are no more, and (gasp!) Liz started to gain weight! It terrified middle school me and so I read no more (though there are loads of college books, I’m told).

      Something else weight-related that surprised me. Yes, they talk about losing a few pounds (which, do people really, truly notice “a few pounds”?? the world confuses me), but I noticed they were perfect size 6 (in the U.S.). These days, people want to be even smaller than that.

      If you can get your hands on Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss, I highly recommend it. I forgot how serious YA was back then. The deaths and eating disorders and tragic illnesses and sexual violence. There was a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Paperback Crush on my TBR list thanks to our previous SVH discussions. 😁

        Agree about the ‘size 6’ – in Australia size 8 was the smallest in the eighties. Now there’s size 4 on shop racks. I do wonder how current sizing compares to back then.

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  2. This was a blast from the past! I can’t believe I was reading these in the 4th and 5th grade, lol. Then again, my parents didn’t censor my reading material, for which I am grateful. It’s all very dramatic – I was reminded of the show Beverly Hills, 90210 when I was reading your review – I was obsessed with that show too, and it was very drama heavy as well. Lots of drug and alcohol addiction there too. And just think – all of this going on BEFORE cell phones!

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    • I’m currently reading Who’s Who (#62) and made a note of how much scheming is involved with house phones. I’ll include that in my review when it comes out.

      I think it’s important to note that whatever age something is targeting (it’s Sweet Valley HIGH, and it’s SEVENTEEN magazine), the average reader is a solid 5 years younger than that. No one was 17 and reading Seventeen seriously. That was the Bible of middle school girls because we wanted to be grown up!

      I never saw 90210, but I remember Dawson’s Creek being a huge deal. My dad always picked what was on TV because he was one of those I-paid-the-bills dads. Sorry, Dad, it’s true! LOL.

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      • I mean, the details are different but it’s teenagers relating to teenage stuff. It’s because we received so much content from outside and found ways to access the story that I know stories can travel in the other direction too if given the opportunity.

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        • That’s so true! I think one of the reasons I don’t like as much modern YA is because it doesn’t sound realistic to me. It’s not like teens have suddenly become incredibly sensitive and aware of the power of language in the same way an adult would conceptualize it. Jessica Wakefield is abusive because she’s learned she can get away with it, and Elizabeth Wakefield is silent about the ways she’s manipulated because teens in a tough spot often don’t know what to do to avoid feeling bad but also avoid being a tattletale.

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  3. Ah, I’ve always been Team Elizabeth and Team Jessica, except in the books like Double Love where Jessica really takes it too far (eg the evil twin sequence).

    I always feel like I’m coming at sweet valley from a different angle than some of the main nostalgia sites and podcasts, though, because I didn’t start reading the books until the v late 90s and so the sweet valley I’m familiar with is the one with all the evil twins, werewolves, vampires, desert treks etc, post book #100 ish. I have read a few of the earlier, more normal ones but never really got on with them.

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    • Ahhhh, so the earlier ones basically go through and eventually exhaust every possible plot line with the given characters or the “mysterious new teen arrives in town” plots, which explains why you eventually get them lost in the desert with robbers or figuring out if ghosts are real. Then, it starts anew with the college books by introducing new characters and growth in the twins that, for me, was painful to read. I know folks have mentioned the adult books that came out about ten years ago, but I think you might have to have read some books leading up to them to know why the twins aren’t speaking, what happened to Todd, etc.

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        • Oh, that’s so cool to know! I think I want to go back and revisit them. I was so freaked out when I read the first one as a tween. Elizabeth was gaining weight (a fear of my own at the, and if a SV girl could gain weight, would she even count as a person anymore?!) and there was no Todd, Jessica had an off-campus adult-man boyfriend. It was too much for young me. I’ll see if I can find them through inter-library loan!

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  4. I know I had some of these books, not sure which exact ones, and I liked them at the time. Now? I could not tell you a thing about them. I have no interest in going back and reading but your review is fun enough as it is. I like that those things weren’t sugar coated. I remember reading a lot of books back then that people would have a problem with their kid reading now. But, if you’re not willing to teach your kid about said things, then let books do it. My aunt gave me a lot of books with subject matter that was hard to talk about, not that she wouldn’t if I wanted to talk to talk about them, and I think I was aware of a lot of bad possibilities in life when other kids weren’t.

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    • One of my favorite YA novels was called Don’t Die, My Love by Lurlene (!) McDaniel. I read somewhere that she was known as the Queen of Cry, or something like that, because her books would just break you. In Don’t Die, My Love a perfect, loving high school couple who realize the boy has cancer, so they try to fight it with chemo and surgery and take vacations together, etc. but he dies anyway. Yeah, Lurlene broke me.

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  5. Of course, I was not this generation but if I had been I reckon I would have been right there. I loved school stories when I was growing up. For me it was books like The Chalet School stories, which had 64 books, which started being published way before I was born but I’d grown out of by the time they finished.

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    • I can’t remember what I read in the nonfiction book Paperback Crush, which examines girls’ books of the 1980s-1990s, but for some reason there was a huge boom in books specifically for girls that covered suicide, stalking, friendship, cancer, bullying, divorce, etc. Some of the staple challenges of being a teen, which I don’t see addressed in the same fashion today.

      I looked up The Chalet School stories, and I’m interested in the way they keep developing. There’s a main character, and as girls come to the school they become main characters, and then the original character’s children become main characters. That’s a smart idea for making the series grow. I’m especially curious about the girls who arrive; according to Wikipedia, they tend to have behavioral issues.

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  6. The plot for Double Love just sounds plain manipulative and disagreeable. I’m sure I’ve never read any SVH book and I’m pretty sure my kids, who were teenagers in the 1990s, didn’t either. I did watch 90210 though. The kids took over the television and converted me to Simpsons, Roseanne and whatever else was on. (The one show I’ve never been able to find again is Max Headroom).

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    • It is a terribly manipulative and disagreeable plot, but when you’re twelve and looking for some excitement, there it was on the page, getting you all twisted up in a terrible situation and wondering about the outcome. The question is always, always, “When will these twins have enough of each other and quit speaking to one another?” Turns out, the answer is in the adult books, which came out only ten years ago.

      You sound the opposite of my dad; he watched what he wanted because “he” (Biscuit had a full-time job too…) paid the bill. So, I missed out on The Simpsons, 90210, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy, etc. I can tell you lots about Law & Order, though.

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  7. I enjoyed your review very much! More, I suspect, than I would enjoy the book. These never made it into my hands when younger – I thought maybe they hadn’t made it to the UK, but seeing other comments I’m not so sure about that. I don’t think I read any YA of this type – a little bit of Judy Blume, but mostly I went from Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew (both definitely aimed at kids) to Jane Eyre and 1984 and so on.

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    • Ahhhh, yes the Baby-sitters Club (why is the word babysitters’ so wrong, lol) were probably closer to the Sweet Valley Twins, which was a spin-off series about the Twins in 6th grade. That’s quite a big jump you made. Your high school reading is impressive, and I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little jealous of all the folks, you and my husband included, who read all the foundational smart books that made you such wise people today.

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  8. As you say, I don’t think I could be unaware of these books but I’ve never read a single one. I can kind of see why my parents didn’t allow them! I was under the impression that the twins were best friends and the appeal of the books was having that sort of perfect sister relationship but it sounds like they worked against each other most of the time.

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    • The sisters were so opposite that that is largely where the tension comes in, even in the younger series called Sweet Valley Twins, about the girls in 6th grade. They’re constantly trying to get the other one to be more like themselves (be more adventurous, be more moralistic, etc.) but then there is the catch when one twin won’t talk to the other. How to regain her trust? That tension — because readers really, really want the twins to get along — is what keeps you going for 100+ books.

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  9. Wow, these sound really intense, but I remember reading K.M. Peyton’s teen books and they had a lot of “stuff” in them, too, looking back. Anyway loving all the reminiscing, and as I said in your weekend post, I used to check out millions of these to young teens when I worked in the library in my later teens!

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  10. Oh man! What a trip down memory lane this is. I don’t remember reading too many of these books (I was more into Goosebumps and Fear street) but I definitely read them, probably at an age too young to pick up on these dramas (like their parents struggling marriage, etc.). Sadly, I am just like Elizabeth, and my motto in life is usually ‘maybe we shouldn’t…’ (insert reason here).

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